Japan is not world famous for being the most progressive country in terms of women’s rights. Just last year a female member of The Diet (the Japanese legislative body), was shouted at as she gave a speech about women’s rights. One of the other members of the Diet yelled, “Go get married!” But Japan has made great strides in a very short time. Less than one hundred years ago women were still seen as basically property, one woman who had a great role in changing that was the legendary Shizue Kato.
Shizue was born on March 2, 1897 to a famous samurai family. She was trained in the high born classical arts, basically skills she would need to attain a husband of equal or (preferably) higher class. For the most part, girls were trained to be polite, run a household, pour tea, poetry, and listen to men. Shizue was a very average samurai daughter. She would be married to Baron Keikichi Ishimoto. He was very progressive for his time, and when he and his new 17-year-old wife were transported to the Miike coalfields, they were both shocked by the conditions the workers lived and worked in.
In these coalfields, men, women, and children (barely old enough to work) worked in the dangerous coal mines for long hours. If you know anything about coal mining you know how dangerous it is, and how so many workers develop black lung and cancer. The new husband and wife worked hard to improve their conditions and even made some enemies in the government to help the poor peasants. This would be a real turning point in Shizue’s life.
Because of her husband’s progressive nature, he allowed her to study and grow and even voice her opinions. When they were later assigned in the United States this should give Kato’s growing feminist sensibilities a real shot in the arm.
During the decade leading up to World War II, Keikichi Ishimoto would be given higher level positions in the Japanese Empire, while Shizue’s progressiveness was building, her husband’s was shrinking. Ishimoto would move closer and closer to the nationalistic mania that was sweeping the nation, and further and further away from his wife. Eventually, Shizue filed for divorce with the Imperial Household Agency (the royal court controlled all marriages between high-born people). Surprisingly, her husband did not fight her. But it still took some years to finally get a divorce.
In 1937, Shizue would be arrested for opposing the government position on population growth. At the time, Japan wanted to grow it’s power as much as possible so it made any form of contraception illegal and pushed women to have as many children as possible. Shizue understood the negative long term and short term problems such a policy would entail and vehemently opposed the policy.
After the war’s end, Shizue would join the Japan Socialist Party and would be one of the first women elected to the Diet. During her time in the Diet, she supported many policies that were very controversial at the time. She pushed to make conception and abortion legal. She also wanted to let women have a greater voice in the government. Many of the more progressive parts of Japanese law is directly attributable to her. For example, the mandatory paid childcare leave that new mothers receive in Japan.
During her life, she published hundreds of books, pamphlets, and tracts to educate other women, voice her opinions, and improve Japan for all women.
Shizue Kato has received numerous awards. In 1988 she was awarded the United Nations Populations Award. She has also be rewarded Japan’s highest non-military honor. Although she passed away on December 2, 2001, she continues to fight for women’s rights across the world. In 1996, the Kato Shizue award was organized. Each year the association awards people who continue to carry on the same spirit of progressiveness that Shizue believed in throughout her life.