Kanno Sugako, the first woman executed as a political prisoner in modern Japanese history, not only deserves a place in revolutionary memory but also, more particularly, in the intersection of transnational feminism, socialism, and anarchism. This essay is the first part of a written series for Women’s History month.
It is difficult to address the inherently problematic nature of patriarchy and patriotism without drawing attention to the concepts of respectability and treason as well. But Kanno’s life does both. She was raped as a young teenager, which consequently strengthened her commitment to women’s rights advocacy, especially after reading the work of an anarchist writer who counseled rape victims to cast aside any guilt and dishonor society has conditioned them to feel. Kanno later founded an activist publication covering women’s suffrage and peace movements and the issues of women in mines, mills, brothels, etc. — only to be shunned by nationalist-feminists who argued that loyalty to Japan was integral to the feminist cause and that they must work within a capitalist framework to achieve equality with men. To this limited movement, Kanno Sugako was a traitorous outlaw on an entirely different page of thinking.
They were right, of course. In fact, Kanno was not reading the same book or even located in the same library as these people, because she believed that women, and everyone oppressed, should find power fundamentally different from the male-dictated, capitalist version of power. Through this lens, it follows that today’s progressives, regardless of gender, must learn from the likes of Alice Walker’s womanism, which Bilphena Yahwon describes as “seeking to deconstruct all forms of oppression [and] not to be equal with oppressors/men”. Feminism, in and of itself, is not radical enough.
Perhaps most indicative of how Kanno viewed the world lies in the name of her publication: Women of the World. Undoubtedly derived from the famous political slogan espoused by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (“Workers of the World, Unite!”), her publication constantly faced police harassment, and in 1909, it was permanently shut down. Following a socialist-anarchist rally in which Kanno and her comrades were eventually imprisoned and tortured, she became disillusioned with peaceful methods and focused on planning “an act of violence that would shake the entire nation to its symbolic foundations” — a plot known today as The High Treason Incident or the Kōtoku Incident.
Simply put, the goal of the plot was to assassinate Japanese Emperor Meiji. Instead, the plan directly resulted in the mass arrest of leftists, twenty-four death sentences based largely on circumstantial evidence, and, ultimately, the execution of twelve alleged conspirators, including Kanno. The incident also spurred the Public Security Preservation laws, which heightened governmental repression of political dissent and/or opposition to the Meiji oligarchy.
Between the time of the pronounced death sentence and her physical execution, Kanno wrote a piece, titled “Reflections on the Way to the Gallows”, which speaks to her exceptional courage and thoughtfulness in the face of (certain) death. Her only concern during this time was to see as many of her fellow defendants saved as possible despite all the odds against them. Indeed, Kanno reminded the world that history is written by the victors and declared that the affair should be labeled a conspiracy of the public prosecutors instead of a conspiracy of the anarchists; the latter designation was used by the authorities to arrest people who had nothing to do with the assassination attempt. So dehumanizing and authoritative is patriotic fervor that Kanno herself admitted: “I was afraid that the supporters of the emperor and champions of patriotism might dig up my corpse and hack it to bits”.
Today, the light of Kanno Sugako shines in the spirit of rallying cries like “the future is female” (hypocritically used by Hillary Clinton and her supporters) which, contrary to popular belief, do “not mean female over male, nor is it trans-misogynist”. Rather, they allude to “a world that is emotionally intelligent…collaborative…in which we are linked and not ranked” — a world holistically incompatible with individualistic commercialization. While its proponents like to argue that it is a free system allowing everyone to become their best selves, capitalism, by its very definition, is a human ladder in which stepping over another person is necessary to even access natural resources like water.
Because of this reality, the individual who goes from rags to riches is not an example of what a person can accomplish through hard work but an example of what a human being can get in a cutthroat society if they ignore the exploitation that puts so many of their own brothers and sisters in a difficult position to begin with. As such, many on the left, myself included, are as guilty of throwing struggling workers under the bus as the staunchest of Republicans.
What else is it that we are doing when we label entire communities as “underperforming”, which wrongly equates wealth with progress, or when we compete with each other to come up with better sob stories about a group, in order to garner the most philanthropic support — even though we know full well how elitist language and patronizing pity others the very folks we are trying to help?
At the very least, this question is worth some self-reflection.