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)
“There are as many sorts of women as there are women.”
― Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji
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
“Men want to beat me. I play men, six, seven hours a day. Men no like, they do not beat me.” –Masako Katsura
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. Hanae Mori (January 8, 1926) Shimane
“Fashion reflects a country’s strength as a nation and its momentum in moving toward the future.” –Hanae Mori in an interview with the Asahi Shinbun.
If you recognized the above photo as a Hanae Mori design, then you’re probably familiar with this leading fashion designer’s signature mark: the butterfly. Japan’s most famous female designer and an icon of liberated women, Mori used clothing design to promote the interaction of East-West aesthetic values. As a young woman, Mori took classes at a local dressmaking school. Later she opened her own boutique in Ginza and established a ready-to-wear collection. She entered the world of haute couture while in Paris, under the influence of Coco Chanel. In 1976 she opened a salon in Paris and was appointed a member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, making her the only Japanese designer to be included in Haute Couture. Mori’s designs have appeared on the cover of Vogue and her designs include uniforms for Japan Airlines flight attendants, Japanese athletes at the Barcelona Summer Olympics, and the kimonos and wedding dress for Japan’s Crown Princess Masako. She also has a perfume collection and there’s even a Hanae Mori Barbie Doll!
Mori supports young designers via the Hanae Mori Foundation, and we think that’s pretty cool, so we give Hanae Mori our eye-shadowed wink of approval.
5. Sadako Ogata (September 16, 1927) Tokyo
“If we ignore the plight of the refugees or the burden of the countries which have received them, I fear we will pay a heavy toll in renewed violence.” — Sadako Ogata at her Liberty Medal acceptance speech, July 4, 1995
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.
6. Yayoi Kusama (March 22, 1929) Nagano
“A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement … Polka dots are a way to infinity.”
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.
7. Hibari Misora (May 29, 1937–June 24, 1989) Yokohama
“Like the flow of a river, countless bygone days one by one, how gently, how slowly they go.”
Lyrics from the internationally acclaimed song “Kawa no nagare no you ni”
Title: Singer, Actress and Cultural Icon
As an actress, Misora appeared in Takekurabe (1955), Izu no odoriko (1954) and Hibari no mori no ishimatsu (1960). However, it is as an enka singer that she is most remembered. Her first performance was at age eight and the following year she appeared on NHK. Two years on she was touring Japan. Misora recorded over 1,000 songs, among them “Kawa no nagare no you ni” voted the greatest Japanese song of all time by over 10 million people in an NHK poll. Misora is one of the most commercially successful musicians and was the first Japanese woman to receive the Peoples’ Honor Award from the prime minister. She was awarded a Medal of Honor from the Japanese government for her contributions to music and to the public welfare inspiring people and giving them hope after WWII.
Misora died at age 52 from illness. It has been reported that her record sales continue to be brisk and that she has sold well over 80 million records. Tributes and memorial concerts are still performed in Japan live and on TV and radio. For the Queen of Enka, we give her a graceful curtsey of admiration.
Since we hesitate to include a YouTube video of Misora due to Japan’s strict copyright laws, we offer instead an equally stunning version by Jose Carreras. Warning: you will not be able to get this song out of your head after listening!
8. Sadako Sasaki (January 7, 1943–October 25, 1955) Hiroshima
“This is our cry, This is our prayer, Peace in the world”–The words inscribed on Sasaki’s monument in the Hiroshima Peace Park.
Title: Symbol of innocent victims of war
Sadako (who appears at the top of the monument in sculpture form) lived 1.6 km (1 mile) from where the Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug 6, 1945. She was two years old at the time but she and her family survived. However, when Sadako was nine, she developed leukemia, a disease that affected many children in the area, and which was called the A-bomb disease for its association with radiation. Sadako’s friend told her of a legend about one thousand cranes: If one folds a thousand origami cranes, then that person’s wish will come true. Sadako diligently folded paper cranes out of any material she could find. But on October 25 of that year, she died without having realized her goal. Sadako serves as a symbol of children and other innocent victims of war. Using funds collected by children, a memorial was erected in May 1958 in Sadako’s honor at the Hiroshima Peace Park. Children still fold paper cranes to grace her memorial with.
Sadako is a poignant reminder of why Japan instituted Article 9 (outlawing war as a means to settle international disputes) into their constitution. To Sadako we kowtow: the highest form of respect.
9. Kimie Iwata (April 6, 1947) Kagawa
“If you examine the root of this, it’s not ability or desire. It’s because during maternity, women leave their jobs, and their careers fall to zero.” –Iwata in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald in regards to why more women are not in high level positions in corporate Japan.
Title: Former Executive Vice President, Shiseido Co., Ltd.
Iwata is a rare woman executive in Japan, where according to the Gender Equality Bureau, less than one percent of executives at top Japanese companies are women and where female managers overall are a mere 10 percent. After graduating from the Tokyo University in 1971, Iwata immediately joined the Labor Ministry where, in the mid 1980s, she helped create the Equal Employment Opportunity Law. She joined Shiseido, Japan’s largest cosmetics company and the fourth largest in the world and in 2003. She served as a Corporate Officer and Executive Vice President for four years until 2012. Iwata has fostered female talent within Shiseido and advocates a more woman-friendly corporate Japan. She has also taken part as Chief Representative of the Working Women’s Empowerment Forum and is a member of the Gender Equality Council.
For being a generally awesome role model as well as fighting for the rights of women in the workplace and promoting a work-life balance, we give Ms. Iwata hoots, hollers and whistles and an encouraging “Gambatte kudasai!” (Go for it!).
10. Chiaki Mukai (May 6, 1952) Gunma
Title: Doctor and JAXA Astronaut
Mukai is Japan’s first woman astronaut and the first Japanese citizen to have flown two space shuttle missions: one aboard the shuttle “Columbia” in 1994, and the other aboard the “Discovery” in 1998. Mukai flew with US Senator John Glenn, 77, the oldest person to go into space. Their launch was covered live on TV in the U.S.
We commend the board-certified vascular surgeon for being one of just 58 women to have flown in space and for encouraging girls to enter science careers.