One of my favorite texts is Mikiso Hane’s 1988 book, Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan. This work draws from the personal diaries and historical records of Japanese women activists during Japan’s Meiji Restoration period, which ended at the outset of World War II. A time that saw the flourishing of women’s movements even in the midst of intense government repression.
For background, a summary of the Meiji Civil Code of 1898 is instructive:
[This code] gave the head of the extended family (which included his married sons and their families, his unmarried sons and daughters, as well as his unmarried brothers and sisters) virtually absolute authority. Now that traditional class distinctions were no longer legally recognized, the legal provisions encompassed all classes. The rights of women of all social classes were restricted, in line with traditional samurai practice. The more liberal practices that prevailed among the Tokugawa townspeople were eliminated. For example, primogeniture was now mandated for all classes. The head of the extended household was given the right to control the family property, determine the place of residence of each household member, and approve or disapprove marriages and divorces. The wife was treated as a minor and was placed under the absolute authority of the household head and of her own husband. One of the provisions held that “cripples and disabled persons and wives cannot undertake any legal action.” Needless to say, the wife was without property rights.
—Reflections on the Way to the Gallows (Hane)
In this climate, Japanese women organized meetings, published journals, networked internationally—one example being the alliance of Kaneko Fumiko with Korean anarchist Pak Yeol—and fought for labor rights. Consistently, they found ways both direct and underground to access socialist and anarcho-syndicalist literature in Japan. Women’s involvement in any political movement, and indeed people’s political selves, are fraught with contradictions.
In a journal entry, Kaneko wrote about the contradictions between people’s political involvement and how they conducted themselves in their personal lives. She also voiced her disappointment when activists whom she loved and admired faltered in the praxis of self-professed political leanings:
I used to believe that those who adhered to certain isms were a special kind of people, that they were outstanding. Now I felt that I had been a fool to indulge in such a fantasy. I felt disillusioned, as if I had just awakened from a beautiful dream to find myself dumped in a sewer.
—Reflections on the Way to the Gallows (Hane)
To believe in something is to be vulnerable. To see change where it is not yet visible. To see beyond the visible. To love.
In an earlier post, I wrote about how it’s okay to stay. Those who live hearts out, breathing, alive, and aware of the world around them will see possibility where others see walls, unscalable thickets, Gordian knots and oubliettes of that willful amnesia we sometimes mistake for survival. I want to re-consider what participation looks like, how it’s defined. Trenka, also quoted in the above linked post, suggests people go back with a furious heart to an imaginal place that, if you’re lucky, can still be found in your geocaching games with x and y coordinates. But, anyone who has chased an emotional notion of the past knows that when you get there, to that place, that post office box, that small shack at the end of a nondescript dirt road, that place has in fact moved on without you.
The trees, the dirt itself, its topsoil, the insects hopefully still thriving within it, the air, the sounds, the stillness, the movement. I have met people who are so obviously trying to make up for a past that, by its very nature, cannot be “made up”, cannot reside in the present. I have been heartbroken by seeking my reflection in a mirror that no longer exists. That is what we do when we ascribe place with the hallowed significance of our wholeness. That wholeness travels if place becomes the key to integration. In fact, for many of us with murky origins, place just becomes the last warmest trace of an elusive animal before its trail went cold.
Robert Sapolsky describes perfectly what it was for me to return to Korea, for the second time, as an adult in one of the most tender, vulnerable, to-the-quick funny run-on sentences I’ve read. It’s inspired by his pilgrimage to the resting place of someone who in many ways sparked his own career path, words he felt upon arriving at the late zoologist Dian Fossey’s gravesite:
Fossey, Fossey, you cranky difficult strong-arming self-destructive misanthrope, mediocre scientist, deceiver of earnest college students, probable cause of more deaths of the gorillas than if you had never set foot in Rwanda, Fossey, you pain-in-the-ass saint, I do not believe in prayers or souls, but I will pray for your soul, I will remember you for all of my days, in gratitude for that moment by the graves when all I felt was the pure, cleansing sadness of returning home and finding nothing but ghosts.
—A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life among the Baboons