A Woman to Know: Komako Kimura

Sisters of the world, let's gather our power, and shock the men who belittle us by saying, ‘What can women do?’ — Komako Kimura

Sisters of the world, let's gather our power, and shock the men who belittle us by saying, ‘What can women do?’ — Komako Kimura

(image via Digital Library Collection)

As an actress, singer and all-around theatric, Komako Kimura brought attention to the Japanese women’s rights movement through her artistic talents. She first came to the movement as a student of kabuki theater, training at a school where young girls were taught “to be personalities.” Komako studied male philosophers and came to resent the relative lack of attention paid to female feminist thinkers; when she was 21 years old, the school expelled her. Some thought it was for Komako’s outspokenness, but in reality, the young feminist was hiding a secret: she’d conceived a child out of wedlock and gave birth in secret.

As her family and Tokyo society shunned Komako, the art world welcomed her with open arms. In 1912, she created and published a feminist magazine, “The New True Women,” and that same year she co-founded “The Real New Women’s Association,” a suffragist group in Japan. All the while, she continued writing plays and ran two theaters, choosing to star in theatrical productions specifically designed to bring attention to her chosen causes. In her lifetime she acted in more than 500 plays, saying she loved the theater because “only the women of the stage have an opportunity to talk to men of affairs.”

In 1917, she visited America to visit with leaders of the women’s rights movement. In the States, people of all political beliefs were fascinated by her traditional dress and eloquent speeches, and audiences turned out in droves to see her speak and perform. She visited Washington DC to meet with Jeannette Rankin, and later that year, she marched in the American Suffragist Parade alongside some of New York City’s most noted feminists.

Upon returning to Japan in 1918, however, Komako faced a new challenge. The government suppressed publication of her magazine and criticized its “radical” takes on topics like marriage and birth control. In response to the suppression, Komako did what she did best: she put on a show. She wrote and starred in a one-woman play, “Ignorance,” a not-so-veiled criticism of the government’s censorship. The show was a massive hit (Komako ensured it would be so — she made all the tickets free) but on the final night, she was arrested and put on trial. The flimsy charges and Komako’s sterling self-defense only served to direct even more attention to the suffrage movement. But she feared an even more intense retaliation and so fled to the United States.

Once settled in New York in 1925, Komako performed at Carnegie Hall and starred in Broadway productions. She continued working on behalf of the Japanese women’s movement, which wouldn’t win the right for universal suffrage until 1945.

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