Bebe Taian: May 2014

May 6, 2014

Notable Japanese Women: Yanagihara Byakuren

柳原白蓮 (Yanagihara Byakuren) 1885 - 1967

Byakuren was born Yanagihara Akiko, a first cousin of Emperor Taisho, daughter of an unnamed geisha and Count Yanagihara. She is perhaps best known outside of Japan for her push for women's rights instead of her poetry.

Her first marriage was at 16 (women were considered adults between 14-16 then), when she was sold to an aristocratic family and forced to marry their son. After five years, she fled back home, where her elder brother put her on house arrest and again forced her to marry, this time to Itou Denemon, a wealthy coalmine tycoon 25 years older than she. Such an arrangement was called a "Golden Marriage"; the newly-wealthy person gains social status, the wife (and more importantly, the wife's relatives) gains access to greater financial sway.

Itou was 52, an illiterate former coal miner with children and several mistresses. Byakuren was 27 by this time, middle-aged by standards then, and the daughter of aristocracy. It was a scandalous marriage that was purported to have caused outrage regarding social standards in the 'vertical society'. Tokyo Asahi Shinbun reported in 1911 that Byakuren's brother was in financial straits and needed the wealth from Itou in order to increase his own social standing. Her 'bride price' was proof of her position as chattel in her world.

It was during this second marriage that she began to develop herself as a poet, with writing as her escape. "Trodden Images" (Fumie), her first published poetry collection, was printed in 1915. Fumie is a heavy reference to the punishment of Christians during the Tokugawa and even Meiji governments, when suspected Christians were forced to recant their faith and trample images of their saviour, or face execution. Surely, faced with a sham of a marriage to someone she resented so strongly, and a society unwilling to allow for her right to leave, she felt this choice as strongly as the religiously oppressed.

Yet, as with celebrities around the world, interest in this woman might have died if not for a scandal involving her husband's mining operation in 1918. Reports of bribery rocked a country with an increasing gap between the poor and the wealthy, when resentments on both sides rode high. But even that might not have been enough to maintain public interest in her works, which were few before 1920. The real uproar didn't come until three years later, when she'd finally had enough.

Her divorce announcement was published in the Asahi Shinbun on Oct. 22, 1921, an act simply not done by 'respectable' women. That letter would spark a firestorm of conversation and public demonstration regarding the treatment of women and the female role in society. Byakuren was lucky- it was her influence, established works, and a wealthy social network that held her up upon leaving. A 'normal' woman would scarcely be able to dream of having that kind of freedom. Not only was her divorce of Itou public, but it was known that she herself had a paramour, and had run off with him. During Taisho era, a woman who runs off with another man could be punished with two years in jail; a man would be given a minor sentence, and only if that other woman was already married. Byakuren's behaviour was unheard of, and her story only brought to light how unequal women were in her society.

Stripped of her royal title, Byakuren lived with Miyazaki Ryuusuke, her chosen husband, until she died in 1967. She had two more children with Miyazaki. Her poetry and writings did not cease after her newfound happiness. She lived out her life as a celebrity author, and throughout her fame, even had a serialized newspaper fiction which (although not based on her life) was widely understood to be about Byakuren and other women like her. Many parallels from the two stories can be seen, which is an essay in itself.

During her entire career, with the swirling change of the world and rapid industrialization of her country, her one letter became the symbol for the need to change. Right-wing groups used her divorce, as well as movies and other stories of the time, as evidence that morals were in decline and chaos would surely ensue. Left-wing activists took this as an opportunity to say that women should have their own lives and should be free to marry of their own accord, not to be bought and sold like objects. The Modern Woman was someone 'unrestrained' and 'morally corrupt', wanting independence and rebelling against the Yamato Nadeshiko image of the 'perfect' woman: quiet, refined, submissive, cute. Byakuren was seen as outspoken, in control, even sexy. Despite losing so much, ultimately, she gained her happiness and satisfaction in her life.


THE TWO HOLY OCCASIONS
There were two moments when I meant
Ne'er to allow the slightest touch
Of dust to settle on this heart:
Once when I prayed; once when I loved.
(Fumie, 1915)

SOURCES:
AsiaWeek on CNN
Toshima-ku Tokyo Tourism Guide
Asia: Journal of the American Asiatic Association, Vol. 20 (Jan. 1920)
Japan Review 24 (2012): 105-125

ADDITIONAL READING:
An online catalog of Byakuren's writing, including some digitally published works.
Byakuren on Wikipedia Japan (in Japanese; sorry, the G Translate makes no sense.)