In modern Western societies and in a Japanese context, the simple mention of the term “feminism” or “フェミニズム (feminizumu)”can often provoke discomfort, criticism, skepticism and even candid hostility. There are of course those who embrace the word and identify explicitly as proud “feminists” or “フェミニスト (feminisuto).”  Yet, despite the widespread support for gender equality, there seems to be a prevalent reluctance for people to identify as feminist or outwardly say they are in favor of the feminist movement. The debate and dubiety over the definition of the word feminism is still ongoing.  The problem lies in its numerous interpretations and movements that have come to shape the various perceptions of the word. Since the supposed first coining of the word in 1837 by French socialist, Charles Fourier, the feminist movement and feminist ideology has had different waves that contributed to the various imaginations of the word through different periods (Offen, 1988).  Furthermore, the Japanese word “フェミニスト (feminisuto)” and “フェミニズム(feminizumu)” have come to take on a Japanese context and image due to the movements, figures, and culture that  pertain specifically to Japan. The associations of feminism with misandry, a lack of femininity, and lesbianism rather than gender equality is observable both in Japan and elsewhere. Yet the extent to which the term フェミニスト (feminisuto) is associated with man-hating, unattractiveness, lesbianism in Japan and women’s overall repudiation of identifying with the word is more prevalent than Western countries, especially England and the United States. By reconsidering the history and origins of the terms feminist and フェミニスト (feminisuto), explaining the different waves and their influences on Japan, and exploring the modern perception of the word through interviews and media analysis, this paper aims to demonstrate that understandings and perceptions of feminism vary, depending on the cultural context and language used.



Origins of the English word Feminism

The origins of the word feminism as we know it now are actually quite unclear. Although most historians claim that the first mention of the French word “feminism” was in 1837 by the Utopian socialist philosopher, Charles Fourier, in his writing Théorie des Quatre Mouvements et des destinées générales, recent research has divulged that this cannot actually be authenticated. Although Fourier’s beliefs on the emancipation of women was indeed a clear and early advocacy of feminist ideology, the actual word was not mentioned in either the 1808 or 1841 renditions of his writing. He has been erroneously attributed to the coining of the word, although his comparison of the treatment of women in the Western world to that of slaves undoubtedly did influence the prominence of women’s rights as an issue in the coming years (Offen, 1998). What can be confirmed is that the first woman to call herself and her associates “feminist” was Hubertine Auclert, who wrote about the woman’s suffrage movement in her periodical, La Citoyenne in 1890 (Rendall, 1985).  Later, in May 1892, Paris, a “self-proclaimed feminist congress” took place with the women’s group Solidarite, who also later juxtaposed the term feminisme with masculinisme for the first time. In the late 1890s, the word finally gained momentum as a synonym for the advocacy of women’s suffrage (Rendall, 1985 p.32).

The advocacy for female equality soon caught on in America and England but it was not until the 1890s onwards that the meaning of “feminism” as we know it now was understood and used. Almost 200 years ago in 1841, the first recorded usage of the word “feminism” in the English language referred to the “quality or character of being feminine” (Offen, 1989, p.15). By 1875, it was adapted to medical terminology, referring to “female secondary sexual characteristics in a male individual”(Offen, 1989, p.15 ). It was not until the emergence of the suffragette movement in late nineteenth century Britain, that the English word feminism became widely recognized as the movement for women’s rights.


Defining Feminism through the First and Second Waves

An issue in the way individuals perceive modern feminism is that they often associate it with the feminism from the past. The term is often conflated with outdated images of bra burning and misandry. Furthermore, some would argue the word itself is also innately biased (Scharff, 2002). Although in the past, feminism may have been synonymous with the movement for suffrage and other political rights and later cultural and social liberation from traditional gender roles, the word and its definition have evolved. Depending on the historical and cultural context, feminism has had various meanings, causes, and goals around the world. Most western feminist historians argue that all movements working to obtain women’s rights should be considered feminist movements, even when the term is not applied. Other historians assert that the term should be limited to the modern feminist movement and its descendants (Lerner, 1983). In the latter sense of the definition of feminist movements, it is thought that the roots of feminist movements derives from 18th century France.

After the French revolution in 1789 resulted in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, women in France became pioneers in expressing their disapprobation towards the unfairness of the law being only applicable to men. This provoked some of the first movements for women’s rights in other Western countries including Britain. In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which is considered to be one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy (Rendall, 1985). In her work, she argues that women should not be mere ornaments to men or considered property tradable in marriage, and that they deserve to receive education and have the same fundamental rights as men. Although she implies the need for equality between the sexes in particular areas of life, such as morality, she never explicitly states that men and women are equal. For this reason, it is debatable whether to say that Wollstonecraft could be classified as a modern feminist. Furthermore, the word and concept of “feminism” were not yet fixed at the time (Rendall, 1985).

By the mid 19th century, the fight for suffrage became more prominent in Europe and America. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention took place, advertising itself as a “convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman” (Wellman, 2004 p. 189). It attracted widespread attention and became a precedent for other women’s rights conventions that advocated for women to obtain social, civil, and moral rights. By the end of the 19th century, feminist movements began emphasizing the right to vote, equal contract, marriage, parenting, and property rights for women.

In Britain, the Suffragettes campaigned for the women’s right to vote through the usage of militant tactics encouraged by the Suffragette’s leading figure, Emmeline Pankhurst. Regarding her violent tactics, she stated that “the condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do it”(Bartley, 2002 p.98). The term suffragette was actually originally applied to the women who fought for political enfranchisement as a term of ridicule in an article in the Daily Mail in 1906, although it was soon embraced by the activists themselves. The suffragettes were also the subject of derision by media and individuals who could be either men or women.  There are several cartoons depicting the Suffragettes as ugly, abhorrent, indecent women irrationally demanding to be treated like men (Bartley, 2002). One cartoon from a postcard from 1910  titled the “Origin and Development of a Suffragette” shows the stages of a girl’s evolution into a suffragette, starting out by depicting a young, innocent looking girl with a baby doll in her arms, captioned “At 15, a little pet,” then an attractive young woman captioned “At 20 a little Coquette,” then an unattractive woman with an appearance of desperation captioned, “At 40 not married yet” then finally an unkempt and ugly, even monstrous woman scowling with a hatchet in hand captioned, “At 50 A Suffragette.” Already we can see a strong adverse reaction against feminist ideas (Bartley, 2002 p.37). This variety of contempt and backlash through media and popular culture can also be seen in preceding generations of feminist advocacy.

Despite the cases of backlash and the negative perceptions of “feminism” already visible in the early feminist movement, the generations of effort eventually resulted in attainment of voting rights  for women in several countries including Britain and the United States (Bartley, 2002). Modern feminists have identified these movements of the 19th century and early 20th century focused on obtaining suffrage as the first of the three waves of feminism. The term “first wave” was a term coined retrospectively in March 1968 in the New York Times Magazine, before the term second wave was used to describe the following feminist movement that emphasized social and cultural inequalities as much as political inequalities (Henry, 2004).

The Second-wave feminism refers to the feminist movement that first emerged in the early 1960s in the United States and eventually spread its influence to the Western world and beyond. In contrast to the first wave feminism, which was synonymous with the attainment of voting rights and obtaining other legal rights, second wave feminism broadened its horizon to a wider range of issues. It focused on other obstacles to gender equality such as repressing of sexuality, roles in the family and workplace, domestic violence, reproductive rights, and rape issues (Hooks, 2000).  With the end of the two world wars, the significance of “feminism” was broadened to address not only political but sociocultural issues. Prominent second wave feminist figures like Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem advocated the idea that female suppression was not only a political phenomenon but also a cultural one imposed by patriarchal society (hooks, 2000). Feminist writing also became, more prominent, textually stabilizing “feminism” as more or less the “Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; the movement associated with this.” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2012).

The words “women’s liberation” were also coined under the label of second wave feminism in 1964 and first appeared in print in 1996 (Bradshaw, 2013). It is often considered synonymous with the “second wave” feminist movement or with radical feminism, both characterized by freeing women from the oppressive patriarchal structure (Weinstein, 2013).


Women’s Liberation and Introduction of Modern Feminism to Japan

Although feminist consciousness is observable in every decade of Japan’s modern history dating back to the 1870s, “women’s liberation” or “ウーマンリブ (uman ribu),” made way for a new kind of women’s movement, that was not only a fight for equal rights but also for the disenthrallment from traditional gender roles. The Japanese equivalent of the term “women’s liberation” is 女性解放 (jyoseikaihou) (Mackie, 2003). Prominent second wave feminists like Ueno Chizuko point out the distinction between prior feminist movements and theリブ ( liberation-ribu), emphasizing that liberation mentions nothing of an aim to be equal to men. She argues that the misconception that women’s liberation is the  “aim for women to be equal to men and women to attain the male equivalent of rights and treatment” (Ueno, Inoue, Ehara, 1994, p.3) comes from the preceding women’s movements that had centered around “women who wanted their existence to be recognized by men” (Ueno, Inoue, Ehara 1994, p.4) These women were usually elite wives, mothers, and homemakers who excluded other women with lower class or with “deplorable” jobs such as sex work. In contrast to the 主婦連 (shufuren-organization of housewives) or 母親大会 (hahaoya taikai -band of mothers) that came before this movement, 女性解放 (jyoseikaihou) and  ウーマンリブ (uman ribu) were deliberately titled to free all “女 (onna-woman)” devoid of any other labels or required social positioning. They emphasized that they did not want to be men, behave like men, or raise women’s position to that of men, but rather “the リブ (ribu-liberation)” would allow them to free themselves from the very notion that men were deemed the norm and standard of society that women must equalize themselves to.

The usage of the words “フェミニズム (feminizumu)” and “フェミニスト(feminisuto)” came about as a means to combat the backlash that the ウーマンリブ(uman ribu) had experienced. Tamiko Ehara, a leading figure in the Japanese women’s liberation movement stated that “there are few movements that have received such social stigma and opposition from society as did the beginning of the リブ(ribu) movement and their voices” (Ueno, Inoue, Ehara, 1994, p.2). In 1970s mass media, the リブ (ribu) movement and those who pertained to it were described as “全ブス連(zennbusurenn- all ugly team)” and “モテない女のヒステリー(motenai onnna no histeri— the hysteria of unattractive women” (Ueno, Inoue, Ehara, 1994, p.2). The women’s movement needed a new term like feminizumu that had not been overused in negative contexts. Japanese feminists at the time also confirmed the historical correlation of their women’s liberation movement with what was labeled as the “first wave feminist” movement and had the intention of recognizing Japanese women’s movement on the spectrum of the world’s “second wave feminist” movement.

Ueno Chizuko argues that although women’s liberation in Japan is often thought of as an entirely imported concept, the Japanese ウーマンリブ (uman ribu- women’s liberation) had specific goals, historical backgrounds, and successors that are particular to Japan (Ueno, Inoue, Ehara, 1994). She also attributes this misconception to the xenophobic society and its notion that “all things worthy of denial come from foreign countries” (Ueno, Inoue, Ehara, 1994, p.10).

Thus, contemporary feminism in Japan and the usage of the word  “フェミニズム” (feminizumu) emerged during the 1970s along with the zeal of the second wave movement in the west. A small number of frustrated radical women activists formed small groups which functioned as the core of the movement in urban areas throughout Japan. Their purpose was not dissimilar to that of the United States and Britain, in that they criticized sexism in family and work, additionally questioning the position of women as a mere source of reproduction in Japan’s rapidly industrializing society. A clear dissimilarity between the movement in Japan and the American feminist movement of the 1970s was the lack of a unifying national organization. Whereas the United States had the National Organization for women or NOW to structure, develop, and guide a mutual comprehensive theory within the movement, the Japanese ウーマンリブ (uman ribu) feminists lacked a base to broaden its reach to the mass (Matsui, 2002). This was to an extent deliberate, as they aimed to show resentment towards organized and structural groups, further kindled by an anarchist and anti-establishment spirit towards the conservative Japanese government and any hierarchal and structural organizations. Within the conservative government and also presumably society of the time, their anarchist views were seen and portrayed as extremist and radical. For this, even more so than in the United States or Britain, feminism eventually became associated with anti-establishment related progressivism and radicalism (Matsui, 2002). This anti-establishment image which in fact emerged long before the 1970s still influences the modern image of feminism in Japan today.


Analysis of Google Search for “feminism”

Most of the results and definitions of the English word feminism defined the word as either an ideology, theory or movement for the social, political, and economical equality of the sexes. Yet, the extent in which rights, opportunities, and overall advancement for women was especially emphasized, varied. Moreover, many of the articles discussed the movement and the extent of its exclusivity or inclusivity. The Google Search for “feminism” also revealed a major debate within the English discourse of feminism and defining the word. The essential controversy seems to be between three different conceptualizations of the word. One viewpoint is that of those who continue to believe feminism is unnecessary or misandristic. Another is that of those who claim “feminism” signifies equality for all, advocating that feminism is an inclusive movement for the equality of the sexes. Another, which usually criticizes the former definition of the word, argues that feminism has strayed from the ideology to become excessively fashionable or “tribal,” diminishing the essence of feminism for women and pertaining to mere identification rather than action.

The first conceptualization of the word is that feminism is a gender biased movement that is only advantageous to women. Usually this perception of the word is accompanied with the belief that “feminists” are man-hating and believe women to be superior to men. This belief is shown in 3 out of 20 of the results in the Google Search. The Urban Dictionary result (4) had various examples of this viewpoint. One of the entries stated that feminism “used to be about women getting the same rights as men. The feminists need to realize that women are not better than men (Urban Dictionary, 2017).” Another entry characterized feminists as “man-hating, angry, and entitled for no reason (Urban Dictionary, 2017).” The other two results that mentioned this negative perception were to point them out as erroneous. Kathy Caprino’s article (14), is called “What is feminism. And Why do So Many Women and Men Hate it?” She acknowledges the fact that there are men and women who “hate” feminism and attempt to deconstruct the reason behind this contempt. She states that the hatred comes from the association of feminism with strong, angry women  who will overturn the existing power dynamic to ultimately control the world and put men down. To negate these beliefs, she later quotes several dictionaries to make a point that feminism is about equality. The other minor mention is in the Harper’s Bazaar article (13) which solely begins a sentence by saying, “For all its misconceptions, feminism at its core is about fighting for women’s equality (Harper’s Bazaar, 2017).” Again, there is acknowledgement that feminism is often misunderstood or perceived negatively.

Despite this negative perception being asserted or mentioned in 3 out of the 20 results, the majority of the results define feminism as “a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes (Wikipedia, 2017).” Although the definitions vary slightly, 9 out of 20 (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 14) of the results have similar definitions which emphasize equality for the sexes. Furthermore, popular books like Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks (3) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous April 2017 “We should all be feminists” speech mentioned in the Ted Talk page (11) have advocated an all-inclusive feminism that is regardless of gender. This means that feminism is not only limited to women’s rights, but also the elimination of gendered practices and stereotypes that would also benefit men.

The last viewpoint is that feminism is a movement by women, for women. There were websites that emphasized feminism as “any ideology that seeks total equality in rights for women and people who self-identify as women, usually through improving the status of females (Rational Wiki, 2017).” This view states that feminism particularly focuses on issues that disproportionately put women at a disadvantage. There were 5 articles (9, 13, 12, 18) that had similar definitions, defining feminism as “equality for women”. Furthermore, the “equality for all sexes” stance often seems to be criticized by those who believe feminism is “equality for women”. This opinion is epitomized in the opinion article called,  “Nothing says misogyny like defining feminism as equality for all” (19) by Marcie Bianco, the managing editor of the Clayman Institute of Gender Research at Stanford University. She states, “We cannot address or end the systemic oppression of women if we refuse to center women in that fight (Bianco, 2017).” She argues that equality for the sexes inevitably means that the movement needs to be primarily about women instead of the increasingly popular and fashionable “equality for all genders” definition which in her opinion has been the “cause of the stalled gender revolution.”

There are websites which gave more than one definition, mentioning both “the equality of sexes” and “equality for women.”  These were mostly dictionary websites (1 ,2 , 5, 6, 7, 14, 15, 17). The fact that all of the dictionaries mentioned two definitions is also telling of the current debate on the significance of the word.


Comparison of Google Search Studies

It is undeniable that the internet’s opinion and Google Search results do change constantly and rapidly. Despite this, the results analyzed from October 2, 2017 give an insight into the complexity of defining the word “feminism” and “ フェミニズム feminizumu” in a modern context. Even in the 20 Google search results for the English and Japanese word, there is ongoing dubiety over who gets to claim it, what it is for, and what the definition for the word should be. Yet, it can be said that depending on the language, the way in which each of the terms are discussed are significantly different.

It seems that the debate surrounding the Japanese word is one step or several steps behind the English term. Although in an English context, most dictionaries mention “equality of the sexes”, this is still debated over when it is in a Japanese context. In the Japanese “フェミニズム feminizumu,” there is often an absence of the notion that feminism is women’s advancement in order to achieve equality of the sexes (which is more visible in an English context). This makes the word “フェミニズム feminizumu” susceptible to its conceptualization as an ideology that gives women more privileges, rights, and dominance over men. This negative perception of the word is more visible in the Japanese search result (8 out of 20) than in the English (3 out of 20). Because most English dictionaries, and consequently more people have likely accepted that feminism is for equality, modern “feminism” seems to be more accepted by not only individuals but by popular figures and media.

Despite its increasing commonness, the English terms “feminism” and “feminist” and its usage have its own debate. Because of the popularization of all-inclusive feminism that fights for “equality of the sexes” in Western context, some argue that there has been a decentralization of the movement from women and actual progress. “Fempowertising” and “performative feminists” are some of the terms used to criticize the lack of actual feminist thought within popular feminism. “Fempowertising” refers to the use of feminism or feminist images to sell or advertise items. Ann Ziegler, founder of bitchmedia, a feminist media organization says, “Right now, especially in the wake of the election, there are many more brands that are really grabbing onto feminism and being like, OK, this is a good way to sell products that have nothing to do with feminism or progress. Marketplace feminism comes to steal the show from more explicit active feminism (USA Today, 2017).”

“Performative feminists” usually refers to people who claim they are feminist but lack the knowledge or actions which feminism are associated with.  Both of these critiques exist because of the dissemination of feminism and feminist belief in popular culture, SNS, and general media, which has trivialized the term for some. Whereas Japanese “フェミニズム” (feminizumu) is at the point of discussing whether the movement is for the equality of the sexes, English “feminism” seems to have gone past that argument and gone back to the centralization of the movement for women.



The debate over the definition of feminism in both the English and Japanese context is still continuing. Feminism has numerous ongoing movements that continuously shape and reshape the various perceptions of the word. In both an English and Japanese context, the problem is that feminism is not only an ideology or philosophy, but also a movement and identity which individuals identify with and act on. Therefore, despite the strengthened normalization of feminism as being for equality of the sexes, there are still many who repudiate feminism and negate its necessity. Moreover, the country or language that the discourse on feminism is taking place in, largely affects the definition or perception of the word. The definition of feminism may be unresolved, but examining the debate on what feminism is, analyzing the reasons why women’s movements are often perceived negatively, and questioning the actual meaning of equality is what may bring the world one step closer to true gender equality.





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