Ripples of Change
Japanese Women’s Search for Self

A film by Nanako Kurihara
57 minutes
Color, VHS 16mm

Powerful political analysis is combined with a passionate personal story in this
exceptional documentary about the Japanese women’s liberation movement in
the 1970’s and its influence on contemporary Japanese society. Director Nanako
Kurihara left her homeland in the 1980’s, frustrated by the lack of interesting
roles for women in Japan. In New York, she met a Japanese woman who had
been involved in the women’s liberation movement in Japan in the 1970’s.
Kurihara returned to Japan, bringing together interviews with veterans of the
movement, fascinating archival footage and her personal impressions to produce
a film which explores the meaning of the liberation movement, the factors that
motivated it and the effect it has had on people’s attitudes. "Ripples of Change"
is an excellent resource for the study of global feminism, women’s roles and
Japanese society.

As a 1994 article about the filmmaker points out, Kurihara Nanako, "A journalist and dance scholar, Kurihara, now 37, knew little about the movement known as Woman Lib before she met Fumiko Yamato, a former Lib activist who had become a photojournalist in New York. Yamato, who died of lung cancer at age 39, became Kurihara's first truly intimate friend; together, they formed a community of two. 'She's really the first person I could relate to in a very deep way in my whole life. I probably won't be able to find somebody like that ever. . . . In a way, I think, if she didn't die, I might not have really made this. Because that kind of really shocked . . . me into doing this,' Kurihara said.

Her approach was to travel to Japan and seek out women who had been part of the early 1970s "women's Lib" movement. What she found was a movement that was different in its approach from Western feminism - one that put more stress on personal than political change. According to Kurihara's film narration, Japanese feminists decided that "the only way to change such a rigid society was to change themselves." That kind of change was "very, very slow," Kurihara said. And, it seemed at the time, ephemeral. Woman Lib itself lasted only five years, before its leaders grew exhausted and the Japanese government itself appropriated some of its ideas.

Kurihara was surprised to find the movement's onetime leader, Mitsu Tanaka, now working as an acupuncturist. Fumiko's sister, Setsuko Yamato, who had attended a Lib retreat in 1972, was scrubbing floors as a hospital custodian. And Tomoko Murakami, who founded a communal child-care center, was quietly raising two out-of-wedlock children with their father, whom she never married. In talking to her subjects, Kurihara sensed that, for these women, Woman Lib was not just something that happened in the past. "These women are still doing it - that's my idea, and they're thinking in this way, too," Kurihara said. "They're continuing, in their own way." See

The film features unique footage of "Lib" demonstrations and interviews with participants. I think the shots of the "Lib Camp" in Nagano were among the most interesting; also, there is the interview with Tanaka Mitsu, organizer of the "Fighting Women Group"(Gruppu Tatakau Onna) and author of the pamphlet, "Liberation from the Toilet" (Benjo kara no kaiho).


Some lines from the film that stood out to me:

1.Tanaka Mitsu talks about feeling unworthy all the time--"I thought I ought to be making a noble effort to change society. But then I would go home and all I could think about was that there was something wrong with me. I couldn't find a decent boyfriend; maybe I wasn't pretty enough. I had all these female problems that I could not talk to anyone about. I didn't really feel like I was the kind of 'human being' that men were always talking about. I couldn't contribute to a discussion with them. I had to start as a woman. Since everything was so far away from my daily life, I had no language for it. We just didn't have the language, the vocabulary, for the kind of conversation that we needed to have. . . ." The narrator comments that Tanaka was sexually abused when she was only seven years old. All of the social movements in which she had engaged had offered her nothing for her personal struggles. That realization inspired her to start the Women's Lib Movement.

Tanaka goes on: "I guess it was because of the abuse and the fact that I learned when I was just 23 years old that I might have contracted syphylis. So I just felt dirly, as though I had been soiled (本当に汚れた女だという). I really felt that if I could not find a voice in which to express something positive, I might just go over the edge. But then I realized that the feelings I had about the kind of person I was were not my fault. They were brought about because of the society we live in, especially because of the male consciousness in particular. So I suddenly saw that there were good reasons for my misery. The clouds just lifted....and somehow I realized that I am beautiful. My life is beautiful. I was filled with a feeling that I wanted to make my life beautiful. These are the feelings that I was overwhelmed with when I wrote the pamphlet, 'Liberation from the Toilet'." [Kurihara refers to the pamphlet as "A Toilet No More" but the actual title is "Liberation from the Toilet.]

2. Family life in Japan is controlled by women. Men are married to their companies, women to their children. Many women like this power but it's uneven. Men don't have to sully themselves with day-to-day decisions about the family budget. In relationships between men and women, love is not important. Marriage is about the practical things, the household budget, the kids, the family. Boredom and lack of love are not grounds for divorce in Japan.

3. Funamoto Emiko, founder of the important journal, Onna Eros, in 1973, believed that women needed a network of communication. "We wanted to write." They needed to write and explore themselves as Kate Millett and Betty Friedan had done. Women needed to talk and write about themselves but they had no outlets. Publishers were not interested. So, they decided to do it themselves and she founded her own journal. "We really wanted to express our ideas. We wanted to create a rich, full vision of women. First you have to talk about yourself and analyze your situation. That was the purpose of the magazine. Many different women writing in their own words. That was it. Self-expression." But she kept an executive position in an ad agency even though they tried to freeze her out for two whole years by never assigning her any projects or accounts. "They wouldn't give me any work. but they never said anything to me directly. They just wouldn't talk to me and ignored me.If they had done anything directly, I could have fought back....Just being there was a way of fighting back, I think. It went on for about two years." If she had given in and quit, she could only have gotten part-time work at about one-fifth of her salary.

4. So it becomes a theme that women have to start with themselves first, who they are. Instead of demanding changes in society, Lib Women seemed to emphasize changing their own lives first. Since women are so integrated into the society in their roles as mothers and stewards of the home, the changes they make will have a "ripple" effect over time throughout society. Men and the whole soceity would be transformed if women could just change themselves.

Tanaka Mitsu notes that in the beginning there was a lot of "Watashi ga. . .Watashi ga. . ." type of utterances, in other words, "'I' this and 'I' that." It had to be about "me" at first but this was difficult in Japan because it's so easy to be labeled "selfish" if you speak that way and assert your own agency. "But that 'I' was really the most important issue. We believed that if we started on a small scale, with just ourselves, we could gradually get to the point of unravelling the legal system, the nation, or the whole world. That's how we eventually worked up to fighting against the Eugenics Protection Law." Tanaka Mitsu led a protest in the Ministry of Health and the film showm them fighting back against the police hard when they tried to remove the women. They also challenged the bill all over the country saying "Create a society where women want to have babies" and two years later, the bill was defeated.

Tanaka Mitsu also appears in the 30 Years of Sisterhood documentary film project made a few years later and here are some of the lines that she speaks onscreen in that film:

I don’t know if they were conscious of it or not, but the women who came to the [Lib] camp were finally able to utter words that had somehow been stuck or "clogged" deep down in their throats (nodo no oku ni tsumekonde-ita kotoba ga yatto dasete, 喉の奥に詰め込でた 言葉がやっとう出せて) for such a long time, words they had not been able to get out before.  By speaking out, they weree able to become more aware of what they wanted, of what their hopes and desires (kibô, yokubo) were.  [Note: How Tanaka uses words like anoo, koo, ima made no the thinks and struggles to actually come up with the right words to express the idea she is trying to get across. It seems that this is evidence that still, many years later, it was still hard to find the language that can actually capture the feelings that were generated in the early 1970s. As we see below, she talks about how through action, certain things become visible or come in to your perspective (行動することによって、見えてくる) and I note how Kishino uses that same perspective in the title of her memoir Things Visible (見えてきた物) from a Woman's Perspective. ]

You realize things by DOING them, not by figuring them out in your head in advance.  Action leads you to see things anew.  We experienced this feeling of a natural high. We had this overwhelming feeling: the future was on OUR side.  This feeling floated all over the whole camp.  We expressed the feeling that each of us had power and I felt that this was very meaningful. 

When our movement started, many people thought that society had already become gender-equal and that discrimination had been ended after WWII.  We tried to keep a fire going when there was no smoke.  We kept going so that the smoke we generated would not disappear.  They were, like me, women who might be a little hasty, who had no status to lose, and who had felt the stinging pain of being women.  We were strong and brought good intuition, but it was not logic (rikutsu).  It was based on the deep feeling that we were directing our own era, our future, our hopes.  If we didn’t do it, who would?  But it was very tough (taihen datta!).

On the performances of the Silly Pumpkin Theatre:

It was for anybody—they might not have known any books on women’s liberation, but simply hated the arrogance of men—hated the feeling that when their father came home from work, they felt it grow dark—or they were discriminated against at work.  Ordinary people could see our performances and think, “Yes, that is right.” 

One of the main issues that attracted Doi Yumi to the movement was the struggle for freedom from the traditional family system. Of course, that included relationship between men and women but is was also about how the whole role of a daughter (musume) was defined.

Tanaka Mitsu again: "Many young people these days feel that there is no place for them in society (居場所がない).  Even people in their 30s and 40s are wandering around, lost.  Their problem seems to be that they just cannot find their place in the family or at work.  I think you should have your own place within yourself.  Even if everyone in the world speaks ill of you, you can still accept yourself.  You have to become the prime supporter of yourself.  The New Left looked down on us.  Onna [women]. Boo, Hiss! I asked myself so many times, 'Is it really OK to live as “a Lib'?" Tanaka then talked about "My wonderful self (すてきな私) and my not so wonderful self (すてきじゃない私); they are both myself.  This is the base on which I stand.  It was very important to me that I created that base by being in Lib.  It was great for me that I had been a Lib person because the movement gave me the determination not to be anyone else but me." 

Also in the 30 Years of Sisterhood DVD, Akiyama Yoko recalls how "We began to talk about ourselves and about women's issues. We wanted to write for ourselves." And, also, she says that "We finally got to say what we felt. There would not be so many interesting women (who are attending the reunion) if it hadn't been for the Lib Movement."

Moreover, Watanabe Fumie who, like Yoshitake, had been raped, though in her case it was by fellow students during the student struggle of the late 1960s, talked about how she used to blame herself and she could not understand why the man who raped her was not driven out of the student movement. What was wrong here? Why did she feel this way? Finally, she arrived at some understanding when she read Komashaku Kimi's book Witch's Logic which exposed her to the idea of the "master-servant" relationship upon which the patriarchy thrives.

You might remember Komashaku Kimi's name from Ch. 4, the Kishino Junko chapter, in Changing Lives (pp. 136-137). She was a good friend of Kishino's and basically introduced her to the Lib Movement and urged her to jump in and participate. Do you remember? They went out to dinner together to celebrate their 40th birthdays and they began having deep conversations on women's issues, literature, life, etc. Like Kishino, Komashaku was one of those older women (in her 40s; Komashaku was actually a few years older than Kishino) drawn to the movement; Kishino considered Komashaku more deeply committed to the women's lib than she herself was. Initially, anyway. Kishino had her reservations; she found all the direct sharing of deeply personal stories by Tanaka and the other women a little too unnerving. She was not sure that she was prepared to go that far. But, she went ahead and joined some of those discussion meetings where they talked about their lives, and about women's bodies and how male-female relationships were protrayed in literature, etc. This was Komashaku's particular forte for she was an active literary critic and a professor. She has published many books of literary criticism from a feminist perspective using the of the image of the "witch" to typify the unruly female critic who offers a different perspective on literature from that offered by the typical male gaze. In the end, this did appeal to Kishino and she went "all in." The result was that a "real picture of women as historically, socially and psychologically oppressed took shape in my mind...I think I can say that through these kinds of efforts I was able to change directions in my life as I sought a new way to liberate myself and live independently among women with whom I felt the bond of sisterhood." (Changing Lives, p. 138)

Here are more appearences and comments from 30 Years of Sisterhood:

Wakabyashi Naeko recalls how her mother used to complain about her relationship with her mother-in-law and would say that it was only because of us kids that she didn't get divorced.  When on Oct 21st, 1970, and the first Women's Lib demonstration she saw the banner, "Were your Mother's marraiges Really Happy?" "I felt that I found someone who felt the same way [as I did]!" The connection was powerful for her. "So I joined the women's Lib Movement."

For Miki Soko, "After I met the women in the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM), I didn't feel alone anymore. I knew that somewhere there was someone like me.” 

Narrator: "In October 2003,there was a gathering of women in in Nakaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture. These women had first met during the women's Lib Movement in the 1970s. They have taken action against a sexist society and tried to live as freely as they could. How did they meet each other? What have their lives been like? "

Kitamura Mitsuko: "We women Liberationists are speaking about our stories. Each woman's hersotry is connected to another woman's. It has been that way for 4,000 years.  We are a part of world heritage.”

Miko Soko: “I had been a part of the left wing of the WLM.  I wanted to free not only myself but all women.  I wanted to put an end to the dominant system of gender relations which holds that women must be at home and men be at work.” When she got married, she and her husband divided up the chores but even here "we were still following gender roles. I asked some married friends about it but they didn't question the gender roles; not were they angry about it. That made me feel all alone."

Kuno Ayako had been working for a newspaper in Nagoya and realized that women were suffering wage discrimination. They formed their own collective bargaining unit and had a "women-only negotiation meeting at the Tokyo bureau. Ours was the first women-only collective bargaining so we published a brochure about our struggle. We intentionally used 'Women's Rebellion' for the title. Onna no kaiho. The word onna wa spelled phonetically in hiragana. The word onna was pereceived to be sexually suggestive."

Wakabayashi Naeko recalled how women during the 1960s student movement “Women were not playing major roles in it. Women were told to bring rice balls to the barricades.  I felt there was something was wrong, but didn't make a big deal of it. It was so easy just to be obedient.” 

Doi Yumi joined the Lib Movement as a high-school teenager in Tokyo.  There were lots of progressive high-schools in Tokyo at the time so she ignored the whole university exam grind and became an activist but she noted how the boys had their pretty little preppy girlfriends with al their make up while we did the behind-the-scenes jobs for them.  My freedom would not have a future with these boys,” she concluded.

Mori Sestuko, who sits at a table with Asakawa Mariko (one of the pioneers who, along with Tanaka Mitsu formed the Group Tatakau Onna or “Group: Fighting Women”) and Fujimoto Yoshiko, talks about how she had been a student at Tama Arts College and also spent time at the barricades with the male students.  But she was different.  She refused to wash dishes for them even though other women did.  She says “I was angry at that whole system.  Then the Riot Drill Incident occurred.”  This was a reference to training to hit the Kidôtai, the special riot police, with long poles.  She wanted no part of it. “It was wrong, so I quit.”

Some like-minded young women got together and discussed their frustrations and the result was a decision to form their own women’s group.“We were despised by men.  It had nothing to do with our abilities; we just happened to have vaginas.”  So a few of the women formed the “Ideological Collective S-E-X,” a very in-your-face name.

It was around the same time that Tanaka Mitsu had just written her “Liberation from the Toilet” pamphlet which talked about the two competing images of women in Japanese society: the tenderhearted mother figure with her maternal love and the tool to satisfy men’s sexual needs, i.e., the toilet.

Tanaka speaks on screen:

“Who am I?  I am the woman whom society portrays as an object.  I am the woman who nobody knows but me.  It is as though there is this self that is invisible to the world. (世の中から見られていないところで感じた自分).  When somebody looks at me, I have to put on an act to some extent.  I pretend to be someone else.  I pull myself out from the inside; and then I let out a deep sigh when no one is looking at me.  I feel just like I have been torn in two (分裂した bunretsu shita—the same expression Kishino Junko used; see Changing Lives p. 113).   One thing is clear: I don’t want to be anyone else but me.  I thought I could meet the Self I wanted to find by searching along the road that I had traveled to become the person who is nobody but me.” There was something very energizing about these "lib camps," Tanaka recalled: "We experienced the feeling that each of us had power.  It was very meaningful."

Akiyama Yoko was a graduate student in history at Tôdai at the time so she had trouble supporting the crude approach of some of the student activists such as shouting out to their professors, “Hey, You.”  She just could not do it.  She was newly married at the time and pregnant.  “Suddenly, I found that I was a housewife and I needed to found out what that was, what that meant.  I had already started a women’s study group and we read things like Inoue Kiyoshi's Japanese Women’s History which was a Marxist take on Japanese women's hsitroy.  One of the women brought in women’s liberation pamphlets from the U.S. and we translated them and published them in mimeograph form. There had been this article in the Asahi newspaper by Mr. nainagawa that included interviews with Tanaka Mitsu...This was about June 1970. then, on October 21st, there was the demonstration at the antiwar rally, followed by the big convention held in Tokyo where women engaged in Consciousness Raising for hours."

Miki Soko speaks again about how she read that same article on the train and just cried.  “I was finding women like me at last!”  When she saw a tiny little announcement for a Lib Camp she decided she wanted to atend. It was her first formal encounter with the women's lib movement; that his, it was her first actual physical meeting and not an encounter with them through printed materials.

But the media was not kind to Women’s Lib.  It did its best to make them look ridiculous and sensationalized everything they did.

Doi Yumi talked about she was “deeply affected by Simone de Beauvoir.  One day I found a newspaper article about the first women’s lib demonstration at an International Antiwar Day Rally and how women wearing red helmets were carrying signs saying ‘Housewives and Prostitutes are the Same.’”  Then she ran across Tanaka Mitsu's “Liberation from the Toilet” pamphlet and it had a huge impact on her. On that first newspaper article on the demonstration that appeared in the Asahi, Doi recalls: “I read that small newspaper article many times over and thought to myself, Wow there are some amazing women out there! (あ、すごい人たちがいるなあと思って) I went to one of their meetings but I didn’t really understand a thing.  Yet it was so interesting.  They invited me to drop in to their offices.  So I went over there and got a huge surprise.  Asakawa (Mariko)-san was there grilling salmon in the kitchen, topless.  Oh, my!  She was half naked.  But I was not turned off by it.  Life is so interesting!  I found my fate—it was a revolution of the self.  We reversed all our previous training in being feminine and became much stronger.”

At the end of 30 Years of Sisterhood the main people interviewed are identified:

Akiyama Yoko (mentioned in the Conclusions of Changing Lives), Tanaka Mitsu, Kitamura Mitsuko, Watanabe Fumie, Kuno Ayako, Wakabayashi Naeko, Asakawa Mariko (one of Gruppu Tatakau Onna founders), Mori Setsuko, Fujimoto Yoshiko, and Doi Yumi, who is mentioned in my footnotes and who lives in San Francisco (See Ch. 3, footnote 7 about the identity of the Japanese woman who called herself Khalid and who joined with Tanaka, and Asakawa to form the Gruppu Tatakau Onna or Group: Fighting Women (p. 193). I had the chance to corresponded with Doi via email in the final stages of preparing my manuscript.

Back to Ripples:

5. There was the example of Sumie who has her own band, published her own books and calendars, and lives in/runs a communal house in Tokyo. In the 1970s, there were the "witch" concerts by and for women.

6. The narrator, Kurihara Nanako, put the question to Funamoto Emiko pointedly. If women end up unmarried, alone, taking care of a parent who has had a stroke--isn't that kawaiso--pitiful? Emiko's response is that to live an unexamined, an un-liberated life, is really the pitiful choice. She has chosen her life. She takes care of her mother. Doing it your own way is better. No one should pity me, she says, in a very matter of fact way.

7. In a like manner, Nanako tries to pin Tanaka Mitsu down: Hasn't she withdrawn, let the movement down, and isn't she responsible for the women's lib movement's failure? No way, she replies. "Lib" was about liberating the individual self, nurturing the self. She worked hard to redefine for herself what it means to be a woman. She left japan for a while, lived in Mexico, then returned to Japan woth her son. Now she must add to the equation figuring out what it means to be Japanese. It may take time, but people have to do this for themselves, one person at a time. Real change is not just at the intellectual level; it occurs at the emotional level.

She used to think power was defined by how many people you could mobilize and organize; that's the way political factions operate. But that's not really IT. One person has power, too. You can affect people still. As an individual changes, her influence radiates out as ripples do when you drop a pebble in a pool of water. She thought that perhaps she had never really believed in the power of one person to change. Now she does. Kurihara Nanako, the narrator, realizes that Tanaka Mitsu did not abandon the movement; she is still working on it but her influence is more personal now. "Lib" may no longer exist in the form it first appeared but the ripples are still expanding, society is still changing. Lib women are either still organizing women's groups, food coops, influencing lawyers and their lawsuits, forming coalitions to keep the pressure on corporate Japan to change. Nanako comes to realize that her three-year friendship with Fumiko was her "Lib Movement" experience. Her takeaway is that the path to liberation begins with herself. As a youngster, she thought the radical Chupiren women were "ridiculous." She could not relate. Now she understands that they were just a few women sensationalized by the media. The legacy of Lib was both larger and deeper than she thought; the ripples reached out and touched her over both time and space.


Margaret Mead Film Festival Margaret Mead Film Festival
San Fransisco Asian American Film Festival
National Educational Film and Video Festival, Gold Apple
San Francisco Film Festival, Certificate of Merit
Tokyo Film Festival
London Film Festival

“A powerful and daring work.”
Kyoko Hirano
Film Center, Japan Society

“Fascinating, cross-culturally inspiring.”
Robin Morgan
Ms. Magazine

“A unique opportunity for thought-processing the notable
similarities in the US and Japanese movements towards
sex/gender equity.”
Library Journal