Media watch: Feminist icon outed as…a wife

Chizuko Ueno (Toyo Keizai)

The March 2 issue of the weekly magazine Bunshun contained a bombshell scoop of a sort. One of the articles is about Chizuko Ueno, a University of Tokyo sociology professor (graduate of Kyoto University) whose specialty is feminist theory, in particular how patriarchal societies like Japan’s systematically discriminate against women and limit their choices. One of her constant themes is that the institution of marriage as it’s conventionally defined in Japan  is “the root of all evil,” so Bunshun’s scoop was noteworthy since it reported that Ueno was married.

The past tense is important here because Ueno’s purported husband died in September 2021 at the age of 96. Ueno is 74 right now. Her husband was Daikichi Irokawa, a renowned historian who chronicled the lives of ordinary Japanese people in the context of “freedom and human rights.” He was also an activist whose experience during World War II prompted him to study how the state wielded control over the Japanese populace. 

Though Bunshun doesn’t actually produce a marriage certificate or family register, the reporter uses other documentary evidence to show how the two scholars were wed, though it’s not clear exactly how long they were wed. Irokawa’s first wife died in 2017, and last June an application to transfer property he owned in Yamanashi Prefecture was carried out. Further investigation revealed that the registration for the land was passed on to Ueno on the date of Irokawa’s death the year before. According to a legal expert interviewed by Bunshun, such a property transfer could not be carried out had the recipient not been related to the deceased, because only an “heir” can receive an “inheritance,” which is how the application was processed. Had Ueno and Irokawa not been married, she would have only been able to receive the property as a “gift” through a will. So that means Ueno was either legally married to Irokawa or had been adopted by him. As the expert put it, being in the same family register as the deceased makes the process of liquidating property very easy. Otherwise, a lot of paperwork would be required, and that doesn’t seem to be the case in this instance. 

Irokawa’s son told Bunshun that he is not concerned about Ueno’s image, only his father’s memory. But the article implies that Irokawa’s previous wife knew about his relationship with Ueno. As for Ueno’s legal name, had she been either Irokawa’s legal wife or legally adopted heir, she would have to have the same name, and there is no indication that Irokawa changed his name to Ueno. However, there is also no evidence of her changing her name since, following a spouse’s or adopted guardian’s death, a person can easily reclaim their previous name. 

Ueno has not commented on the article so far, and certain elements on the internet who find her pronouncements objectionable have been quick to label her a hypocrite by keeping her wedded status a secret even as she rails against the sexist aspects of traditional marriage. But while one could probably make a case that keeping that relationship a secret detracts from Ueno’s reputation as a self-sufficient single person, it by no means detracts from her work, which is centered on the inherent dignity and rights of the individual. In recent years, a subtheme of her writing has been aging and dying alone, whether the individual is a man or a woman, and as it turns out, this was also one of Irokawa’s activist interests in his twilight years. Living in the home he bequeathed to Ueno, Irokawa formed a neighborhood group called Neko no Te Club whose members took care of one another as they grew older, regardless of whether they had family. In the end, it’s nobody’s business but hers if Ueno was married, but from all appearances she practiced in that marriage what she preached in public. 

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