There is a fantastic passage from Angela Davis I often see quoted in activist publications. In it she asks how do ‘we learn how to come together? […] How can we come together in a unity that is not simplistic and oppressive, but complex and emancipatory?’ Davis’ questions are important – they’re my unanswered questions – and feel all the more useful for remaining questions, demands for exploration and inquiry. We, collectively, have failed to produce these kinds of successful insurgent and revolutionary spaces and organisations. A quick glance at the world around us enforces strict adherence to the Beckettian slogan: time to keep failing better.

Uman ribu was an explosively radical, restless, artfully angry constellation of women’s liberation groups and collective thinkers who emerged out of Japan’s New Left in the 1970s. Ribu aimed, in its fusing of life experiences, activist intervention and theoretical reflection, to offer ways out of some familiar Left impasses. And Setsu Shigematsu’s Scream from the Shadows, an English-language history of and theoretical reflection on the movement, ought to become a reference point for many of us. This is a very important work, written with the same passionate and searching intellectual and political integrity as its subjects lived their politics, and is a model of engaged, critical scholarship. The detailed history, unfamiliar to readers used to Anglophone histories of the New Left, is of great interest in itself; Shigematsu draws it into conversation with contemporary concerns.

Ribu transliterates ‘women’s liberation’, but Shigematsu cautions against the too-simple construction of smoothly international feminist histories, whereby a United States road map – from Friedan to Millet, say, followed by fractures and regeneration – acts as our guide for making sense of women’s struggles elsewhere. Scream from the Shadows instead makes the suggestion that taking the Japanese movement in its own history and strengths might offer us – activists and thinkers in the ‘West’ – opportunities for reflection, study, and learning. Ribu was a radically disruptive, anti-systemic politics stressing ruptures, both with the existing order and with the staid, state-focussed official feminism of Japan’s post-war women’s groups, whether liberal or Communist. Its energies and appeal, then, have obvious echoes with Women’s Liberation elsewhere, but its genealogy set up quite different historical and political challenges.

The ‘face’ of the New Left in Japan was a woman. Kanba Michiko, a student at the University of Tokyo, was killed during a demonstration against the renewal of Japan-US security treaties on 15 June 1960. Her martyrdom, and her features, were taken up by the student and youth rebellions through that decade as a symbol of their own resistance and hatred of the security system’s cruelty and repression. But, as so often, female martyrs are not always signs of a female-friendly politics: Japan’s New Left, wracked by a posturing (and eventually murderous) obsession with proving theoretical commitment and revolutionary credentials via street fighting and physical confrontation with rival leftists, collapsed into gang-like machismo and thuggery. The bitterness of that lost chance persists today in many circles.

Ribu split out of the New Left, and developed itself in creative, and confrontational, dialogue with the New Left and its aporias. Carrying out a theoretical and political pincer movement, ribu negated the liberal, rights discourse of mainstream Japanese feminism by insisting on the need for revolutionary transformation of society whilst, at the same time, trying to drive out of the New Left its unreconstructed chauvinism, blindness to gender, and conservativising patriarchal backwardness.

So this movement came out of the New Left, and was always part of the New Left. It came into its own, disgusted with the treatment women had often received inside the New Left – where they had too often been treated, and mistreated, as movement ‘wives and girlfriends’ rather than comrades in struggle – while also insisting that women’s contribution to the anti-capitalist struggle be acknowledged. The New Left, Tanaka Mitsu expressed it once, was like a beautiful snow-covered mountain; the men’s work was the snow, visible to all. The women’s work was the mountain hidden beneath, all those banal tasks without which nothing could have happened.

The daring and revolutionary, counter-cultural verve of this manoeuvre is written into Ribu’s own terms of description. By nominating themselves using the highly charged term onna, a word with sexualised and, in some contexts, derogatory associations, Ribu sought to create women as revolutionary, unmanageable, disruptive subjects. In 1971 the Committee to Prepare for Women’s Liberation put forward six demands:

1. Let’s protest our internalised onna consciousness

2. Let’s liberate onna from all her oppressions

3. Let’s smash all discriminations between men and women

4. Let’s achieve true liberation and autonomy

5. Let onna herself organise other onna

6. Smash Anpo

The last demand – insisting on Ribu’s ongoing solidarity with, and connection to, anti-imperialism – is another reminder of how unhelpful it is to brandish a (misremembered) muttering of ‘the personal is political’ as some indication women’s liberation represented a turn away from the Left. Ribu, Shigematsu argues, ‘forwarded an unprecedented political critique of the gendering of Japanese postwar society and the Japanese left, its past imperialist nationalism and its ongoing neo-imperial and no-colonial formations’, looking to form alliances with female victims of Japanese aggression in Asia, turning its attention to domestic inequality and racism, expressing solidarity with the ‘comfort women’ of Korea and Zainichi Koreans in Japan.

Uman Ribu developed an explicitly anti-imperialist feminist programme, one stirring in its radical clarity:

Okinawa is our problem. As for our relationship with Okinawan women, due to the history and the way that the state has divided us, we cannot say that we are the same women as the Okinawan women … Because we are women of the mainland, we are the women who belong to the class of oppressors … We cannot be liberated until Okinawa is liberated … Okinawa functions as the mainland’s protective wall. The prostitutes that are being raped by American soldiers serve as Okinawa’s protective wall. And in the sex that is sold by Okinawan prostitutes, we can see the naked colours of Japanese imperialism that we must destroy.

The complicated politics of sexual violence – and resistance to sexual violence – are here brought into useful connection with a wider programme of women’s liberation. Plenty of masculinist nationalisms, quite content with women’s subordinate status in colonised society, use a rhetoric of sexual violence to describe the colonial situation (the ‘rape’ of the land); colonial rule asserts itself, often, through the mistreatment and degradation of women, from the ‘comfort women’ of colonial-era Japan to rape on Okinawa today. Ribu forced confrontation with this as a political crisis.

Protest, as it developed through Japan’s New Left in the 1970s, took on ever more sterile and destructive forms; groups of men from rival left groups would meet in street battles to assert their revolutionary purity, their phallic staves (gebabo) acting as both weapon and symbol.

Ribu stood in contrast to this, insisting on street protests, to be sure, and looking to mass movements, but insisting on democratic, inclusive, communicative politics. Their actions, as Shigematsu describes them, were marked by inventiveness and flair: stroller demonstrations, taking babies in push chairs en masse to railway station buildings, department stores and other areas not designed to accommodate women with children, protests alongside men demanding an end to this ‘paternal rights society’, spectacular actions in solidarity with women in colonised Asia.

The most engrossing section of Scream from the Shadows, for me, is Shigematsu’s account of Ribu’s work for abortion rights, work in many ways in advance of our politics today. Ribu by-passed the entire confusing, and, they argued, irrelevant, philosophical discussion of life and its beginnings and instead chose, with some daring, to base their support for abortion rights on society’s violence and the violent responses it engendered. Insisting on women’s rights to bodily autonomy and agency whilst also avoiding and critiquing a liberal discourse of rights – and Shigematsu’s unpacking of this case is too intricate and sophisticated for me to do it justice here – Ribu stressed abortion’s status as an act, an assertion of independence on the part of women.

Early 70s Japan was in the midst of a media-driven moral panic around women who killed their children, and Ribu chose this, surely the hardest of terrains, as an area for political battle, expressing their support with women jailed for crimes which were the product, almost always, of extreme mental distress and social despair. Ribu didn’t substitute pity for moral outrage, however, but insisted on solidarity. The Group of Fighting Women began campaigning in 1971 around ‘child killing’; the phenomenon peaked in 1974 with 600 reported killings that year, and Ribu’s critique had been almost the sole dissident voice throughout.

Abortion and infanticide, for Ribu’s theorists, could not be separated from Japan’s colonial history and the needs of radically industrialising Japanese capitalism for women to be reproducers, mothers of the next generation of workers. Tanaka Mitsu, Ribu’s most prominent theorist, made clear the way an anti-capitalist abortion rights movement would ally itself with the disabled, the infirm, and the ‘unwell’:

In this world, where the strong devour the weak, its order is established through the logic of productivity … those like the elderly, children, the sick, the ‘handicapped’ … This logic measures the dignity of a person’s life on the basis of whether or not a person is useful to a corporation and this logic permeates our consciousness of daily life.

This kind of solidarity was visible, in real ways, in Ribu’s street activism. Yonezu Tomoko – a Ribu activist – made her own disabled body the centre of much of her activism, marching to the slogan ‘Look at me!’ (私を見る!) and thus insisting on bringing disabled experience, and agency, to recognition.

There is so much more of value in this book, and many more anecdotes, analyses, and historical comparisons I could have drawn from. Shigematsu writes of Ribu’s decline, and the contradictions of its politics, with a critical and rigorous sympathy, and the lessons of the movement – or the questions she leaves us to wonder over – have set me thinking and re-reading for many months now. She is, sometimes, though, too close to her subject’s political position to get fully its bearings; when Shigematsu writes that ‘Ribu refers to a social movement, a political identity, and a living philosophy that spans multiple temporalities’ I feel she is, in her honourable desire to pay tribute to the movement’s legacy, avoiding the kind of full confrontation that the limits of this politics deserves. These were anti-capitalist activists, dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of Japanese sexist society; their failure is our failure, certainly, and no cause for feelings of superiority, but merely to insist that their philosophy persists seems to do a disservice. The vice of far too much North American leftist academic writing – prose so self-reflexive and self-involved it clots and coagulates, even mid-sentence – is all too evident here. Shigematsu is one of those academic writers who operate as if under the belief that a finely turned sentence or a clear and elegant phrase must be some kind of political betrayal. A great pity, as this fine and serious book deserves a wider audience, and would find one outside the seminar room.

Ribu had, in its ranks, anti-theoretical feminisms familiar from other contexts (‘Theory is a man,’ Ijima Aiko dismissively remarked), and Tanaka Mitsu’s writings read as écriture feminine. But the movement’s great achievements, and Shigematsu’s inspired reconstruction of them, remind us that revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice aren’t to be separated: Ribu theorised the possibilities of an anti-capitalist, internationalist women’s liberation, one connected to body politics and the body politic, to what disables us and to the reality of disability; one building solidarity and critique. Ribu reads, in this wonderful book, as the future we need to have, whether our affiliations are specifically feminist or part of a wider left. Shigematsu gives us that most precious achievement of the radical historian; she has the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past.

Setsu Shigematsu, Scream from the Shadows: the Women’s Liberation Movement in Japan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).


Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. This is such a brilliant and fascinating post, Dougal. I loved the idea of the ‘revolutionary, unmanageable, disruptive subjects’, and am especially interested in the framing of abortion as a right vs an act (something I’ve been musing over and talking with interviewees about, too) and the infanticide activism. Definitely plan to read up on the work of Ribu. Thanks.

      1. That’s a tricky question. Part of the purpose of the book I think was to record this lively – and living – history when the dominant response had been to ignore Ribu and hope it might dissapear.

        I had always thought – following Ehara Yumiko in her essay “The Politics of Teasing” – that Ribu had been more or less curtailed and submerged into ‘mainstream’ feminism and academic women’s studies. Shigematsu disputes this, and insists on the ways Ribu lives on, both in its example and in its militants’ own lives — this is part of the book I’m most doubtful about, but also admire hugely for the sorts of connections it wants to see made visible.

        In wider society: there are some lovely illustrations of incomprehension from wider society. The cops – initially, at least – had very little idea of how to cope with disruptive, riotous women, and there are a few images where you can see the newspapers can’t quite decide whether to mock or to moral panic their way out.

        I don’t get the sense – from my other reading – that there’s much of a flow back to the left from Ribu’s insights (the 80s lead to further fractures and isolation by the different currents) but Ribu thinkers – especially Tanaka Mitsu – gain prominence as commentators and controversialists in a wider media sphere. (A comparison between Tanaka and Germaine Greer would reveal more differences than similarities, but points I think at something).

  2. Thanks, Jacinda, that’s very kind. Shigematsu’s chapter on the abortion struggle I can’t recommend highly enough, not only for the interest of the historical material itself, but also for how Shigematsu uses this in very interesting and provocative ways to ask philosophical and strategic questions of abortion rights movements now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *