THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Feminist Writer Ishigaki Made Waves


In the decade surrounding World War II, the Japanese-born feminist and activist Ayako Ishigaki lived in the United States, where she distinguished herself as a radical intellectual and outspoken opponent of Japan’s military occupation of Manchuria and China.

She joined dockside protests aimed at preventing Japanese ships from landing and transporting cargoes and barnstormed the country on lecture tours to raise public awareness and earn money for Chinese war relief. Ishigaki was equally forceful as an author, both in English and Japanese. She attracted attention within the community — not always favorable — for the columns she contributed to the Los Angeles newspaper Rafu Shimpo, and then became known nationwide for her semi-fictionalized memoir, “Restless Wave.”

Ishigaki was born Ayako Tanaka on Sept. 21, 1903, in Tokyo, Japan. Her mother died when she was young. Although her father, a university professor, did allow her to attend school, he made sure she absorbed conventional wisdom about women’s social roles. A key event in Ishigaki’s life occurred when she was around 16. Her adored older sister gave in to family pressure for an arranged marriage with a man in the diplomatic corps.

Ishigaki declared that she would not accept any such union. Instead, she insisted on enrolling at Jiyu Gakuen, a new progressive school founded by educational reformer Motoko Hani. (Yoko Ono would later study there.) She also insisted on choosing her own spouse and became enamored of a local doctor’s son, despite his family’s opposition. Meanwhile, she took paid jobs outside the home and grew attracted to Japan’s radical Farmer-Labor Party.

In 1926, after spending a night in jail because of her activities, she agreed to move to the United States with her sister. Ishigaki’s brother–in-law secured her a diplomatic passport, thereby enabling her to enter the country despite Japanese Exclusion. Although Ishigaki’s fiancé secured his family’s consent to their marriage, she refused to return to Japan.

Soon after arriving in America, Ishigaki abandoned her sister’s family and moved to New York. There she met and quickly married a radical Issei artist, Eitaro Ishigaki. She learned how to do household chores and took various shop and factory jobs to support them while Eitaro painted. In the summers, they worked as concessionaires at Coney Island. The Ishigakis were hit hard by the Great Depression, and she later claimed that at one point they survived entirely on extra food that their waiter friend, Jack Shirai, brought home from work. (Shirai subsequently volunteered for service on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and died in Spain.)

Following Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria, Ishigaki began reporting for the radical publications The New Masses and China Today. In 1937, she was recruited by the American League for Peace and Democracy to organize against Japanese aggression. She moved to Los Angeles, where she wrote a column for the Rafu Shimpo’s Japanese section. In her column, “Jinsei Shokan” (Women’s Thoughts), written under the pen name May Tanaka, she spoke as a housewife to other housewives. She used informal language and homey metaphors to advocate birth control and women’s equality, and to oppose militarism. Her column soon became popular — the common discrimination faced by Issei women erased the class barriers that would otherwise have separated them. Despite her column’s popularity, the Japanese community’s overwhelming support for Tokyo’s invasion of China in July 1937 led her to give up in despair, and she returned to New York. In the following years, she undertook fundraising tours in support of China alongside dancer Si-Lan Chen and writer Helena Kuo, and began the work that emerged as “Restless Wave.”

“Restless Wave,” published in 1940 under the pen name Haru Matsui, ranks among the earliest books by an Asian American woman. Mixing autobiography, fiction and reportage, it recounts the author’s coming-of-age as a feminist and activist in Japan and the United States. The work remains notable for the way the author associates Japanese military aggression abroad with “feudal” restrictions on women and the poor at home. The work also painted a sympathetic and poignant picture of Little Tokyo in the 1930s. While Ishigaki criticized the Issei for supporting Japanese militarism, she made clear that their pro-Japanese attitude stemmed from their race-based isolation — and their children’s — within American society.

In 1942, following the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan, Ishigaki was recruited by painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi to make anti-Axis broadcasts. She thereafter joined the Office of War Information (OWI) as a translator and writer. She worked for OWI and the War Department in the following five years. During this time, she evidently undertook a novel about Japanese Americans, but the project was never realized. In the years following the war, Ishigaki revived her “Jinsei Shokan” column for the New York Hokubei Shimpo. She and Eitaro faced increasing harassment by the U.S. government due to their political views, including their friendship with radical writer Agnes Smedley. They had already planned to leave the United States when her husband was expelled in 1951. Ishigaki joined him in returning to Japan.

Once in Japan, Ishigaki became renowned as an informed interpreter of American life, as well as for her writings in the women’s magazine Fujyin Koron. In a controversial 1955 article, “Shufu to iu dai-in shokugyö-ron” (Housewife: The Second Profession), Ishigaki complained that Japanese women’s minds had “turned to mush” from staying at home, and she urged women to take up outside work, whether paid or unpaid. In later decades, Ishigaki became a familiar Japanese television personality and women’s adviser, as well as the author of more than 20 Japanese-language books of diaries, memoirs, essays and biographies. Following Eitaro’s death in 1958, she also dedicated her efforts to building a museum of his artwork, which opened in Wakayama in the 1980s. Ishigaki revisited the United States on a few occasions and contributed to the Japanese American literary anthology “Ayumi.” In 1996, she died in a nursing home. In 2004, a new edition of “Restless Wave,” by then long out of print, was published by the Feminist Press. Two years later, it won a special citation as a “lost Asian American treasure” from the Association of Asian American Studies.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Université du Québec a Montréal. He can be reached via e-mail at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See the 2024 CAAMFest