Otake Kōkichi (1893-1966), was a queer feminist artist and writer who challenged sexual identities while refusing the "good wife, wise mother" (良妻賢母 ryōsai kenbo) standard for women. Born in Osaka, she was given the name Otake Kazue. After attending art school and Japan's Women's College, she joined the feminist Bluestocking society and began writing and drawing for their publication, Bluestocking (青鞜, Seitō) in 1911, using the name Otake Kōkichi. Around the same time, she began a public love affair with Hiratsuka Raichō, another woman in the Bluestocking group. Mainstream press sensationalized their relationship and Otake and Hiratsuka dressed in masculine clothes and used masculine language with each other. Otake drew public scrutiny for writing about casually drinking (and liking) alcohol in ways that were imagined as masculine as well as writing on behalf of women sex workers. The scrutiny was harsh enough that Otake decided to step away from such public writing. In 1914, she met and married Tomimoto Kenkichi, a ceramicist, eventually having two daughters. The couple began to live apart when Otake would not conform to the restrictive model of "good wife, wise mother" and because Tomimoto supported Japan's imperial expansion. They divorced after World War II and Otake began again to use the name Kōkichi. Her life story emphasizes the gaps between contemporary American terminology for and understandings about gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and those in operating in Otake's lifetime in Japan.
"Access to Western feminist and sexological material was important to Japanese feminists. One of the most widely discussed examples of this, from the time when Otake was in the public eye, was a moment of widespread feminist interest in A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. The idea of prioritizing women’s self-actualization over their roles as mothers and wives was treated as an existential threat by social conservatives, and provided ample fodder for beginning a series of attacks on the Feminist writers who were examining it as progressive content. When Otake decided on her own to interview the actors bringing the play to Japanese audiences she came away with the, at-the-time unusual, opinion that marriage should be between two people who had their own ideals rather than requiring a woman to accept the beliefs of her husband and father. She argued in her article detailing her interview with the actors that women, like Ibsen’s character Nora, should begin their self-exploration with a questioning of the apparent givens of sexuality. Otake Kōkichi’s gender presentation fit the image of ‘dandyism’ that the press associated with the threat of Noraism, and, in fact, the ‘New Women’ in general." Alexandrea Loop, Literary Lesbian Liberation, page 54.
"In Japan, this practice of cultural cross-dressing allowed members of Seitōsha [the Bluestocking Society] to merge recognizable stereotypes, such as the flamboyant Wildean aesthete, with their own stereotype in the making, the atarashii onna (new woman) who acts, and sometimes looks, like a man. [...] Borrowing clothes, like borrowing texts, was a gesture of appropriation that declared a new identity and a range of sexual and political choices for women as well as men." Beverley Curran and James Welker, From The Well of Loneliness to the akarui rezubian [cheerful lesbian], page 72.
Throughout my research and during my initial sketches of Otake Kokichi (Otake Kazue), I became increasingly frustrated as I failed to find what I was searching for.
Who WAS this person, really? Why was it so difficult for me to find images of her art? Why couldn't I easily find a description of who she was, in her own words?
Despite the fact that Kokichi was known as a trailblazing, queer feminist, a lot of the information I found about her and her life appears filtered through a patriarchal lens.
Instead of acknowledging the breadth of queerness in gender and sexuality, her sexuality (when discussed in the context of her divorce from her ex-husband) is reduced to "lesbian tendencies."
Although Kokichi seemed very comfortable dressing and presenting as masculine (especially in her relationship with Hiratsuka) there doesn't seem to be any acknowledgement that this was perhaps sincere and not something done as a performance for others. From a modern point of view—albeit informed by the limitations of contemporary Western queer vernacular—Kokichi appears to have the gender presentation of someone who today would possibly identify as butch, genderqueer or transmasculine. She was a threat to the status quo then, and would still be a threat to the status quo today.
In this painting, I am reflecting the limitations of the gender binary back to the viewer. Kokichi's face is divided in half. You may even view her as two different people. Much like she was either celebrated or vilified, it all depends on the viewer's lens.
Is she a troublemaker? Masculine? Feminine? Immoral? A mother?
Using vibrant color and contrast, I wanted to create a sense of uncertainty in the viewer. Life was not easy for avowed feminists in the early 1900s in Japan, with every movement and action seemingly scrutinized or shunned. It's difficult to escape the parallels with how LGBTQ+ and marginalized people are still treated today.
For further learning
- Hiroko Tomida. 2021."Hiratsuka Raichō, the Seitō Society, and the Emergence of the New Woman in Japan." In, Japanese Women: Emerging from Subservience, 1868–1945, Hiroko Tomida and Gordon Daniels, eds. Brill.
- Alexandra Loop. 2020. Literary Lesbian Liberation: Two Case Studies Interrogating How Queerness has Manifested in Japanese Valeu Construction through History. MA Thesis. McMaster University.
- Beverley Curran and James Welker. "From The Well of Loneliness to the akarui rezubian: Western translations and Japanese lesbian identities." In,
- 渡辺 澄子 [Watanabe, Sumiko]. 2001. 「青鞜の女・尾竹紅吉伝」[Women of Bluestocking: A Biography of Otake Kōkichi]. 不二出版
An Asian-American artist of Uchinaanchu descent, Nancy Nishihira graduated with honors from Oakland University where she majored in Studio Art and Asian Studies.
Recently Nishihira has had their writing and photographs published in the inaugural issue of Shimanchu Nu Kwii. She was also featured in the local poetry anthology Untold Stories of Liberation & Love.
Additionally, Nishihira is a longtime musician and singer/songwriter. Her music can be found on multiple streaming sites including Bandcamp and Soundcloud.