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Ayako Ishigaki

But in my mind, mighty waves were dashing. Even though I tried to shut out the whirling current of the world, it rushed in, shaking and moving me. The flame in their minds will burn some day with a great light – a light which will pierce the lie-shadows that darken the earth.

Biography / Criticism

Journalist, biographer, activist for peace, social justice and women's rights, Ayako Tanaka Ishigaki was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1903. The daughter of a college professor, she was raised in an elite household and was sheltered from issues of social consciousness while growing up. She recalls in Restless Wave: My Life in Two Worlds: "My world in these days was a quiet world, like the mirrored surface of an ancient pool; without motion, without flow, reflecting the clear blue sky or the moving clouds, itself unchanged" (RW 93). Despite her father's intellectual nature, Ishigaki was raised in a traditional Japanese home, where "elaborate rules of Japanese etiquette, the signs of good breeding, had to be observed" (RW 15-16).

As a young girl, Ishigaki herself had little exposure to female oppression; she was well educated, and treated fairly by her family. However, she became exposed to the harsh reality of her imperialistic society as she began to question the purpose of her education:

It seemed to me now that society was filled with matters which needed to be deeply dug into, and I suddenly came to a standstill before this 'ideal. ' What was the difference between this ideal woman and the good wife and wise mother held up to us in Girls' High School? I wondered if the old ideal had not simply been dressed in new fragrance and modern color. If the finished product was to be a bright social wife instead of a slave-wife, still the students were being poured into a mold. " (RW135). Eventually, her naturally independent mind led her to discover her voice through political activism.

Ishigaki first became aware of class differences when taken to a textile factory with her high school class: "my eyes looked with shallow glances at the outside forms of these girls working with sorrowful eyes in the white cotton dust and the biting noise of the machines. Today they live inside me. My heart hears their whispering voices. Their sorrows and joys are mine" (RW249-250). This moment represents the beginning of her awareness of social inequalities. After high school, Ishigaki became interested in newspaper writing, and began developing her political knowledge as well. She felt that these experiences further opened her eyes to the people forgotten by society; the Eta, the poor, the slum dwellers, the outcast, paupers and dregs of society (RW 129).

During the mid-1920s, Ishigaki met and fell in love with Yutaka Aoyagi, the son of a well-regarded medical doctor, to whom she became engaged. However, her fiancé was hesitant to secure permission from his father for the union. So in 1926, at the age of 23, Ishigaki emigrated to the United States with several family members to join her sister and her sister's husband, a diplomat, who had recently been posted to Washington D.C. She had agreed to spend a year helping her sister; however, she was more interested in finding a way to leave for New York, as she was attracted to the city's progressive politics. Going to America in 1926 was only a possibility for Ishigaki if she accompanied her sister and family, as she needed to travel with their diplomatic status due to the political immigration laws in the United States at the time.

As the Japanese began to migrate to the United States, around 1900, they were concentrated in California and on the Pacific coast. In 1924, the United States passed the "aliens ineligible to citizenship" provision to the Immigration Act, which banned immigration of Japanese people due to Americans' fears of losing jobs and cultural discrimination. This act was not changed until the Immigration Act of 1965 opened the doors again for the Japanese and others who wanted to immigrate.

Due to these restrictions, Ishigaki's move to New York, away from her sister's family, was considered illegal. Despite the challenges she faced, Ishigaki made it to New York, and used money from her father to audit courses at Columbia University (RW255) where her passion for social and political causes motivated her to become a writer. There is little documentation about Ishagaki herself, likely because of her illegal status while she lived in the United States, which is surprising, considering the fact that several of her friends were very well known, such as writers Pearl S. Buck, Helen Kuo, and Agnes Smedley and artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

While in New York, Ishigaki fell in love with a married artist, Eitaro Ishigaki. Her fiancé in Japan had finally gotten permission from her family to marry her, which would have provided her security in Japan and would have been the traditional ideal for a Japanese woman, but she chose to live with Eitaro until he obtained a divorce from his wife, and married him in 1931. Eitaro Ishigaki was connected with many left-wing political organizations, including the John Reed Club, which Eitaro helped to found. Together the couple shared a vision of socialism, which remained constant through many challenges they faced, including the Great Depression. Ishigaki took on a number of different jobs to help support them during Eitaro's struggling artist's career, including waitress and a factory worker. This provided Ishigaki with a different vision of social justice than she had previously.

Ishigaki experienced poverty for herself, became passionate about the socially lost people, and initiated a path of searching for ways to help. She recognized the limits of her own education when she began to look for work. Thus began her own quest for social justice. Ayako and Eitaro returned to Japan in 1951, to be closer to family, where she continued to write and became a popular television commentator. They remained married until his death in 1958. They had no children. In 1966, she married another artist, quickly divorced, and remained devoted to Eitaro's memory; the sketches used in her book are his.

Ayako Ishigaki lived and wrote during a time of great social change for Japanese people. She wrote thirty plus books and many articles and stories throughout her career as a writer. Due to her activism with social causes and a fear for her family back in Japan, she took on several pseudonyms when writing articles that described the inhumane treatment of Japanese workers and the exploitation of women (RW258). She also originally wrote her book, Restless Wave, under a pseudonym, Haru Matsui, by which she is more well-known. Restless Wave is her only work that was written in English.

Critical Reception

As one of the first female Japanese writers to publish in English, Ishigaki experienced the success of her only book, Restless Wave: My Life in Two Worlds, (1940) when it received rave reviews in America. Her friend and fellow writer Pearl S. Buck articulated her feelings about Ishigaki: "Matsui is that most solitary of human beings, a woman who cannot conform to the patterns her people have set for a woman, and the story in her book is the story of one who never found a real place for herself because she could not retire into the pattern" (RW263). Restless Wave was praised by literary magazines as "moving" (Saturday Review) and "intuitive" (The New Yorker). The Nation describes the book as, "the story of a single individual who lived at a turning-point of history and of her response to new social forces" (RW262). Across the ocean, reactions were much different: her attack on Japanese society and militarism had enraged Japanese government officials. Ishigaki did not always experience positive feedback in America either; by the late 1940s, Restless Wavewas out of print and Ishigaki began to fear political arrest as anticommunist hysteria continued to rise in the United States. Despite these great adversities, she wrote thirty books in her lifetime in addition to dozens of magazine articles, which continue to give a voice to her many radical viewpoints. In particular, Ishigaki was concerned with the connection between gender and economic exploitation.

Current book reviews capture the dual relationships that Ishigaki faced personally and used in her book to capture the struggles of real life with her character, Haru. Reviews of her book express how well Ishigaki brings out her personal quest for social causes and her attempt to bring to the forefront many political issues relating to class, gender and economic status that she was passionate about. These were radical ideas and opinions during the time that she wrote Restless Wave. Raintaxi calls her "elegant, perceptive and courageous," That Technical Bookstore states that she was a "remarkable Japanese immigrant" who lived "an inspiring life".

The early Japanese transition from a feudal system to a life of modern influences (the Meiji period (1868-1912) to the Taisho period (1912-1926)) was a tumultuous time for Japan. While very little criticism in English is focused on Ishigaki in particular, we can infer much about her influences and her role in this movement from the context of other women writers' lives during this period in Japanese history. Ishagaki was one of the many pioneers in a strong and continuing movement for equal rights. She eloquently states in Restless Wave that, "the Japanese are treated as stepchildren by American society, and are always hedged in by fences of prejudice, but sometime, gradually, these fences may be removed" (230-231).

Historical Context

In the late 1800s and early 1900s Japanese women experienced several transitions as Western culture began influencing Japanese society. Japan was a patriarchal state. In Japanese culture during the Meiji period (1868-1912), women began to question their traditional roles and desired more of an equal role in society with men. Traditionally, roles of women were bound to the home, instructing them to be a "good wife, wise mother," (RW135). The government and centuries of Japanese tradition emphasized and supported the idea of the woman's domestic sphere. Japanese culture trained girls to be acquiescent to men, and they were highly regarded for their domesticity. Sewing, cooking, being a good wife and mother were the most important goal for women. Girls were taught these skills from the beginning of their lives. One of the important lessons taught to a young girl in Japanese culture was learning the tea ceremony. This lesson in itself was revered as a coming-of-age rite, and is an example of the priorities for women at the time.

In 1916, the world was at war and a cry for change and justice was just beginning in Japan. Keeping their ancestral history alive, however, became increasingly difficult. Western influences began to change Japanese society as industrialization changed the economy, education and the Japanese political system. These changes shook the traditional values and social structure that had been in place for so long. While the West bore influence on Japan politically, Japanese women also tried to identify with Western women's issues. This initiated a more aggressive approach to the Japanese women's literary movement.

While Western female writers often dealt with identity issues by creating characters who rejected the submissive role society had donned on them, Japanese women most often accepted these definitions and passively lamented their misfortunes; Japanese women writers were often afraid of harsh judgment because of the resistance to a female voice in their patriarchal society, and so resorted to self-censoring their work. As a result, in many of these early works, it is difficult to register signs of protest.

The women's domestic sphere itself began to change. Women wanted more rights, more of a voice in both politics and family, and they demanded more respect. Ishigaki began to question her role as a woman in her society, and how she was being judged based on clothing and social status within her role. Japan's pioneering female authors, such as Tanabe Kaho and Higuchi Ichiyo, participated in a movement that attempted to change Japan's perception that women were the inferior sex. The desire for self-definition and self-expression served as the catalyst for this daring commitment to change. A passage from Broken Silence defines the feminist movement of the time period:

An international cultural and human rights movement to cleanse experience and knowledge, a movement that adopts a female perspective rather than the traditional male value system. Opposition to the privileging of production and efficiency models. The privileging of human life and sexuality. The elimination of all discrimination based on gender, economic status, race, culture, education, etc. " (Buckley 263)

Ishigaki herself believed in these issues. She wrote passionately to help further the women's rights movement. She was truly a pioneer for women's causes during her life. She not only wrote about women's issues, but lived a life facing these challenges and trying to change old ideals within society and culture

Selected Bibliography

Works by the Author

Works about the Author

Ishigaki Ayako-Shi Ni Kiku. Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Kyoyo Gakubu Amerika Kenkyu Shiryo Senta, 1981. (Listen to Ayako Ishigaki)

Works in Languages other than English

Many thanks toYukiko Morita and Eireann Lorsung for their help with the Japanese translations.

Cultural/Historical References

Related Links

Poets Quoted in Restless Wave

Abbott Ryokan

Kino Motonori

Kino Tsurayuki

Minamoto Sanetomo

Saigyo Hoshi

Yosano Akiko

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This page was researched and submitted by Karen Boone, Stacie Diedrichsen, and BreAnn Fosse on 12/20/06.