Transnational Women’s Activism: The United States, Japan, and Japanese Immigrant Communities in California, 1859–1920. By Rumi Yasutake. (New York: New York University Press, 2004. 185 pp. Cloth, $45.00, ISBN 0-8147-9703-2).

Reviewed by Vera Mackie

        There has recently been much discussion of transnational activism and transnational history. Rumi Yasutake’s book, Transnational Women’s Activism, is one of the rare books which actually puts transnational history into practice. By transnational history, I refer to history which goes beyond the boundaries of one nation-state, which goes beyond the parameters of comparative history (which still takes the nation-state as its basic unit of analysis) and which traces the flows of knowledge, information and influence across national borders. This is a difficult enterprise, for it necessitates a deep engagement with the local cultures and histories of the places under analysis. In many cases, such as this one, it necessitates skills in more than one language. Yasutake is equally proficient in both the Japanese and the English languages, and has made good use of archives in both languages from Japan and the United States.

        The context for the book is “America’s global expansion and Japan’s imperialist aspirations between 1859 and 1920” (p. 2). In 1853, the U.S. government sent Commodore Perry and his “black ships” to Japan to enforce the opening of Japan to international trade and diplomacy. The “unequal treaties,” concluded in the 1850s, granted the United States and several European powers access to Japanese markets, denied tariff autonomy to the Japanese, and granted extraterritoriality to representatives of the treaty powers in selected Japanese cities. Alongside the entry of American and European traders and diplomats into the Japanese treaty ports, evangelical Christians extended their interests to Japan.

        These years coincided with increased independence on the part of Christian women in the United States. They were dissatisfied with the conventions of missionary activity whereby women were relegated to the role of helpmeets of male missionaries. The formation of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was one fruit of women’s disillusion with the patriarchal hierarchies of established Christian churches and their missionary arms. Eventually the WCTU developed into an interdenominational worldwide organization of women, no longer beholden to the masculine hierarchy of Christian churches.

        Yasutake traces the connections between several groups of Christian women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Japan and the United States.  Female missionaries from the United States travelled to Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Japanese women formed their own chapter of the WCTU in 1886, making it the oldest women’s organization in Japan. American and Japanese women collaborated in missions to Japanese immigrant women on the west coast of the United States in the early twentieth century.

        Representatives of the various branches of the WCTU met from time to time at international meetings. Some went on to participate in local and international movements for women’s suffrage, although the connection between Christian activism and support for women’s suffrage cannot simply be assumed. For every Christian woman who supported women’s suffrage, there seems to have been another who opposed the cause. Other women mentioned in this volume, such as Tsuneko Gauntlett and Kubushiro Ochimi, went on to participate in the Pan–Pacific Women’s Congresses of the 1920s and 1930s, a secular example of transnational communication and collaboration.

        Yasutake also reveals the complexities of transnational collaboration. There were conflicts between different factions of the WCTU within Japan, and gaps, contradictions and misunderstandings between the American missionaries and the Japanese Christian women. Her discussion also reveals the importance of language study, translation and interpretation in any transnational enterprise. The necessity for Japanese women to learn English in order to participate in transnational networks was so obvious as to require little justification. A smaller number of American women stayed in Japan long enough to learn the Japanese language. The dominant pattern of interaction seems to have been short-term visits, with a smaller number staying in Japan for two or more years.

        Yasutake reproduces a series of photographs from the autobiography of Frances E. Willard, the second president of the WCTU (p. 58). The photographs include those of Americans Frances E. Willard and Mary C. Leavitt, Toyoju Sasaki of the Japanese chapter of the WCTU, and Pandita Ramabai. This series of photographs suggests the complexity of the transnational flows promoted by the organization. Pandita Ramabai had originally promoted education and medical training for women in India, and had attempted to gain a medical qualification herself. She converted to Christianity and returned to India, where she established a home for widows. Ramabai travelled extensively in promotional tours for the WCTU, including a trip to Japan in 1888 with Emma B. Ryder. Ramabai’s trip was reported extensively in women’s magazines, and her speeches were translated into Japanese.

        The discussion also, however, reveals the limits of transnational collaboration. We repeatedly see evidence of the complicity of American missionaries in Japan’s imperial project in East Asia. Japan was praised for its support of the suppression of the “Boxer Rebellion “ in China in 1900. Missionaries collaborated with Japanese Christian groups in developing the practices of sending letters and packages to soldiers in the field during the Russo–Japanese war of 1904–05. The Japanese chapter of the WCTU was supported in its proselytising activities on the Chinese mainland and the annexed territory of Korea. Missionary and WCTU activities on the west coast of the United States also came up against the divisions between the Chinese and Japanese immigrant communities.

        This book is a model example of the practice of transnational history, focusing on an organization which forged transnational links between women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The book is based on meticulous research in archives in Japan and the United States, and is informed by an acquaintance with recent literature in gender studies and feminist history. It will be of interest to researchers and invaluable as a text in history and gender studies courses which have a focus on transnational networking.

Vera Mackie is Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow in the History Department at the University of Melbourne. Major publications include Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality (Cambridge University Press, 2003); Gurôbaruka to Jendâ Hyôshô [Globalisation and Representations of Gender] (Ochanomizu Shobô, 2003); Creating Socialist Women in Japan: Gender, Labour and Activism, 1900–1937 (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and Human Rights and Gender Politics: Asia-Pacific Perspectives, co-edited with Anne Marie Hilsdon, Martha Macintyre and Maila Stivens (Routledge, 2000).

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