Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 28, March 2012
Michiko Suzuki

Becoming Modern Women:

Love and Female Identity in Prewar Japanese Literature and Culture

Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010,
ISBN: 0-8047-6198-1; 233 pp.

reviewed by Melek Ortabasi

  1. English-language feminist scholarship on modern female identity in Japan has burgeoned in the past quarter century, building on the solid foundation laid by now 'classic' texts such as historian Sharon Sievers' Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan (1983)[1] and landmark anthologies such as Recreating Japanese Women, 1600–1945, edited by historian Gail Lee Bernstein (1991)[2] . Literary scholars have added complexity to the feminist debate on modernity through translations[3] and studies of individual woman authors.[4] While historians have dominated in the area of cultural studies, publishing a variety of scholarship that explores the link between gender identity and popular culture in Japan,[5] literary scholars like Suzuki demonstrate how close textual readings can contribute to the discussion. Using a variety of literary and critical sources from the first half of the twentieth century, primarily those by prominent Japanese women, Becoming Modern Women describes how 'various ideas about love coalesced to create a modern image of the process of growth and development for women' (p. 3).
  2. Suzuki's book is straightforwardly written and clearly organised; the chapters' themes follow the various forms of female love that mark this developmental 'process of growth.' The first section, entitled 'Girls and Virgins,' treats same-sex or homosocial love among young girls; the second section discusses the next 'logical' phase of a woman's life during this historical period—marriage—and takes the title 'The Wife's Progress.' The last section, entitled 'Reinventing Motherhood,' discusses the wife's 'maturation' after bearing children. While these section titles suggest the limited opportunities for women to define themselves in early-twentieth century Japan, Suzuki makes the case that the women who participated in this debate were not satisfied with simply filling these roles, but focused instead on how various ideas of love would aid their active process of 'becoming modern women.' Indeed, her discussion of the female authors and literary works that forms the core of each section demonstrates that these apparently stereotyped templates were anything but fixed.
  3. After the brief Introduction, where Suzuki outlines the historical, cultural and ideological context for the debate on women and love in modern Japan, she turns to the only popular woman writer featured in the book. This is the weakest section of Becoming Modern Women, in my opinion. While Suzuki sheds light on how Yoshiya Nobuko invested her popular fiction about same-sex love among young women with a certain type of identity politics, she draws the boundaries of the discussion too narrowly. Yoshiya may have been 'actively engaging with contemporary sexological discourse' to argue for 'the legitimacy of adult same-sex love' (p. 56), but the mass-market appeal of these works for shōjo should not be left out of the equation, as Suzuki largely has. While I agree with Suzuki's argument that Yoshiya effectively manipulated the common 'girls' writing style' (p. 47) to portray an unprecedented and 'socially acceptable' view of same-sex love between girls (p. 62), a comparison with other popular media for girls from the period would have given more credence to the idea that Yoshiya's fiction is also 'politically resistant' (p. 62).
  4. The next section is stronger, quite possibly because the featured author, Miyamoto Yuriko, was also a highly intellectual political activist with a vested interest in resisting dominant discourses, including that of marriage (p. 78). Drawing on a wide range of works that display views on marriage ideology, from authors as diverse as Hiratsuka Raichō and Tanizaki Jun'ichirō, Suzuki goes beyond the usual interpretation of Miyamoto's Nobuko as a 'feminist I-novel' (p. 79). By performing a layered reading of the first serialised version of the novel (1924–1926) with the 1928 monograph, Suzuki seeks to demonstrate how Miyamoto's view of female selfhood evolved. This close comparative reading is quite effective in showing how Miyamoto initially created a young female protagonist intrigued with the idea of love marriage and its role in forming selfhood, whom she eventually replaced with a more mature female character who seemed to '[embrace] Marxism as the answer to the search for the true self' (p. 104). Here, Suzuki shows how writers like Miyamoto challenged love marriage ideology as the proper and only context for female self-definition.
  5. The last section discusses maternal love, an often fetishised aspect of motherhood that was a hot topic of debate among feminists such as Takamura Itsue and Hiratsuka Raichō, as well as an officially recognised way of binding 'individual female identity to the needs of the nation' (p. 114). Setting her reading of Okamoto Kanoko's Wheel of Life (1939) against this background, Suzuki wishes to show how this important but under-examined work expanded contemporary definitions of motherhood and maternal love. Because of Okamoto's well-publicised private life, many of her works are read autobiographically, but Suzuki shows how this monumental, modernist novel transcends such a perspective by 'present[ing] maternal love not in any actual terms of motherhood but as a symbolic, ultimate self-love that fulfills the individual' (p. 123). This asexual and self-centered conception of maternal love may have reflected the mythologising tendency of the times, Suzuki argues, but the text's ambivalent narrative structure 'is also a revisionary presentation of modern love ideology' because it offers an alternate vision of maternal identity that 'can escape the destiny of self-erasure and sacrifice for men and nation' (p. 144). While I am not entirely sure whether Okamoto's text actually intervened in the discourse on maternal love, I was convinced by Suzuki's comparison of Okamoto's wandering protagonist to the marebito (or 'visiting gods') most famously studied by folk and literature scholar Orikuchi Shinobu (1887–1953).[6]
  6. In summary, I think the book's greatest contribution is its careful and nuanced re-reading of well-known works by prominent Japanese women writers. I can certainly sympathise with the difficulty of resituating texts that have acquired well-established interpretive histories. To be honest, though, I had hoped for a slightly broader engagement with international feminist theory—one thinks for example of Simone de Beauvoir's trenchant critique of 'the role which has been foisted on mothers by twentieth-century society'[7] —a tactic that could have lent Suzuki's arguments more weight. On the other hand, as her extensive bibliography suggests, her command of Japanese and English sources directly connected to her topic is impressive. While I found the treatment of various aspects of Suzuki's ambitious topic a bit cursory at times, this concision and clarity also makes the text suitable for the undergraduate classroom. A useful companion to a course on women writers, modern Japanese history, or feminist theory, Becoming Modern Women also contributes to the scholarly discussion by bringing writings by Japanese women into closer dialogue with one another.


    [1] Sharon Sievers Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983.

    [2] Gail Lee Bernstein (ed.), Recreating Japanese Women, 1600–1945, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.

    [3] For example Jan Bardsley's collection, The Bluestockings of Japan: New Woman Essays and Fiction from Seitō, 1911–1916. Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2007. See also Rebecca Copeland and Melek Ortabasi (eds), The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

    [4] For example Janine Beichman's Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002.

    [5] A classic example is historian Miriam Silverberg's essay, 'The modern girl as militant,' in Recreating Japanese Women, ed. Bernstein, pp. 239–66. More recent monographs by historians include Barbara Sato's The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media and Women in Interwar Japan, Durham, NC: Due University Press, 2003; and Dina Lowy's The Japanese 'New Woman': Images of Gender and Modernity, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

    [6] For a brief description of Orikuchi's discussion of marebito, see Noriko T. Reider, Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present, Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, p. 3.

    [7] Yolanda Astarita Patterson, 'Simone de Beauvoir and the demystification of motherhood,' in Yale French Studies, no. 72 (1986): 87–105, p. 87.


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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