The Loneliness of the Female Nihilist

The prison memoirs of Kaneko Fumiko.

In 1926, a twenty-year-old girl held in the women’s branch of Tokyo’s Utsunomiya Prison asked if she could help weave a length of rope. The girl, Kaneko Fumiko, was an anarchist and a nihilist; she was proud, preternaturally bold, and had been accused of plotting to blow up the Japanese imperial family. After months of defiantly refusing to do any prison work she suddenly changed her mind, and the prison authorities shrugged and agreed that she could be put on the rope-weaving taskforce. She twisted hemp into rope for an entire day; by 6:30 the next morning a guard passing by her cell noticed that she was already back to work. Ten minutes later, she’d be dead.

Fumiko was dirt poor, barely educated, beaten, starved, abused, and yet managed to claw her way to a position of political and historical significance. But very few historians bother to study her, and even fewer readers delve into the anarchical and darkly inspiring depths of her memoir. She came of age during a time when Japan was divided, and heavily policed; the country had annexed Korea in 1910, creating serious tensions between the two nations, and Fumiko—with her own reasons for resenting the authorities of her homeland—fell in with anarchists associated with the Korean independence movement.

She had always distrusted any form of activism. A nihilistic egoist, influenced by Nietzsche and Max Stirner, Fumiko believed that asserting the self was the best means of political resistance, that anarchy could be individualistic, that society was a howling void in which the strong devoured the weak, and that political movements offered no relief. “What is revolution, then, but the replacing of one power with another?” she wrote in her memoir. The only worthy action, she thought, was to “stake [her] life” on rebelling against authority. In jail, she wrote that death was freedom—“if one has but the will to die.”

When a judge asked Fumiko to write her memoirs, taking advantage of a lesser-known law that said “a defendant should be asked not only about what can be used against one, but about things that may stand in one’s favor,” Fumiko dove into the painful muck of her past in order to explain how society had “warped” her into the nihilist she was today (the original title of her memoir was, What Made Me Do What I Did). When the judge had finished reading it, she asked for the manuscript back—she wanted to send it to her comrades, hoping that they would publish it, to “help them to understand me better.” This simple wish, sketched in the preface, is heartbreakingly vulnerable for a girl who claimed to believe in nothing but the self. It went unheeded: her friends did not immortalize her, and her prison records stayed sealed until after World War II.

Fumiko’s childhood was a study in distrusting authority. She was born in 1903 to an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who once tried to sell her into prostitution. “Mother’s dependency [on men] was so bad it bothered even me, young as I was,” wrote Fumiko. “She was incapable of taking a step on her own without someone there to support her.” Her parents weren’t legally married, and so they chose not to register Fumiko’s birth. This meant that, in the eyes of the State, she was simply not a person. She wasn’t allowed to officially attend school; she could only audit. Teachers would openly humiliate her by handing out graduating certificates to everyone in the class but her—the legally nonexistent girl.

Fumiko was overjoyed when her father’s mother—who lived with her childless daughter in a Japanese community located within the town of Bugang, Korea—showed up to adopt her. “Grandmother from Korea,” as Fumiko called her, lured the girl away with a kimono so stunning that the neighbors made excuses to come by and gape at it. But it was a trap—her grandmother was indeed rich, but Fumiko’s poor background and country ways displeased her. For the next seven years she beat and starved Fumiko, forcing her to stand outside in the freezing cold, screaming at her if she spoke to outsiders, and yanking her out of school.

In prison, Fumiko recalls the abuse with a voice clear as a bell. “I became warped because instead of being loved I was abused,” she writes. “I became perverted because I was repressed and robbed of every freedom.” It wasn’t simply the cruelty of the authority figures in her life that fed into her disgust with institutions, it was that she also saw how deeply hypocritical those same figures were. Her grandmother loved to rail on about how children shouldn’t read the newspaper but was so cheap that she pasted over the holes in Fumiko’s room with newspaper articles—which Fumiko then read, since she wasn’t allowed to read books, either.

Even in their home country, Koreans were discriminated against and abused by wealthier Japanese—like Fumiko’s own grandmother—who settled there. Kumiko felt close kinship to her grandmother’s wretchedly underpaid Korean servant, who only owned one pair of clothes, and was sympathetic to the Korean cause in general. “I think I understand how the nationalists feel,” she said, later, to her Korean lover. “But I myself am not Korean. I haven’t suffered the kind of oppression by Japan that Koreans have.” After seven years of misery, she moved back to Japan and drifted between the homes of her frustrating, irresponsible parents, both of whom were unhappily remarried. By the age of seventeen, she’d had enough, and moved to Tokyo.

In Tokyo, she worked a series of menial jobs in order to take English and math classes at schools for men called Seisoku and Kensū Gakkan, because the curricula were better, and because she wanted to “get back at men…show them that I could hold my own.” More importantly, she met people. She fell in first with the Christians, and then with the Socialists, but was soon turned off by the hypocrisy and meanness she witnessed. The young men were especially underwhelming. A Christian boy, Itoh, fell in love with her and then melodramatically insisted that he would have to “forget [her] and go back to being the person I was before we met” because he was too afraid of his intense feelings. The socialist boys were even worse. One boyfriend invited her to sleep over and then in the morning ordered only enough breakfast for himself, and declared that if she got pregnant, it wasn’t his problem. She later concluded that all “movement people” were, more or less, full of shit.

In her memoir, Fumiko reserves all her passion and fire for describing the circumstances of her introduction to the Korean anarchist Pak Yeol. Long before meeting him, she read a poem he’d published in an eight-page socialist pamphlet and was stunned by the beauty and force of his words. “I feel like I’ve just discovered here in this poem something I’ve been searching for,” she told a friend. Pak lived like a “stray dog,” crashing at a different friend’s home every night, frequently ill, but had a “powerful presence”—Fumiko marveled that he carried himself like a king. “What was at work within this man? What was it that made him so strong?” she mused. “I wanted to find out and make it my own.” Fumiko was inspired, thrilled, and thoroughly obsessed. Whatever he was working on—whatever destruction he was plotting—she wanted to be a part of it.

Like many troubled, poetry-writing male activists, Pak was noncommittal, hard to get a hold of, and a bit awkward. Fumiko hunted him down, eventually taking him to a Chinese restaurant and laying out her proposition: she wanted to be his partner and his equal. “I’ve found what I have been looking for in you,” she says. “I want to work with you.” Pak responded to her in a “chilling tone,” somewhat theatrically: “It’s no good. I go on living only because I don’t seem to be able to die.” But she convinced him that they were fated to be together. Her memoir ends before their political activity really started; in the final scene, as she’s watching Pak head off to stay with yet another friend, she thinks to herself, I’ll never let you suffer from sickness or things like that. If you die, I’ll die with you. We’ll live together and we’ll die together. 

Pak formed a small group of mostly Korean nihilists and anarchists called Futeisha (“society of malcontents,” an ironic reference to the “malcontent Koreans” that Japanese police liked to gripe about). This activity put the lovers—but particularly Pak—on the authorities’ radar, as police in Tokyo kept a sharp eye on students and politically active Koreans. The tension turned to bloodshed in 1923, when the Great Kantô earthquake devastated Tokyo and the surrounding areas, killing over 100,000 people. In the ensuing hysteria, people became convinced that Koreans were taking advantage of the chaos to poison wells and plant bombs. None of it was true, but it didn’t matter; citizen vigilantes, police, and soldiers began massacring any Korean they could find. By the time the violence stopped, over six thousand Koreans were dead.

The day after the earthquake, Pak Yeol was detained without charge by Tokyo police, ostensibly for his own safety. Two days later, the police snagged Fumiko, too. At first the vague idea was that the police were detaining these radicals to protect them from the massacring vigilantes, but soon enough real charges began to be levied against them: first vagrancy, then a violation of the explosives control law, and finally high treason. These accusations were designed to justify the shedding of Korean blood (“See? They were plotting something terrible.”) There was no hard evidence that the Society of Malcontents was actually planning to throw bombs at the imperial family, but government reports did claim that Pak had tried to smuggle explosives into Japan already. Really, the most damning proof came from Pak and Fumiko themselves, who confessed to the plot despite the lack of evidence, perhaps as an act of defiance. “We have in our midst someone who is supposed to be a living god…yet his children are crying because of hunger,” Fumiko declared in court. “So we thought of throwing a bomb at him to show that he too will die like any other human being.” Later, she admitted that she had openly exaggerated her guilt.

Fumiko wanted to get the same penalty as Pak: death. She wanted the two of them to die together, but she was also “claiming to be an equal threat to society and demanding a sentence equal to Pak’s,” as historian Helene Bowen Raddeker noted in her book, Treacherous Women of Imperial Japan. In prison, Pak and Fumiko registered their marriage. Two days later, on March 25, 1926, they were sentenced to death; ten days after that, the emperor “mercifully” commuted their sentences to life in prison.

When the commuted sentence was handed down, the lovers’ paths diverged. Pak accepted the sentence, but Fumiko tore the paper to pieces, saying, “You toy with people’s lives, killing or allowing to live as it suits you…. Am I to be disposed of according to your whims?” Pak served his sentence quietly and was released after World War II, but Fumiko refused to rot in captivity. Four months after receiving the lessened sentence, she hung herself with the hemp rope she’d asked to weave. At 6:30 A.M. a guard saw her twisting it, diligently; when he walked past her cell ten minutes later, he saw her hanging from it, unconscious. The doctors who performed her autopsy marveled at the “determined, carefully premeditated, and calm manner of suicide.”

Determined as she was, Fumiko could never achieve true equality with her lover. Both in the courtroom and after her death, she was depicted as the selfless female sidekick who laid it all on the line for a noble male anarchist; her lawyer tried to say that it was “pure womanly self-sacrifice” that caused her to “die for Pak and Korea.” Fumiko would have been appalled to hear her life reduced to a single act of supposed altruism, especially when she’d pledged herself to no cause but the “means of one’s own will.” As Stirner put it, “The own will of Me is the State’s destroyer.” That was Fumiko’s philosophy—womanly self-sacrifice and the Korean independence movement be damned.

Fumiko’s belief system was built on an iron will. Her politics were solitary; she had no time for groups or movements. But no belief system is iron-clad enough to contain the heart. The final lines of her memoir sound like a marriage vow; for a girl who didn’t allow herself to trust anybody or anything but the ego, she nonetheless put her identity, however momentarily, in another person’s imperfect hands. And the vow, or wish, or whatever it was, didn’t come true. Perhaps she realized in the courtroom that Pak would choose to live. Perhaps that confirmed for her what she’d suspected all along: that there is only the self, and that the self is always alone.