August 4, 2021
Fake news is not a modern invention.
In 1911, Japan executed 12 anarchists after discovering a plot to kill Emperor Meiji and convicting them in hasty, secret trials.
Historians now say the plot was likely faked by the administration of Prime Minister Katsura Tarō, which had launched a crack-down on protestors, closing down socialist newspapers, banning socialist and anarchist meetings and forbidding the use of the use of the words “strike,” “labor union,” “socialism,” and “revolution.”
The one woman convicted and executed in the plot was Kanno Sugako, a journalist, prolific fiction and non-fiction writer and critic of
the concubine system and
exploitation of sex workers.
This pioneering feminist of the early twentieth century has not received the recognition she deserves, partly because her name was
smeared after her execution.
We're going to do a little something about that today!
Japanese Feminist Executed (1910)
In Nagano Prefecture, May 20, 1910, police raided the home of a young lumber mill worker and discovered materials used in making explosives. Announcing they had uncovered a plot to kill
the Japanese Emperor Meiji, they rounded up hundreds of socialists throughout the country.
In what came to be called 大逆事件 (Taigyaku Jiken), or the High Treason Incident, 24 of the people arrested were convicted of treason and two with violating explosives control laws. The 24 were sentenced to death.
The next day the emperor commuted the
sentences of 12 people to life imprisonment, a week later 12 others were hanged. Witnesses say Kanno Sugako struggled for 12 minutes before she
Kanno Sugako, also called Kanno Suga, circa 1905 in
It might be difficult for Americans to sympathize with an anarchist, but as Isaac Meyer explains in his History of Japan podcast:
"...we tend to think of ideologies like anarchism or socialism as `that thing your slightly stoned friend from college won’t shut up about` but at the time these were really potent ideologies that scared a lot of establishment people because of their potential for forcing
The Tarō regime was taking no chances. “Although socialists at the moment are said to constitute little more than a thin thread of smoke, if we overlook this thread of smoke, it will someday develop the force of a wildfire and then it will be too late for anything but regrets."
Seeing the High Treason Incident as a plot to eliminate leaders of the socialist/anarchist movement seems reasonable considering the growing authoritarianism in Japan at the time and its later imperial conquests in WWII.
Meiji Tennō, emperor of Japan (1867 to 1912)
Emperor Meiji dramatically westernized and modernized Japan from a patriarchal feudal society into one of the great powers of the modern world. But Kanno Sugako claimed the new era did nothing to raise
the status of women.
“A woman’s vocation was to be that of the nurturer. Her role was to be centered on the home. Women were barred from
politics, from inheritance, and from any independent legal standing in civil law.”
She was drawn to socialism because she found it one of the few ideologies that
unequivocally supported women's rights. In addition, Kanno was drawn to the anarchists' commitment to education.
"For us women, the most
urgent task is to develop our own self-awareness […] women with some education and some degree of social knowledge must surely be discontented and angry about their status."
Kanno's initial weapon was her writing. Her critique of society started early after she was raped at age 13, once writing “Women in Japan are in a state of slavery.”
Originally a pacifist, Kanno did not begin to advocate direct action until after she was arrested in June 1908 during the "Red Flag" incident (赤旗事件).
German photographer Arnold Genthe (1869-1942) photos of everyday life in Japan in 1908.
Anarchists and socialists had gathered in the streets to celebrate a political activist being released from prison. As night fell on the peaceful rally, some protestors began waving red flags and shouting for revolution. Police intervened, arresting people, some who were later tortured at the police station. Kanno was arrested but
released without charges.
I was outraged at the brutal behavior of the police. I concluded that a peaceful propagation of our principles
could not be conducted under these circumstances. It was necessary to arouse the people's awareness by staging riots or a revolution or by undertaking assassinations.
Kanno Suguko with Kōtoku Denjirō one of the founders of the Social Democratic
Bear with me for one more feminist quote from Kanno before I jump into how her reputation was trashed in part, by a jilted
“Among the many annoying things in the world, I think men are the most annoying. When I hear them carrying on interminably
about female chastity, I burst out laughing…. Before they begin stressing women’s chastity, they ought to perfect their own male chastity, and concentrate on becoming wise fathers and good husbands!” Kanno Suga writing in 1906, translation by Sharon Sievers.
Following Kanno's execution, Japanese feminists sought to improve women's circumstances within the framework of nationalism and patriotism. Because she had embraced socialist revolution, they did not recognize her contribution to the movement.
In addition, Kanno was criticized for her affair with Kōtoku Denjirō while her husband Kanson Arahata served prison time for radical political protest. In later writings, Arahata cast her as a seductress and sexually insatiable temptress. For some in the movement she was a danger to Japanese morals and
Surely the feminist movement has room for a variety of personalities and tactics. As a journalist and writer Kanno Suguko was a strong voice for women's
empowerment. As for whether she was the actual leader of a plot to kill the emperor, even her own words leave us uncertain.
Reports of her final statement in court
quote her thus: "I have no regrets. I am only chagrined that our plan ended in failure."
After her conviction and before her execution, she wrote, “The public charges and the truth of the matter were totally unrelated, like a novel written by a third-rate writer.”
I was totally thrilled recently when author and freelance writer Kelly Milner Halls wrote a story for Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Living Magazine featuring my aerial silks practice.
Unfortunately, the magazine folded before the July/August issue was printed. I got permission to share the article with you.
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