Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 20, April 2009

Barbara Summerhawk and Kimberley Hughes (eds)
with introductions by Sawabe Hitomi and Watanabe Mieko

Sparkling Rain
and Other Fiction from Japan
of Women Who Love Women

Chicago: New Victoria, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-892281-26-5 (pbk); 216 pp.; $US16.95

reviewed by James Welker

  1. What a difference a decade makes. In the 1990s, a reader not competent in Japanese would be hard-pressed to find much of any details about Japan's queer culture, present or past, particularly in the case of women. Over the past ten or so years, however, an expanding amount of information about women-loving women in Japan has become available in English, in both academic and popular writing, painting an increasingly complex picture of lesbian life in Japan.[1] Yet, thus far absent has been a sense of the diversity of lesbian literary representation in Japanese.[2] Enter Sparkling Rain and Other Fiction from Japan of Women Who Love Women, edited by Barbara Summerhawk and Kimberley Hughes.
  2. The title of this unique collection is somewhat misleading. For, while the majority of pieces it contains are indeed fictive—including, of course, short stories, but also a poem, a manga (graphic) narrative, and a screenplay—there is also a number of essays, which make this book as informative as it is enjoyable to read. As the title does make clear, however, this is a collection of writing 'from Japan of women who love women' rather by Japanese women who love women. This points most obviously to the fact that at least two of the contributing authors are themselves not native to Japan, but also suggests more generally the international nature of the lesbian community, even if there has been a tendency toward division along linguistic and occasionally ethnic lines.[3] This dynamic is, however, but a small part of the array of writing that this collection of writing encompasses.
  3. While the editors made a choice to focus on work by authors who have identified themselves or whom scholars and lay readers have identified as part of the lesbian literary tradition, the editors do not themselves engage in any sort of deep theorising as to what or who constitutes a 'lesbian' (or, in Japanese, rezubian). In her introductory remarks, Summerhawk aptly makes use of a very inclusive definition, borrowed from scholar Lillian Faderman, that does not make assumptions about identities of either authors or characters (p. 2). And Summerhawk's slippage between 'women who love women' and 'lesbian' helps to reinforce the fluidity of the term. This allows both for the inclusion of a wide range of writing and, to my mind, makes it more representative of the experiences of the many women in Japan who love other women, whether always or just occasionally, but who avoid or reject identity labels.
  4. The editors are to be commended for doing such an admirable job in gathering and reproducing the works that are included in this collection. The amount of effort that goes into locating and translating pieces for this type of volume should not go unrecognised. Of course, a collection such as this would certainly have been enriched had it contained works from a broader range of time periods. To be sure, the editors did attempt to include translations of several stories from the first half of the twentieth century by well-known girls' fiction writer Yoshiya Nobuko but were unable to secure the copyright from the author's niece (p. 3).[4] They might well have had similar difficulties had they tried to reproduce anything by other renowned literary and social figures writing in the same period such as Hiratsuka Raichō, Tamura Toshiko, or Miyamoto Yuriko. The editors' choice then to include an essay about Yoshiya by feminist scholar Komashaku Kimi ('Yoshiya Nobuko: gazing upon the female,' pp. 42–54) and a love poem to Raichō from Otake Kōkichi ('Returning to Asukua (To Raichō),' p. 41) has the unfortunate effect of making the collection seem lopsided, even as the two pieces leave the reader longing for more. Perhaps it would have been better to save this tantalising material for another volume.
  5. In fact, Summerhawk writes hopefully that this collection is but the beginning (p. 4) and one wishes that she and Hughes or others will work to fill in some of the gaps that remain. While certainly fiction that might fall under the rubric of lesbian remains to be (re)discovered, some now historical works are at last attracting serious attention, including narratives depicting female homoeroticism and love by authors with publicly heterosexual personae, a category that the editors decided not to include in this volume (p. 1) but which itself represents a rich resource that might be considered for any subsequent volumes.[5] Most such writing, however, awaits chance discovery. Take for instance Hirabayashi Taiko Award-winning writer Ikeda Michiko's touching short story about one middle-aged woman in love with another, 'Dai san no sei' (The third sex), printed in the highbrow literary magazine Bungei in 1953. Now largely forgotten, I chanced upon it several years ago via a reference in a pseudo-scientific book on homosexuality.[6] While the present volume includes several pieces of fiction printed in the mini-komi (zine) Regumi tsūshin (Regumi journal) (1985–) in the 1990s, turning to other such publications would enable future volumes to incorporate works from the 1970s and 1980s, as well as more from the 1990s, along with a wider variety of experiences.[7]
  6. Let us now turn to and celebrate the writing that is included in this book. The collection is divided into five sections: 'Background,' 'Beginnings,' 'Stories from the Lesbian Press,' 'Potpourri: Unpublished Stories and More,' and 'Wider Ripples: Lesbian Fiction in the Mainstream.' 'Background' contains Summerhawk's brief introduction (pp. 1–5) as well as activist and writer Sawabe Hitomi's very useful sketch of lesbian activism since the 1970s, 'The symbolic tree of lesbianism in Japan' (pp. 6–32), and writer Watanabe Mieko's 'Overview of lesbian literature in Japan' (pp. 33–38). Sawabe's chapter draws both from her own experiences and from first-hand accounts of others, making it all the more valuable for its very personal perspective. And Watanabe's brief review of works with lesbian characters is one of only a few articles I've seen in English on the topic. While none of these articles is aimed at an academic audience per se, they offer the pleasure reader ample background to understanding the fiction found in the remainder of the volume and they provide a solid starting point for students of Japanese culture, lesbian history, and/or lesbian literature who might wish to learn more, rendering this volume eminently usable in the classroom.[8] The next section, 'Beginnings,' contains the aforementioned taste of pre-war lesbian literary representation, while the remainder of collection is given over to a dozen additional works written over the past two decades.
  7. While some of the works contained in this volume are stronger than others, the mix and number of stories means a person is certain to find certain pieces she or he is particularly drawn to. As I cannot address all of the stories here, I will pick out just a few that stand out for me. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I, myself, find most appealing the stories which offer a window onto life for women who love women in Japan, one that other kinds of writing cannot convey. I envision these to be particularly useful in the classroom and even to the scholar working on comparative lesbian culture, since, while fiction, one does get the sense that they are based on real experiences. For instance, Izumo Marou's 'Monalisa night' (pp. 57–72) offers us a taste of dating and friendship among a group of women, both Japanese and foreign, who frequent the monthly (and real) dance party Monalisa in the mid-1990s. Uehara Chigusa's 'A story of first love' (pp. 92–100) gives readers a sense of how difficult it was a few decades ago for women who love women to both find each other and maintain a relationship, given the typical familial pressure. 'Plica-chan' (pp. 124–39), selections from Amamiya Sae's simply drawn manga series, offers surprisingly realistic snippets of contemporary lesbian life in Japan, including the kinds of pressure women endure when forced to hide their true feelings and a comic, yet realistic, look at sex.[9] The most moving story contained in this volume is the title work, 'Sparkling rain' (pp. 181–206), by award-winning as well as commercially successful and openly lesbian writer Nakayama Kaho. In this story, Nakayama narrates the final years of a couple in their late 60s, one of whom was partially paralysed, and the lengths that the other went to so they could spend their remaining time together rather than being institutionalised and thus separated. It is both beautifully written and translated and serves as a fitting capstone for the collection.
  8. As I have suggested, Sparkling Rain is noteworthy both as the first collection in English of writing from Japan on and by women who love women and for the range of perspectives it offers on lesbian life in Japan. It promises readers both a pleasurable read and a deeper understanding of and respect for a variety of lesbian experiences.


    [1] The amount of writing by and about queer women in Japan that has been published both commercially and non-commercially in Japanese is far too numerous to begin to cite here. I refer the reader instead to peruse the bibliographies of some of the recent writing in English, including the currently reviewed work, as well as Mark McLelland, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker, eds., Queer Voices from Japan: First-Person Narratives from Japan's Sexual Minorities, Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2007; Diana Khor and Saori Kamano (eds), '"Lesbians" in East Asia: Diversity, Identities, and Resistance,' special issue of Journal of Lesbian Studies, vol. 10, nos. 3/4 (2006); Mark McLelland (ed.), 'Queer Japan,' special issue of Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific issue 12, January 2006, online:; James Welker, 'Telling her story: narrating a Japanese lesbian community,' in Japanstudien: Jahrbuch des Deutschen Instituts für Japanstudien, vol. 16, (2004):119–44 (also available online:; Sharon Chalmers, Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan, Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2002 (reviewed by James Welker in Intersections, issue 9, (August 2003), online:; Marou Izumo and Claire Maree, Love Upon the Chopping Board, North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex, 2000 (reviewed by Sharon Chalmers in Intersections issue 6 (August 2001), online:; Barbara Summerhawk, Cheiron McMahill and Darren McDonald (eds), Queer Japan: Personal Stories of Japanese Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transsexuals, Norwich, Vt.: New Victoria, 1998.

    [2] One notable exception is in the sphere of manga (comics) representing female-female sexuality, a genre often termed 'yuri' (lily), in both English and Japanese. Yuri manga and anime (animated works) are made available to English readers through fan-produced translations and reviews as well as a limited amount of officially sanctioned and commercial translations. Perhaps the most ardent such fan and prolific reviewer is Erica Friedman, who runs the popular yuri review blog Okazu, online:, and a small press that publishes collections that include both works translated from Japanese as well as Japanese yuri-inspired original works from outside Japan.

    [3] While only Lim and Summerhawk are obviously not Japanese, given the small but significant population of ethnic Koreans, many of whom use Japanese names and were born in Japan, but not all of whom have Japanese nationality, it would be wise not to make assumptions about the remainder of the authors.

    For a broad overview of the lesbian community in Japan, including a discussion of its international component and language issues, see Sawabe Hitomi in this volume (pp. 6-32), and Welker, 'Telling her story.' For a discussion of some of the tensions that have arisen in response to ethnic Koreans' insistence that their existence be recognised in the community, see Iino Yuriko, 'The politics of 'disregarding': addressing Zainichi issues within the lesbian community in Japan,' in Journal of Lesbian Studies, vol. 10, nos 3/4 (2006):69–85.

    [4] Japanese names are given here in their natural order of surname preceding given name.

    [5] See Julia C. Bullock, 'Fantasizing what happens when the goods get together: female homoeroticism as literary trope,' in positions, vol. 14, no. 3 (2006):663–85.

    [6] Ikeda Michiko, 'Dai san no sei' (The third sex), in Bungei (November 1953):50–65; Ōta Tenrei, Daisan no sei: Sei wa hōkai suru no ka? (The third sex: is sex breaking down?), Tokyo: Myōgi shuppan, 1957, pp. 407–09.

    [7] While not all lesbian mini-komi include fiction, many do. Among the better known groups to produce them in the 1970s and early 1980s was Wakakusa no Kai (Young grass club) (1971-1985). The group's non-commercial 'magazine' Eve & Eve, of which only two issues were published, the first in 1982, is well-known in the community and contains a variety of fiction as well as articles. The group also produced a similar but largely forgotten publication in the 1970s called simply Wakakusa (Young grass). Rather than new fiction, much of the spring 1975 volume I was able to locate is devoted to reviews of works depicting lesbians, some well-known, others apparently now forgotten but surely worth rediscovering. Other possible sources of fiction include Hyōkoma raifu: atarashii sei no yōshiki wo motomete (Hyōkoma life: seeking new ways of living) and XX (Kusukusu), mini-komi from the late 1980s and early 1990s produced by different segments of the lesbian community.

    [8] While the essays are clearly well-researched, in lieu of numerous citations, a brief bibliography is appended in the back of the volume.

    [9] While an increasing number of lesbian-themed manga is becoming available in English translation, for the most part these works are not coming out of the lesbian press. One exception, in addition to the 'Plica-chan' excerpts in this volume, is Takashima Rica's Rica 'tte kanji (Very Rica), Tokyo: Tera shuppan, 2003, a collection of manga, which, like 'Plica-chan,' originally appeared in the commercial lesbian magazine Anise and was collected and made available in a bilingual volume.


Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 27 May 2009 1339

This page has been optimised for 1024x768
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.