Yae Niijima: Japan’s “Joan of Arc”

On WAN’s main website, Naho Araki is writing a series of articles on books and works that concern Yae Niijima (1845-1932), who is often called Japan’s “Joan of Arc.” This article will briefly introduce Yae’s life and present excerpts from Naho Araki’s articles on narratives about Yae’s life in the recent media.

The name of Yae Niijima can be heard frequently in Japan these days because the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) history drama series, a production that is famed in the country, will feature her in its new series “Yae no Sakura” starting early 2013.

Until the announcement of this new drama series, her husband Joe Niijima (a.k.a. Joseph Hardy Neesima[1]; 1843-1890) was the better known Niijima, hands down. Joe is founder of the Doshisha schools in Kyoto and among the most well-known educators of the Meiji era (1868-1912). His name appears even in high school Japanese history textbooks.

Yae grew up as a daughter of a samurai of the Aizu clan in what is Fukushima prefecture today. In one of her most famous episodes, Yae disguised herself as a man and took up gun and sword to fight in the Boshin War (1868-1869) to protect her clan.

Yae was divorced when she met Joe. Joe is said to have been attracted to Yae because she was not the traditional obedient wife. Their wedding in 1876 was Japan’s first Christian-style wedding between Japanese citizens. (Joe had been baptized in the United States and Yae also converted to Christianity after meeting Joe.) Joe called Yae a "handsome woman", in reference to her life in pursuit of equality between men and women in an era when ideas based on traditional feudalism still lingered. As husband and wife, they had a close-knit marriage until Joe’s death in 1890.

After Joe’s death, Yae worked as a volunteer nurse for the Red Cross in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars. For this reason, she is sometimes called the Nightingale of Japan, as well.

On the main WAN website, Naho Araki discusses the attention Yae is gaining these days in Japan in the context of feminism. She argues:

When you look at Yae’s eventful and unique life, I think there are elements that are acceptable, not acceptable, and open for interpretation in the context of feminism.

Araki is concerned that the new drama series might glamorize the fact that she didn’t shun traditional roles imposed on women:

 The “handsome woman”, fighting alongside men and navigating life wisely, was also aware of “the roles of the woman” and her position of a daughter in a samurai family. (…) I am concerned that (the drama series) might highlight the fact that her pursuit to improve women’s status was in addition to duly fulfilling the traditional female responsibilities.

Araki also points out that Yae was a proud member of the Aizu clan. She believed in class society and accepted war:

If they focus on these characteristics as “good conservative traits,”  it would not be very desirable from the point of view of feminism.
We can see contradicting ideological aspects in Yae’s life: she believed in traditional feudalism, equality between men and women, Christianity, and volunteerism for the Red Cross. Araki states:
(For the new drama series and books about her) there is probably no getting around her criticism of Japanese society in her quest to improve women’s status, as she went about her married life with Joe and her work as a nurse for the Red Cross. I think it will be interesting to see the degree of sincerity with which the new drama series and public opinion will judge these aspects of her life.

Adapted by Naoko Hirose

[1] He has this English name because he lived and was baptized in the United States.


Book review: You should think through all by yourself!−−"Evil Ideas for Survival" by Rieko Saibara

"Evil Ideas for Survival"
Written by Rieko Saibara
(Bungei Shunju, 20/07/2012)

The author Rieko Saibara answers various questions in this book. For instance, a writer, Yukito Ayatsuji asks Saibara, who remains creative and energetic, how she can keep such tremendous energy for creative works. Her answer is quite simple: "I'm in debt.(JPY140 million)". Hmm, that makes sense. And to the company employee who gets irritated by an useless subordinate, says Saibara, "If you see him/her as a screw, you won't get mad." It's a word of wisdom.

We all are attracted by words from writers such as Rieko Saibara and Usagi Nakamura who base their writings on their own unique challenges. Their words are richer in texture and more convincing than the hard-minded words of scholars and critics. That is probably because their words are expressed through their minds at the risk of their career. But, you see, the reason what Saibara says is so amusing is because she thinks through all by herself. Although Saibara's words make sense, it doesn't seem right to seek my answers among them. What I learned from this book is this: " You should think through all by yourself." That's it.

Original article written by IIta (17/12/2012) (http://wan.or.jp/book/?p=4412)
Translated by T. Muramatsu

Buy this book (jump to a Japanese page)

Book review: This is more of an academic "study"−− "Person in Need" by Sarasa Ono

 "Person in Need"
Written by Sarasa Ono
(Poplar Publishing, 16/06/2011)

A girl struggling with the incurable disease, which attacked her all of a sudden.
This girl is really something!
As a future anthropologist, she describes her serious disease conditions, treatments and even pains using her recursive keen insights. It is such a powerful writing that you can read in one sitting.

If you use information technology skills, you might be able to get any information you want on treatments or how to apply for social-security plans.  However, you are definitely still in need of real human friends and helpers. And for the sake of a "survival" strategy, you have to take a certain distance from your family for nursing care.

Although this is written in a casual style, you will learn serious issues confronting those who suffer from incurable diseases. This could be more of an academic "study" with full of originality and persuasiveness.

This book has already been introduced here. (http://wan.or.jp/book/?p=4751)

Original article written by momiji(07/10/2012) (http://wan.or.jp/book/?p=4488)
Translated by T. Muramatsu

Buy this book (jump to a Japanese page)


Nuclear Free Now!: Fukushima Action Project

The English website for Nuclear Free Now! has now uploaded detailed information on Fukushima Action Project, which takes place from December 14 to 16 in Koriyama City, Fukushima. A series of events are planned by local citizens in reaction to the announcement that the Japanese government and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will hold Fukushima Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety on December 15-17. Please visit Nuclear Free Now! or read the Project Statement to learn more about Fukushima Action Project's background, goals and demands as well as its events.

Posted by Aya Kitamura


Nuclear Free Now!: Women Joining Hands

On Saturday, December 15, Women's Action Network and Greenpeace Japan will host a panel session, "From the Day-to-day Confusion to Politics: Women Joining Hands" as a part of the two-day event, Nuclear Free Now!. The panelists include Ueno Chizuko (Women's Action Network), Miranda Schreurs (German Advisory Council on the Environment), Matsuura Masayo (Association of Women Afraid of Nuclear Power) and more. Please see the English program here for the details.

Posted by Aya Kitamura


Japanese Army’s Sexual Violence Panel Exhibition in China -- Brief Report on Prof.Qu Yajun’s Lectures in Japan: Part 2

Following Part 1, here is the second report on the lecture by Professor Qu Yajun from Shaanxi Normal University, Xian, China, given at Nihon University on Sunday, November 11, 2012, entitled “Women, Peace, and a Nation’s Self-Examination.”

AT the beginning of this lecture, Prof. Qu spoke about how she was impressed by the activities of a Japanese citizens group voluntarily collecting materials and oral testimony about the Japanese army’s wartime sexual violence and its support for Chinese victims of that violence in lawsuits against the government of Japan for postwar compensation.

In addition, the Japanese group known as the Japanese Army’s Sexual Violence Panel Exhibition committee had organized a series of panel exhibitions in Japan to reveal the facts of wartime sexual violence and their own activities. Later they brought the exhibit to China and Prof. Qu and her colleagues attended the panel exhibition held in Shanxi in 2010 thanks to  collaboration between the Japanese committee and local Chinese women. She instantly decided to invite the the exhibition to be held at her university, and in the following year it was actually held at the university attached Women Culture Museum in Shaanxi.

In her lecture, Prof. Qu quoted and analyzed various responses from Chinese visitors to the exhibition, including her bosses and nearly one thousand students. She also commented on the anti-Japan sentiment prevailing among the Chinese youth and their violent reactions against the Japanese government’s decision to purchase the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, and suggested how they could be interpreted in the current social context.

I would also like to insert my own comments inspired by her lectures, quoted words and the speeches of the other speakers and the audience.

 (1) Responses from Chinese Visitors to the Panel Exhibition on Japanese Army’s Wartime Sexual Violence Held at Shaanxi University

According to the committee members of the panel exhibition, there were initial concerns that the exhibition might only fuel Chinese hatred against Japan, devastating the bilateral relationship. But it seems to me that the exhibitions received far more diverse responses than they had expected. The following comments of Chinese visitors to the exhibition in 2011, which Prof.Qu quoted in her lecture, evidently showed that at least the one held in Shaanxi accomplished much more than just sharing the historical facts.

Each statement is that of one Chinese visitor:


l   “I take it to heart that this exhibition was organized out of sincere wishes for women not to be victimized by such violence even in case of war, without the intention of stirring up hostility against Japan. After all, if war happens again, women would be assaulted. That’s the reality. Now I know the problems reflected in this exhibition do not exist between one country and another, but between war and women….”

l  “Having seen these abundant materials, I have never been so deeply moved as I have by today’s exhibition. These eyes, tears, memories full of scars and traumas I saw in the panels, made me closely touch the war history of women.”

l  “I despise those people who laughed at and looked down upon the women who were raped during the war long after they survived it. I should hate them even more than Japanese soldiers.”

l  “What impressed me most deeply is the fact that all materials of this panel exhibition were provided from Japan. Those Japanese people bravely stood up to assume the responsibility of their predecessors, made continuous efforts to seek historical truth, and supported our grandmothers in their lawsuit calling for the Japanese government’s apologies to help them regain their dignity. Those actions by highly conscious Japanese friends moved me so deeply. Now I know that to remember is to maintain peace and to express our wish that war shall never be repeated, not to express our resentment.”

l  “I do not like nor dislike Japan. However, I think that the Japanese have something for us to learn from. History should not be used as an excuse for hostility….”

l  “I want more teachers and students to visit this site and see this exhibition. This is not something you should receive once in a life like baptism, but is our history which we should repeatedly learn from and reflect upon.”

I remember, there had been a question of whether or not feminism could be transnational, a question raised and argued by Eastern Asian feminists since the UN Women conference in Beijing in 1995. It seems to me that the above words plainly show that feminism could overcome national boundaries. In this positive and symbolic achievement, feminism and transnationalism are two key factors as, in my view, the meaning of “transborder” is made most clear on when we are named Japanese by others  and they are expected to behave like Chinese in China, and yet we and they can act upon shared values and theoretical framework.

(2) Significance of Anti-Japan Sentiment and Actions in Present China

Prof. Qu Yajun’s lectures were given when there was no sign of improvement yet in the China-Japan relationship as the new administration of China was yet to be determined, even though anti-Japan riots across China had been suppressed. Therefore it was extremely significant that she frankly mentioned about the Chinese anti-Japan sentiment to a Japanese audience toward the end of her second-day lecture.

Prof. Qu first admitted that there has been hostility against Japan in Chinese society, uniquely among the youth, and that is attributable to the memory of the war eighty years ago. I accept it as a premise for our mutual understanding of each other’s history.

But there was much more to it, she said, and so she continued and pointed out other inner factors driving the youth to violent action. Life is so hard for many of them, with the overwhelming pressure of competition at school and work, soaring land prices and rents. They want to blame somebody, but who would allow them to collectively blame anybody for anything? Finally, they saw Japan as the only safe target to attack.

Prof. Qu was concerned about Chinese people’s lack of understanding about Japan’s reality and diversity. She encourages the Chinese to recognize Japan as composed of those who are consistently reflecting upon their past history, and those who know very little about the past war and strongly desire world peace and friendship with China, as well as those who remain hostile to China, wishful to glorify war, and eager to repaint the undesirable picture of the past. They should know Japanese people are allowed to have different opinions, she said.

Prof. Qu also expressed her concerns about the frequent incidences of irrational reactions in various crashes between the two nations, emphasizing the danger of the whole nation fanatically applauding one thing (Olympics, for instance) or using the same vocabulary to blame one thing (Japan, for instance) for something or other. She even referred to a certain recent survey which revealed that more than half of the college students in China actually feel “so-so” about Japan.

One young Japanese man in the audience honestly admitted that he felt relieved by her words, which was quite understandable as we were exposed to repeated images of the infuriated Chinese youth abusing Japan on TV. I consider it necessary to overcome an obsession and nervousness toward China based on relative and broader perspective.
Needless to say, it does not mean that we could rely on such relativism to evade our historical understanding and post-war responsibilities in dealing with the war victims in China.

In that sense, it is encouraging to know that this year’s dispute has made decent citizens of Japan, especially young and naïve people, more aware of the historical and territorial issues than ever. I believe that they are becoming more wary of right wing extremists’ anachronistic attempts to rewind Japan’s history back to the age of nationalistic and anti-feministic fervor rather than attracted by their loud voices calling for “restoration” of Japan or “amendment” of the constitution.

Reported by FUKUOKA A. A

Japanese version was also written by FUKUOKA A. A