Every nation has women who are remembered throughout history for the impact they had on their country. Today we present you with 10 Japanese women–game changers, if you will–who fundamentally altered the way the nation sees or experiences the world today. Most of these women have achieved fame abroad as well, another hallmark of success in Japan.
Many names you’ll recognize, but a few may be a surprise. But they are all well-known among the Japanese and are looked up to and praised by women and men throughout the country. Ready to test your knowledge of influential women in Japanese history?
Let’s take a stroll through history starting from the year 973 and moving into modern times.
1. Murasaki Shikibu (973-1025)
Shikibu is the author of The Tale of Genji, written between years 1000 and 1012, during the Heian Period and is widely believed to be the world’s first novel. At a time when females were precluded from studying classical Chinese, Shikubu’s father indulged her the opportunity to study with her brother. A precocious child, she immersed herself in studies of Chinese but covered up her abilities as an adult so as to not encourage scorn. While living in the court of the Imperial Family where she served as lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko, she penned a diary blending the activities of the fictitious prince Genji with the real trivialities of court life. Such “poem tales” constituted a genre of poetic biographies written by women that mixed fiction and non-fiction to produce what is called “Japanese prose.” Such writing found favor among women, especially ladies of the court and wives and daughters of courtiers, while men still wrote in classic Chinese. The English translation, which encompassed six volumes, was produced in 1933. Murasaki also wrote The Diary of Lady Murasaki, about the birth of the empress’ children, told via a volume of poetry, letters and vignettes.
For being the world’s first modern novelist, we give Shikibu a round of applause.
2. Misako Shirasu (Jan. 7, 1910–Dec. 26, 1998) Nagatacho, Tokyo
“If you use beautiful things every day, you will naturally cultivate an eye for beautiful things….In the end, you will be repelled when you encounter the ugly and the fake.”–Misako Shirasu
Title: Essayist and expert on aesthetics and design
Shirasu started studying Noh theater at age four and at 14 became the first female to perform on the Noh stage. She grew up among privilege and even attended a prep school in the U.S. Upon returning to Japan, she married and in 1942 she and her husband moved to a farmhouse away from likely bomb targets to wait out the war. It is believed that this was a pivotal time for her when she began to appreciate the simple, austere way of life and where she became an advocate of simple aesthetics and design within the surroundings of nature.
She believed in blending ideas to arrive at practical ways of living such as represented by honjisuijyaku, the importation of Indian Buddhist deities to act as local manifestations of their originals. Regarding design, she emphasized that imperfections are the defining beauty of a piece, a prized natural blemish, an unforeseen treasure, or “natural imperfection.” Rather than setting out to create art, she suggested people put their hearts into making something with great skill and effort, in which art may result, and that folk art should be a bit clumsy. She dedicated herself to the study of the relationship between art and nature, and used flower arrangement as an example: Once flowers are put into a vase, for the first time we can understand the essence of the flower in a controlled and observable format where we can appreciate it on a different level and give it a new life. She saw how the beauty of nature encompasses food and art. These are values that live on today in Japanese art and design.
The farmhouse where she and her husband lived, called Buaiso, is now a museum open to the public.
For having defined the values of aesthetics and design in postwar Japan, we give Shirasu the thumbs up.
3. Masako Katsura (1913–1995) Tokyo
Title: Professional Billiards player
“Katsy” was Japan’s only female professional billiards player in the 1950s and was the first woman to play in a world billiards tournament. She learned the game at 13 from her older sister’s husband who owned a billiard room. She appeared in 30 exhibitions in 1958 and the following year appeared on American TV twice (once on CBS, the other ABC). She married a US Army non-commissioned officer and moved from Japan to the US. The popular Katsy wrote two books in Japanese on billiards: “Introduction to Billiards (1952) and “Improve Your Billiards” (1956). She eventually moved back to Japan to live with her sister and died five years later in 1995.
Known as the “First Lady of Billiards,” Katsura beat most men throughout her career. We know how much guys hate to get beaten by a girl, so we give Katsy the high five!
4.Sadako Ogata (September 16, 1927) Tokyo
Few women impress more than Sadako Ogata, who held office at the Japan International Cooperation Agency until she was 85. She was Chairwoman of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 1991-2001, on the UNICEF Executive Board 1978-1979, and President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency in which she held office from Oct. 2003- April 2012. Her accolades include the Indira Gandhi Prize and the J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding. In 2001 she accompanied then prime minister Mori to Africa, marking the first time ever for a Japanese Prime Minister to visit the African continent. Beloved by her people for her compassion for the vulnerable and less privileged, she is lauded for her dedication to human rights.
Awesome doesn’t even begin to explain Sadako Ogata, who has won numerous international awards. She serves as an inspiration to women and men everywhere. For this we give her a standing ovation.
5. Yayoi Kusama (March 22, 1929) Nagano
Yayoi Kusama was a leader in the avant-garde movement soon after moving to the U.S. in her twenties and is said to have influenced artists such as Andy Warhol. She is also part of the minimalist and feminist art movements. Kusama is known for her red polka-dot art, a thought-provoking yet whimsical theme she has turned single-handedly into her own signature genre. She is known for her installation art, and she has turned everything from entire rooms to living tree trunks into red polka-dot canvasses. In 2008, one of her works sold at a Christies New York auction for $5.1 million a record for a living female artist at that time. Once you’ve seen her art, you really cannot forget it. Kusama is candid about her struggle with mental illness and lives in Japan at the Seiwa Hospital in Tokyo from where she commutes to her studio to produce art.
For Kusama and her ability to make us think twice about both mental illness and art, we give her double kudos.