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Japanese feminism

sarahcollins's picture

For my project I’ve decided to read a selection of Japanese books and manga, (popular Japanese comics), as well as essays on feminism in modern Japan. I will be attempting to define and explore what feminism means in modern Japanese literature, how it differs from American feminism, and why. I think that examining what feminism means in this culture will let me both learn about a different kind of feminism as well as see American feminism through a new lens. It will let me examine whether, as Paula Gunn Allen inquired, a Western feminism is adequate for all cultures. It will highlight some aspects, such as gender and sexuality, which are products of culture, and possibly demonstrate how arbitrary they are. In Allen’s words, I will see the forest that I grow in.

In my first paper I asked “whether it is feasible to institutionalize the “feminine” (as generally termed by Sosnoski, Cixous, Allen, and Schweickart,) perspective of the world in literary criticism. Is there an inherent feminine style of thinking, acting, and writing? What exactly do Woolf and Cixous mean when they talk about woman’s voice being drowned out by man’s?”

I was taking a tunnel-vision approach to feminist literary theory: I defined the “female literary tradition” as “feminine perception”, and the chief concern of feminist literary theorists to be to characterize and record this perception. Now I realize feminism, especially third-wave, does not and cannot boil down to this question of difference because of the plethora of other issues that feminism confronts.

I was also preoccupied by the difference question because of this notion of a woman’s culture. One factoid I retained from high school psychology is that when a person speaks in another language, they think differently. Perhaps writing academically is like speaking in another language, and similarly for a Cixous-ian style of writing. However, for my project I am moving away from the gender divide and looking towards a cultural divide.

Allen’s piece about the Keres tribe is relevant to my project and fascinating because of her observations about how Western feminism does not always translate perfectly for other cultures. Just as Kochinnenako might be interpreted as a victim of the patriarchy by a non-tribalist-feminist reading, perhaps liberation might not arrive wrapped in the same package for a Japanese woman. Allen writes: “certain ideas and concepts that are implicit in the structure of an Indian language are not possible in English. Language embodies the unspoken assumptions and orientations of the culture it belongs to…The differences are perceptual and contextual as much as verbal” (225). Substitute Japanese for Indian and it is possible to see how many issues must be explored in order to understand what feminism means in Japan. Allen also proposed that the Keres had an inherently feminine way of perceiving the world by not foregrounding anything;

How is the situation of Japanese women similar to that of American women? How is it different? What role does culture play? What does feminism mean in a non-individualistic society? I was struck by the similarity between the Keres tribe and Japanese culture because of the translation obstacle. There is a similar dependence on shared, unspoken knowledge that passes between two speakers, which requires a knowledge of the culture in order to make sense of peoples words and actions.  Japan is a country of rigid social customs, with a built-in hierarchy of seniority in all aspects of life, from business to family, which applies to everyone regardless of gender. How do men and women interact differently in Japan?

Japanese people are more interdependent than independent, more family focused than individual centered. Linda Kauffman wrote about the detrimental effects of subscribing to the values of bourgeois individualism, the belief (or illusion) that each individual’s life has a continuous narrative, and that individuals can define themselves and be defined separately from other people. Japanese culture is not individualistic, although that may be changing slowly as it becomes more westernized. I want to understand how, or if, that makes a difference in their feminism. Is being defined apart from one’s family the same as being liberated in Japan? Will a woman be perceived as selfish if she tries to forge her own path without her family? Or if she chooses not to have a family, since single, childless women are on the rise in Japan? I hope to find answers to these by supplementing the books and manga with Vera Mackie’s “Feminism in Modern Japan” or Akiko Tokuza’s “The Rise of the Feminist Movement in Japan”.

I will also be using passages “Space, Body, and Aliens in Japanese Women’s Science Fiction” by Mari Kotani, a prominent feminist science-fiction critic. In this book I hope to find out how Japanese women represent their bodies in fiction, and possibly in comics. The male-dominated manga magazines often depict women’s bodies as sex objects.

            I chose Japan for several reasons. The Tale of Genji was arguably the first novel in literary history, and a woman wrote it. Unfortunately it is 1000 pages long, and I do not believe I can read it in time, and also I am interested in learning about modern feminism. Although this may involve reading about historical events it will primarily be in order to understand modern Japanese culture and women. I do not speak Japanese, so I will have to read the books and manga comics in translation; however, I plan on finding a text that talks about the pitfalls of translating Japanese into English, like the ones Allen describes. Also, Japan’s culture has never been hegemonized by American or any other culture, which helpfully narrows the issues of feminism to be investigated. My primary reason, however, was all of the differences in culture I enumerated above.

             Studying this culture will render cultural assumptions about gender and feminism itself highly visible. Hopefully this project will allow me to gain perspective on feminism in general, and work towards a better understanding of what it means. My project proposal probably needs some work and more sources to work from, and I would appreciate any suggestions! 


Anonymous's picture

Here's another resource:

Here's another resource: Japanese near bottom in gender gap survey.

Anne Dalke's picture


So, Sarah, you surprised me. I was expecting “zen feminism,” and got Japanese instead. I’m a little uneasy w/ your taking on a culture you haven’t studied before (right?), in/and a language you don’t know, but will be very interested to see how far you get, what the lens of learning about another culture tells you about your own (this is the anthropological gesture, of course, and you might benefit from talking with kwheeler08, whose project is about the feminist critique of the self-other in anthropology ).

Another rich source for you would be Hank Glassman in the East Asian Studies @ Haverford, who works on questions of gender in medieval Japan. He has a particular interest in the intersection of Buddhism and gender.

You are also taking on a particular art form—the manga—so should do some additional reading about graphic forms of representation. I taught Jimmy Corrigan the last two times I did the core course in Gender Studies; if you look @ the bottom of my class notes for “Standing Up” you’ll find some initial thoughts on how these pictorial texts work on us, how to “read” and interpret them.

Much exciting new material for you to explore!