Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 19, February 2009
Dina Lowy

The Japanese "New Woman":
Images of Gender and Modernity

New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007
ISBN 978-0-8135-4045-0; xii + 175 pp; $US24.95 (pbk)

reviewed by Lauren DeCarvalho

  1. The politics of gender in early twentieth century Japan are examined and explored in Dina Lowy's 2007 book, The Japanese 'New Woman': Images of Gender and Modernity. As Lowy explicates, the role of the New Woman, which was part of a larger international movement, had a profound influence over Japanese women at the time, who felt restricted by the limited gender roles set forth for them. This New Woman, who was described as any well-educated, middle-to-upper-class, progressive woman who rejected her gender-assigned role, attracted the attention of two particular feminist organisations, the Seitō (short for the Seitōsha) and the Shinshinfujinkai, who eventually embraced the concept in two separate manners. Positioning the role of the New Woman within her compelling narrative of these two organisations as well as amidst her discussion of two groundbreaking plays, Lowy offers readers insight into the history of Japanese feminism and provides a context for today's female image in Japan.
  2. Lowy's goal is to 'assess the trajectory of the New Woman in Japan from her start as a Western phenomenon through her varied Japanese incarnations in the 1910s, all the while analyzing her impact on the wider debates over appropriate modern gender roles' (p. 16). Staying true to her word, she uses the Seitō women as the focal point and backbone of her argument. Through her analysis of the two plays, Ibsen's A Doll House and Sudermann's Magda, Lowy demonstrates how these Western dramas became the catalysts for the women's movement, after adaptations by Japanese theatre. In an attempt to modernise the theatre, women were integrated, for the first time since the seventeenth century, as actors within the playhouse (p. 24). Lowy's invaluable insight and meticulous research into the history of the Japanese female image, despite manipulations by popular media at that time, presents a strong case that Seitō women gave Japanese women new hope in their search for equality.
  3. Lowy focuses on the narrative of the Seitō women as both the starting point of her book and the main explication of how Japanese women today obtained their current status in society. As she explains, evidence that women started questioning their assigned role exists as early as the 1870s, following the beginning of the Meiji Period when Japan underwent significant political and cultural changes as a means of modernisation. While the country's 'rapid industrialization, modernization, and Westernization' appeared to have its advantages and disadvantages, it seemed to indicate only the latter for Japan's female citizens, who still were restricted to roles within the household (p. 2). Additionally, while the government promoted education for everyone, regardless of class and gender, women soon realised that this was a mere façade of progress.
  4. Upon clearer inspection, this newly redefined system of education promoted public roles for women in the form of 'good wife, wise mother' (p. ix). As a result of integrated Confucian and Western influences, this role encouraged women to practice obedience and self-sacrifice as the maternal figure of a household. Simultaneously, it consisted of women raising their children and communicating with their erudite male counterparts through this government-endorsed education. During this time, women were forbidden from partaking in forums of political public speaking. As a result, they were forced to take other measures as a way to have their voices heard. In fact, while some groups of women started their own newspapers, others founded the first major women's journal, Jogaku Zasshi. Although these women were already questioning their identity through this journal, as Lowy argues, it was not until 1911 that the first signs of feminist activism really came into play. In that year, a group of women initiated the journal, Seitō, which for the first time allowed women to tackle both the position of the magazine's editors and contributing writers. Additionally, Lowy asserts that up until Seitō, previous women's magazines, with all-male editing staffs, actually promoted and encouraged the government-endorsed role of Japanese women as the 'good wife, wise mother' (p. 4).
  5. As Lowy discusses, in terms of change and progress, the Meiji Period seemed to be hopeful in the eyes of women as the Seitōsha offered an alternative to Japan's traditionally 'submissive' woman (p. ix). Under the role of 'good wife, wise mother,' which allowed men to 'adopt Western appearance (hair styles and clothing), thought, and statesmanship,' women were held responsible for the upkeep of the family and old traditions (p. 2). As Lowy articulates so well, '[w]omen were to be the site of stability amidst much change' (p. 5). Through the precedent set by the Seitō, women were shown that there was another option to existing Japanese conventions. Instead, they were able to embrace concepts of the 'New Woman' and form their own identities through the rejection of the conventional.
  6. Lowy's insight into the history of Japanese feminism and the female image reveals an undertaking that is well-researched as well as thoughtfully articulated. Her primary motivations, as outlined in the preface, are to bestow this knowledge onto an undergraduate audience while still appealing to an expert in Japanese history. Despite the limited existence of scholarship on the subject matter, Lowy does not let this impede her in working towards her goal. In fact, she sheds light on the challenges that Seito-sha women had to overcome as they became publicised by the Japanese media as 'female sexuality gone astray,' thereby filling this void in scholarship through her own writing as praxis (p. 59). Stemming from the breadth of her knowledge, Lowy's book is ideal for those interested in the historical narrative of both Japanese feminism and previously existing paradigms concerning the politics of gender.
  7. Her presentation of the Seitōsha as feminist activists who (re)constructed their own notion of gender provides audiences with a clearer understanding of the role women had in contributing to the modernisation process of Japan. Additionally, her discussion of the Shinshinfujinkai placed the issue of multiple feminisms on the table as they rivaled the Seitōsha's mission, through their desire to be wives and mothers as well as New Women (p. 100). Comparing this role globally at the time, Lowy looks at the responsibility of the New Woman in Euro-America, Egypt, China, and Korea, and ultimately concludes that 'Japan's New Woman resembled the second generation of Euro-American New Women' in the manner that their 'open sexuality, self-assertion, and unconventional behavior were considered a threat to national stability' (pp. 119–20). Through her analysis and own translations from Japanese, Lowy positions the narrative of the Seitō women in such a way that creates new knowledge in an otherwise limited field of research and also gives recognition to those women who defied gender roles and expectations as a way to help pave the path for gender equality in Japan.


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