Higuchi Ichiyo (1872~1896), whose portrait has recently appeared on 5,000 yen bill, is the Japanese first professional female writer. How and why she had started her professional carrier as a writer in Meiji Japan?
Ichiyo, whose real name is Natsu, was born as the daughter of a low class samurai family. Because of the early death of her brother and father, she had become the householder of Higuchi family at the age of 17. It means that she had to support her family members; her mother and her sister.
However, it was difficult for women at that time to get a job that could earn enough money to afford three family members, except working as a geisha or a prostitute. Without enough academic background, it was also difficult for Ichiyo to become a teacher, which was one of the few intellectual occupations for the female at that time. Therefore, becoming a professional writer was almost the only possible choice for her to make a living.
The social and historical background that made Ichiyo to decide to be a professional writer is similar to that of the 19th century America. At that time in that country many female professional writers emerged, because of the educational popularization among women. In the beginning of the Meiji period, Japanese government proclaimed the new educational law, which assures equal opportunity for education among girls and boys. The emergence of the modernized educational system allowes women to become writers in Meiji Japan, just like in America under the modernization.
At the same time, the process of capitalization encouraged women to write by themselves. Being restricted to doing housework, women under the modernized society began to seek the way by which they can get their self-identifications and self-realizations. Writing novels was considered to be the most suitable way for Meiji women to express themselves, because of no need to go outside their homes. One comfortable room is enough for women to create their own worlds by their writing, as Virginia Woolf maintained in her A room of one’s own (1929). That is the reason why Ichiyo was able to continue her writing under the poverty.
In contrast to the great success as a writer, Ichiyo had been continuously troubled by the confused gender identity throughout her carrier. In her childhood, she has identified with heroes rather than heroines in her favorite novels, because of their great achievements. In her diary, she often dreamed of if she had been male, and complained about low social status of women in the contemporary Japan. She is female in reality, but often feels herself as a male, being a householder and successful writer.
Her “double” gender identity reminds us of the Orlando in Virginia Woolf‘s Orlando (1928), who has somewhat trans-gender characteristics, She/he first appears as a male in the novel, and then transforms his sex to female in the middle of the story. Trans-gender characteristics shared by Ichiyo and Orlando seems to tell us their desire to go beyond the feminine/masculine dichotomy which tends to restrict the freedom of humanity.
There were few female writers other than Ichiyo in Meiji period, such as Tanabe Kaho (1868-1943) or Otsuka Kusuoko (1874-1910). However, they never made their living by their own writing, being economically dependent on their husband’s income. Unlike the other Meiji female writers, Ichiyo’s independent life enables her to be the pioneer of professional female writers in the Japanese literary history.