Radical Objects

The Pacifist Handkerchief

I have a cotton handkerchief in pale tones of brown and green. It is covered in indigo-coloured text in several languages and scripts. I received it as a present from a delegate at a women’s history conference in Japan some years ago. As she presented me with the handkerchief, my benefactor explained that the text was Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan, which renounces belligerence. She explained that she belonged to a group who had made the handkerchiefs because they wanted the pacifist principles of Article 9 to spread around the world.

Article 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized (The Constitution of Japan, promulgated 3 November 1946, effective 3 May 1947).

On the handkerchief the text of Article 9 has been translated into several languages, including Chinese, German, Russian, Greek, Thai, Latvian, Georgian and Malagasy. It is interesting to note that the text does not appear in Japanese, suggesting that they were addressing an international audience. Nor does it appear in English.

The words of Article 9 clearly promote the principles of pacifism and renunciation of belligerence. Japan, however, now has a Self-Defence Force, provides support for US military activities in East Asia, and maintains military budgets among the top ten in the world. Article 9 has been repeatedly reinterpreted, most egregiously by current Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. One wonders what kind of a touchstone for peace this could be?

Article 9 Handkerchief (Photograph by Vera Mackie).

For some time, the handkerchief sat neglected and crumpled in a drawer alongside other handkerchiefs and scarves, developing creases and crinkles that no amount of ironing has been able to smooth out. Recently, however, I have started to piece together the history behind this gift and also consider the meanings of similar material objects in my collection.

My ‘Article 9 handkerchief’ is square, like a European handkerchief. A small label notes that it is ‘100 per cent cotton’ and ‘Made in India’.

It has much in common with the tenugui (cotton hand towels) used in Japan. Tenugui, like handkerchieves or bandannas, were originally functional objects: a simple strip of cotton that could be used to wipe hands, as a washcloth, as a headband or scarf. On a hot day, it could be doused in cold water and draped around the neck to help cool down. Tenugui have been used in bathhouses, like a washcloth, for centuries.

In the Edo period (17th to mid-19th century), Kabuki actors and merchants began dyeing their stage or shop names or crests on tenugui and handing them out to patrons and regular customers.

From the late nineteenth century, European-style handkerchiefs and towels also came to be used in Japan. Once towelling cloth became available, towels increasingly supplanted the plain cotton tenugui for practical purposes like bathing. This paved the way for tenugui to become decorative objects, and today they are seen as a ‘retro’ fashion item.

Once script can be printed on cloth, it is only a small step from advertising slogans to political slogans. During the Asia-Pacific War, patriotic images were printed on tenugui and other textiles.

After its defeat in the Second World War, Japan was occupied by the Allies from 1945 to 1952, the period when the Constitution, Civil Code and other institutions were overhauled. At the end of the Occupation period, it became easier for people to travel overseas from Japan, and many became involved once again in various international organisations. On travelling overseas, they would take small gifts from Japan.

In 1955, a delegation of Japanese women attended the World Congress of Mothers in Lausanne, held under the auspices of the leftist Women’s International Democratic Federation. They printed up a series of tenugui with the words ‘All of the mothers of the world, let’s link hands’ (Sekaijū no okāsantachi, te o tsunagimashō) written in the hand of feminist leader Hiratsuka Raichō (1886–1971). Below the slogan, like a horizontal frieze, a line of children frolic surrounded by cats, dogs, trees and flowers. For the ‘mothers of the world’, their major concerns included the ‘children of the world’ particularly in the wake of the US nuclear tests in the Pacific, which had irradiated a Japanese fishing ship, the Lucky Dragon No 5. The women sold the tenugui in order to raise funds for their trip, and took them to the Congress as gifts for women from other countries.

In a photograph from the Congress, a group of six women display the tenugui. They spread it out in front of them, the cloth providing a physical link between the women. Through the tenugui they are enacting Hiratsuka’s call for the mothers of the world to link hands.

Japanese and Australian delegates exchange gifts. Elsa Bergamaschi (undated) Le Congrès Mondial des Mères [The World Congress of Mothers] (Berlin: Women’s International Democratic Federation), unpaginated section, available online at the International Institute of Social History.
Another piece in my informal collection is a tenugui with a broad white border. In the centre is an olive green rectangle. Inside the rectangle are words in white script. The vertical Japanese script reads ‘Fusen wa kagi nari’ (Suffrage is the Key). Smaller script on the left attributes the calligraphy to a leaflet of the Women’s Suffrage League from 1929. The signature ‘Ichikawa Fusae’ appears below this. Ichikawa (1893–1981) was an early twentieth-century campaigner for women’s suffrage.

Women’s Suffrage Tenugui (Photograph by Vera Mackie).

I bought the tenugui at the Women’s Suffrage Centre (Fusen Kaikan) in Tokyo. The Centre was built in 1962 to house the Japan League of Women Voters (Nihon Fujin Yūkensha Dōmei), established in 1950, a few years after women first gained the vote. The Electoral Law was revised in 1945, and women voted for the first time in April 1946. On Ichikawa’s death in 1981 the Centre was renamed the Ichikawa Fusae Memorial Association.

‘Suffrage is the Key’ was the slogan used by Ichikawa in her leadership of the Women’s Suffrage League (Fusen Kakutoku Dōmei), established in 1925. A small leaflet packaged with the tenugui explains that the calligraphy also appears on a plaque at the entrance to the Women’s Suffrage Centre. The green rectangle on the tenugui mirrors the shape of the plaque.

The use of Ichikawa’s slogan ‘Women’s Suffrage is the Key’ claims continuity between the struggles of the suffragists in the 1920s, Ichikawa’s own post-Second World War parliamentary career, and the activities of the League of Women Voters. As far as the slogan is concerned this is true. Ichikawa provided the initial calligraphy. An image of this appeared on the cover of a pamphlet of the Women’s Suffrage League in 1929. The same image is used on the plaque at the Women’s Suffrage Centre in the post-Second World War period. Later it is reproduced again on the tenugui.

This apparent continuity is not, however, seamless.

For some contemporary feminists Ichikawa is a divisive figure. She participated in several government committees during the wartime period out of a patriotic desire to support her country’s war effort, but also as a means of gaining legitimacy for women’s political claims. Many of her contemporaries believed that women in the United Kingdom and the United States had gained political legitimacy for their campaigns for the vote through their support for the First World War. A Bill for women’s suffrage in Japan actually passed the Lower House in 1931, only to be blocked in the Upper House. Such a Bill would not be attempted again until after the Second World War. For some contemporary feminists, any participation in state processes – particularly in wartime – is seen as anathema, and they criticise Ichikawa on these grounds. Ichikawa was also purged by the Occupation forces for a time because of her participation in wartime government committees. She went on, however, to become one of the most popular politicians in late twentieth-century Japan.

The next in my series is a bandanna purchased at a women’s bookshop in Tokyo. This, too, refers to the Constitution – Article 24, which guarantees equality between the sexes in marriage.

Article 24. Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.

With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes. The Constitution of Japan (promulgated 3 November 1946, effective 3 May 1947).

The bandanna is deep blue, with white script. Article 24 appears in six languages: English, Japanese, German, French, Spanish and Russian. In the middle are the words ‘The Constitution of Japan, Article 24, in the 6 languages I speak, English, Japanese, German, French, Spanish and Russian’. Beneath these words is the signature of Beate Sirota Gordon (1923–2012).

Article 24 Bandanna (Photograph by Vera Mackie).

The bandannas were produced between 1999 and 2004 in red, blue and green. They are made in fine cotton, with fine detailed printing, apparently made by a company that also produces souvenir goods for museums and art galleries.

A small flier packaged with the bandanna explains that Beate Sirota Gordon was part of the team which worked on the equal rights provisions of the Constitution of Japan after the Second World War. She had lived in Japan as a child and was fluent in several languages, including Japanese. After this, she lived in New York, but returned to Japan regularly until her death in 2012.

The flier says, in Japanese and English:

Beate-san says: ‘We should all cherish the spirit of the Japanese Constitution which embodies articles unsurpassed in the world’.

In gratitude and commemoration, we have inscribed Article 24 on this bandanna.

Article 24 Bandanna Flier.

Inclusion of Article 24 in the new Constitution was highly progressive for the times. The Civil Code up to the Second World War had prescribed an extended family structure based on primogeniture, with wives and children subordinate to the patriarch. In 1947, this article of the Constitution and the corresponding articles of the revised Civil Code effected a democratisation of the family.

It is curious, however, that the makers of the bandanna chose to focus on Article 24 rather than Article 14, which has much more thoroughgoing mention of freedom from discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.

The meaning of Article 24 is now contested. The Constitution of Japan is relatively unusual in explicitly mentioning marriage. In many other countries this is left to the Civil Code or other specific legislation. The explicit mention of marriage between a man and woman in Article 24 has had the effect of enshrining the heteronormative family in the Japanese legal system. That is, with respect to marriage, ‘equality’ here refers to equality between men and women in terms understood in the 1940s, and not the discourses of ‘marriage equality’ espoused by advocates of same-sex marriage today.

What all of these handkerchiefs, bandannas and tenugui seem to share is a faith in the power of words. Many seem to be based on an implicit assumption that words somehow have more power if they are written in the hand of their author – as we do when we ask for an author’s autograph or inscription on our copy of their book.

Each of these is also an item of material culture. It can be exchanged as a gesture of friendship or solidarity. It can be held in the hand or worn on the body to affirm commitment to a cause or a principle – like a t-shirt, a cap or a badge bearing a political slogan.

My creased and crinkled ‘Article 9 handkerchief’, tucked away in a drawer for years, thus prompted me to look back over the history of the practice of exchanging items like tenugui, handkerchiefs and bandannas. There is perhaps a chain of connections between my handkerchief and the tenugui which Japanese delegates presented to their Australian counterparts in Lausanne in 1955.

The meanings of these items may be contested, particularly those which refer to the Constitution of Japan, promulgated seventy years ago on 3 November 1946 and coming into effect on 3 May 1947. Even with some cynicism about the contemporary significance of invoking Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan as a model, we can perhaps take this anniversary as an opportunity to remember a time when this document seemed to show promise.

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