Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 26, August 2011
Julia C. Bullock

The Other Women's Lib:
Gender and Body in Japanese Women's Fiction

Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2010
ISBN 978-0-8248-3453-1 (pbk), ix + 199 pp.

reviewed by Elen Turner

  1. Julia C. Bullock's The Other Women's Lib: Gender and Body in Japanese Women's Fiction is a well-written, insightful and, at times, enlightening examination of the work of three female authors active in Japan in the 1960s. These are Kono Taeko (1926-), Takahashi Takako (1932-) and Kurahashi Yumiko (1935-2005), three of the most famous female authors of their generation.
  2. The time frame for the books and authors Bullock discusses is the 1960s; a period of high economic growth in Japan. At this time, there was a resurgence of the pre-war ideology of 'good wife and wise mother' which encouraged women to dedicate themselves to the development of the nation. Women were expected to devote themselves to the home so that men had the freedom to work outside of the home, in order to rebuild the economy and thus the nation (p. 2). Like many places at many times, male and female were seen as mutually exclusive categories, where identifying as one meant total denial of the other (p. 2). Bullock discusses stories and novels in which 'a world ruled by networks of power that structure human relationships according to positions of superiority/ inferiority, dominance/ submission, intellect/ body, transcendence/ immanence, and spiritual/ material along strictly gendered lines' (p. 95). The protagonists discover that, as women, they are automatically relegated to the negative side of each binary opposition (p. 95). This ideology should not necessarily be seen as traditional, but rather as an invented tradition of the post-war period in Japan (p. 28). Kono, Takahashi and Kurahashi resisted this ideology in their own lives and personalities, and created female protagonists 'who were unapologetically bad wives and even worse mothers' (p. 2). This placed them outside of culturally ingrained 'common sense' (p. 3).
  3. Bullock presents these authors as at the vanguard of the women's liberation movement in Japan, articulating the problems with binary models of gender and the home as a site of oppression in their fiction and non-fiction writings before the second-wave feminist movement gained momentum in the 1970s, when more political (and more widely celebrated) forms of protest became common (pp. 3, 4). She states,

      judging by the obvious feminist theoretical relevance of the authors addressed in this study, it may be time to rethink histories of feminism that privilege explicitly political speech over other methods of feminist discourse (p. 166).

  4. Japanese economic recession in the 1970s made it easier for people to question the results of economic growth, and this is when the feminist movement really began, yet these authors were questioning this very fact before it became more widely acceptable to do so (p. 6). Bullock states that feminist writings, such as those explored here, have until now largely been ignored by scholars because of their implicit, more subtle ways of rebelling against patriarchal society than the more overt tactics of the 1970s (p. 4).
  5. The Other Women's Lib is not structured according to author or text, but by theme and tropes that are challenged, reformulated or lamented (p. 10). In chapter 1, 'Party Crashers and Poison Pens: Women Writers in the Age of High Economic Growth,' Bullock justifies her labelling of these authors as feminists:

      each of them may be seen as challenging dominant stereotypes of femininity that they felt to be overly reductive and restrictive, thereby promoting a broader conceptualization of what it meant to be a woman in Japan during the 1960s. It is on the basis of this subversive intent that I characterize these three authors as feminist (p. 14).

  6. This chapter provides the contextualising information that the reader must carry with them for the duration for the book, such as details of the international and domestic Japanese political context of the 1960s. Though generally interesting and relevant for the rest of the book, I felt that discussion of the authors under study was delayed for too long, and bringing in examples from their literature at this early stage in the book would have strengthened Bullock's argument that this literature was politically important.
  7. In chapter 2, 'The Masculine Gaze as Disciplinary Mechanism,' Bullock employs Foucauldian theory to two short stories and a novel, particularly that of the self-regulating panopticon, as well as Laura Mulvey's theories on how classic Hollywood cinema constructs the body of the woman as an object of the masculine gaze. Bullock demonstrates how Japanese women in the post-war period were mobilised to participate in economic and social rebuilding through 'moral suasion' (p. 55). In the texts discussed, this internalisation of disciplinary mechanisms leads the female protagonists towards alienation and division from the self (p. 77).
  8. Chapters 3 and 4, 'Feminist Misogyny? Or How I Learned to Hate My Body' and 'Odd Bodies,' respectively, detail some of the most disturbing, and particularly memorable and notable, aspects of Japanese feminist fiction of the 1960s. Bullock highlights the violence, or potential for self-destructive violence (often sexual), of the female protagonists. In keeping with that learned from the previous chapter, we are shown how females have internalised misogynistic male chauvinism and reproduced this in their own lives. Bullock states:

      The male characters in these stories so convince the female protagonists of the validity of this hierarchically gendered value system that the women either accept it at face value and succumb to self-destructive behavior or identify themselves as provisionally masculine in order to prove that they are an exception to the rule of feminine inferiority (p. 78).

  9. Chapter 5, 'The Body of the Other Woman' poses the question of whether 'differences among women may be just as insurmountable as the differences between women and men' (p. 128). The integrity of 'woman' as a coherent signifier is interrogated as the trope of the way that the body of the 'Other Woman' is employed (p. 128). Substitution of one woman for another—whether it be mother for stepmother, sister for wife or female lover for the self—is seen in the stories discussed in this chapter. This substitution leads to profound psychological instability in the female protagonists, and the realisation that communion or solidarity amongst women is not possible generates profound loneliness (p. 151).
  10. The conclusion of The Other Women's Lib, 'Power, Violence, and Language in the Age of High Economic Growth' revisits some of the questions of the first chapter, about the changing roles of women from the post-war period to the 1960s. It is in this conclusion that Bullock discusses how Kono Taeko, Takahashi Takako and Kurahashi Yumiko were part of a trend, at the vanguard of the Japanese feminist movement. The broader appeal of a study such as this is surely what the texts and the authors say about aspects of the society they come from. Consequently, I feel it is unfortunate that the author waited until the conclusion to discuss how the authors were part of a forward-looking trend, rather than just a backwards-looking one. Bullock does an excellent job throughout of contextualising these writers' work within 1960s Japanese society, and in explaining how they were different from what came before. However, knowing that feminism made enormous gains in the 1970s means that a more explicit exploration of what these emerging trends led to would be enlightening. I feel that the conclusion brushed over this aspect rather too rapidly, and another section solely focused on this would have added to Bullock's analysis.
  11. Another minor problem I have with this book is that the title is somewhat misleading. Japanese Women's Fiction could suggest some type of survey, or at least a study of a cross-section of female authors. This is not what this book is, as Bullock focuses on just three authors. Whilst the in-depth analysis of several of these authors' texts helps to reveal multifaceted aspects of the issues their work raises, I do not get a sense from this book what Japanese women writers from the 1960s more generally wrote about gender and the body. Bullock states at times that the literary establishment was not kind to women who deviated from the norm, and suggests that these three authors did just that. In that case, a change in the subtitle to suggest that this book was really only dealing with an atypical or radical section of Japanese female writers may have been more helpful to the prospective reader.
  12. This book would appeal to scholars and students of Japanese and global literature, and those with an interest in contemporary Japan. As well as these rather obvious audiences, this book would be very appealing to anyone interested in gender and women's studies, even those without a particularly literary focus or background. As a student of feminist literature in other (Anglophone) societies, I felt that this book provided a stimulating entry into the feminist literature of a language to which I do not usually have access. I could also see strong links between the oppression of Japanese women due to what was considered women's 'nature' and women in other societies. However, with a non-literary studies or non-Japanese studies audience in mind, I feel that it is a shame that Bullock mainly chose works that were available in English translation. She states that she did this so that readers could consult the original texts should they wish (pp. 5–6). If she had chosen texts or authors otherwise inaccessible to the non-Japanese language reader, she could have introduced aspects of Japanese literature to a new audience. Nevertheless, this is an engaging, complex and unique study, and one that this reviewer highly recommends.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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