Women of the Left: Kanno Suga

As a young woman of 14, living in Japan at the turn of the 20th century, the rape of Kanno Suga  put her on a collision course with the establishment.  An anarcha-feminist journalist, she was initially gaoled for participating in a celebration  of the release of a comrade, then pursued through the increasingly repressive press laws before being executed for a plot to assassinate the Emperor of Japan.

The rape of Suga as young teenager is widely attributed to political development and radical views.  A middle-class young woman from a respectable family, the rape was considered her responsibility, and her shame.  With an unsympathetic step-mother, she sought to find a structural explanation for her circumstance; chancing across a socialist text for survivors of rape, she started the process of reading and radicalisation.  A short marriage was followed by an “arrangement” with the novelist Udagawa Bunkai, trading sexual favours for economic support.  Eventually, on his recommendation, her first salaried employment  – as a junior reporter on a local newspaper – followed.

Her first foray into political life was with the Osaka Reform Society, a Christian socialist group, where she campaigned with them strongly against the red-light area of Osaka.   The experiences of Suga and other leading women reformers, two of which had become pregnant outwith marriage, and the Chair of the association, a divorced woman, tempered the inherent moralism – offering a political and economic analysis to why women found themselves engaged in the sex industry as a distinct break from the rescue vision of some of the Christian men.

On the eve of the Russ0-Japanese War she campaigning and writing against Japanese imperial ambitions, publishing a short anti-war novel, Breaking Off, and was offered a correspondent post on Muro Shimpo,  a left leaning newspaper produced in Wakayama, eventually moving there and taking the reins of the paper when the editor was sentenced to gaol for violating the laws of “press freedom”, finally being given the editorial ability to speak more passionately of her political interests.

Although, of course, the root of the problem must await a socialist solution, we women must struggle not only against husbands, but against the entire self-serving world of men.  Rise up, women!  Wake up! Just like the struggle that workers are engaged in against capitalists to break down the class system, our demands for freedom and equality with men will not be won easily just because we will it; they will not be won if we do not raise our voices; they will not be won if no blood is shed.

Rebuff, published in Muro Shimpo, 15th April 1906

Later that year, the uprisings in the military arsenal at Osaka, and the naval dockyard at Kure followed by the riots at the Ashio and Besshi mines in 1907, characterised by arson, bombings and strategic attacks on the owner’s residences saw an upswing in the workers movement on the back of exploitative and dangerous working conditions.  Suga watched these developments from afar as she nursed her dying sister, taking a job writing for the society section of the mainstream publication Daily Telegraph to support them both, occasionally writing supportive pieces for the struggle.

In 1908, a celebration was held to mark the release from prison of the radical Koken Yamaguchi, waving red flags and singing Communist anthems, Suga and other radicals took to the streets.  The police moved in quickly, attacking the demonstrators, arresting ten – Suga among them.  Released several months later in deteriorating health, she found her job no longer open to someone so marked as a radical, while her lover Arahata was gaoled for his part in the protest.  Surviving with support from the movement, an attempt to establish a radical journal “Free Thought” was met with prosecution under Japan’s increasingly restrictive press laws and a destruction of the second issue.  By now, Suga was terminally ill.  Knowing that her death would come in the next few years, she dedicated herself to the assassination of the Emperor of Japan, as a proto “Propaganda of the Deed” to demonstrate to the country that the Emperor was the not the God he presented himself as, but mortal blood and flesh.

Conspiring with a small group, one of their number, Kototu withdrew from the plan, describing it as a disastrous course of action which would not further their ideology, and expressing concerns over the level of security around the bomb plot.  The conspirators continued to meet and plan without him.  In May, Suga was jailed over non-payment of fines over the Free Thought case; while she was in gaol, twenty six activists were rounded up, Kototu among them, and arrested in what was to be known as the “High Treason Incident”.  

A hundred years later, in the house of a fellow journalist of the time, a letter – written in a secret code of punchholes –  was found.  It was from Suga, written from the gaol and secretly smuggled out, insisting on Kotoku’s innocence and imploring him to fully investigate the case and obtain a lawyer for Kototu.

June 9th.
Because of the bomb incident I and three others will soon be sentenced to death.  I do hope you are carrying out an exhaustive investigation. Also I sincerely implore you to provide Kotoku with a lawyer.  He does not know anything at all.

Letter from Kanno Suga to Sugimura Sojinkan

In the event, twenty four of the twenty-six who were arrested were found guilty in a secret trial and sentenced to death by hanging, international pressure commuted the death sentences of approximately half of the defendants, but the sentences of both Kototu and Suga remained. Suga made no attempt to deny her involvement, instead actively embracing the act as a necessary step of raising proletarian consciousness.  She was executed on the 25th January 1910.

On the gallows, moments before her execution, she shouted to the crowd, ” We die for our principles. Bonzai!

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