Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 29, May 2012

Between Allure and Anxiety:
An Imaginary Encounter

Rebecca Copeland

  1. In March 1895 the writer Kitada Usurai (1876–1900) published 'Wretched Sights' (Asamashi no sugata) in the popular literary journal Bungei kurabu (Literary Arts Club). Her account, which chronicled her visit to the Yoshiwara licensed quarters, was brief and likely would have gone unnoticed but for the reaction it generated. In the following issue, the editors of the journal printed a caustic response to Usurai. The rejoinder is notable for a number of reasons, but particularly because the author of the piece assumed the persona of a courtesan, a denizen of the quarters, and takes Usurai to task for what was believed to be her condescending attitude. A comparison of these two articles illustrates the tension produced or in this case imagined between the 'proper woman' and the woman 'procured,' a tension that similarly runs through the papers in this special issue. Here we have seen the uncomfortable apposition between the kisaeng past and present and the modern citizen; between geisha and new woman; and between the elite Korean woman travelling overseas and her more sedately homebound sister. Interestingly, as I set the binaries out here, it is difficult to decide which woman belongs to the category of 'good' and which to 'fallen,' which admired, and which feared? The instability of the categories and the ease with which one becomes the other—more mobius strip than binary—only intensified the necessity for policing the boundaries between them and enforcing the fictions that mandated their creation in the first place.
  2. But first to return to Usurai and her infamous article. Like most of her contemporaries, Usuari had enjoyed a privileged upbringing. She was well educated for a woman of her times and encouraged in her literary pursuits. She had made her writer's debut in 1894 under the tutelage of the powerful male writer Ozaki Kōyō (1868–1903), and was soon heralded as the 'Murasaki of the Meiji Period.' Like her Heian predecessor, Usurai was thought to be chaste and cloistered—the perfect image of a literary paragon. Melek Ortabasi writes:

      Usurai was not an activist; her works do not advocate overtly for women's rights or education.… Nor … was she notorious for her private life … she played without complaint the roles of daughter, wife, and mother much in the way that Meiji period government slogans prescribed. It is worth noting that her behavior, perceived as appropriately feminine and respectable, is probably one of the main reasons her male colleagues generally looked favorably upon her work. She is well-described as one of the women writers who accepted the contemporary 'vision of female gentleness and purity.'[1]

  3. Part of the 'vision' of the female writer of this era was that she would cleanse the sordid nature of contemporary literature. She was to tell of the sorrows caused by the injustices in the world—particularly, the unjust marriage system—and she was to appeal to the sympathies of her male counterparts. In doing so she would open their hearts and eyes and thereby help them set their course for a more moral nation, one that adhered to the principles of monogamy and despised the inequities of prostitution and concubinage. Much of the impetus for encouraging female writers came from men like Iwamoto Yoshiharu, editor of the Jogaku zasshi (Women's Education Journal, 1885–1904) and headmaster of the Meiji Women's School, who devoted his life to improving education for women and advocating for companionate marriages based on romantic love.
  4. This focus on women was largely generated by the conceit that the level of a country's 'civilisation' was measured by the way its women were integrated into society. In the civilised worlds—presumably those of the West—women were educated, exercised free choice and expected to preside over their homes with grace and proper judgment. Ironically, the source for this conceit, as Indra Levy has noted, may be traced to James Mill's A History of British India (1817), a highly influential work that while offering a comprehensive history of India also justifies colonial rule.

      The condition of women is one of the most remarkable circumstances in the manners of nations. Among rude people, the women are generally degraded; among civilized people they are exalted. In the barbarian, the passion of sex is a brutal impulse, which infuses no tenderness and his undisciplined nature leads him to abuse his power over every creature that is weaker than him. The history of uncultivated nations uniformly represents the women as in a state of abject slavery, from which they slowly emerge, as civilization advances.… As a society refines upon its enjoyments, and advances into that state of civilization, in which various incorporeal qualities become equal or superior in value to corporeal strength, and in which the qualities of the mind are ranked above the qualities of the body, the condition of the weaker sex is gradually improved, till they associate on equal terms with men, and occupy the place of voluntary and useful coadjutors.[2]

  5. To distinguish themselves from their 'lesser civilised' Asian neighbours, Japanese intellectuals, therefore, saw the importance of greater rights for women. And Iwamoto campaigned diligently to offer women the forum necessary for their voices. The founding of Jogaku zasshi, for example, was inspired partly as means to combat negative attitudes towards women and to help women find a more active way to help themselves. As Iwamoto was to declare: 'We need women journalists to write about women's issues. Men have viewed women as slaves for the past thousand years. It is not likely that they will undergo a transformation in two or three years and start writing for women's rights.'[3]
  6. Both the marriage institution that locked women into servile positions as well as the systems of prostitution and concubinage became targets of attack—in journalism and in literary works by men and women. Editors like Iwamoto felt that it was especially important for women to take up these issues, for only women truly had the empathy to appreciate and portray the human costs of these injustices. Again to cite from one of Iwamato's articles:

      In the West it is said that women are the ones most easily moved; and in our country it is women who are the most sympathetic. Because of this it is argued that men see the logic of things … while women, listening to their findings, bring the word to others. … They feel pity for the poor and sympathize with their suffering, thus they devise ways to rescue them. They feel sorrow for the sick and sympathize with their loneliness, thus they nurse them. All these charitable acts are the work of women. This is a woman's forte, and not to be surpassed by men.[4]

  7. Kitada Usurai added her voice to the chorus of protest when she wrote 'Wretched Sights.' The aforementioned essay, presumably based on her own experience, describes a visit to the licensed quarters during one of the annual Niwaka Festivals.[5] The narrator of the essay had not wanted to enter the quarters—finding it much too disreputable for her tastes—but she is cajoled into doing so by a male acquaintance. At first she is beguiled by the lively atmosphere of the quarters where the geisha and their apprentices dressed in gay costumes, rode through the streets on floats, dancing and drumming. Before , however, the narrator's reverie is disrupted by a disturbing scene—a middle-aged man watching the festivities, is set upon by touts who try aggressively to pull him into one of the establishments. The man wards them off and seems to be safely on his way when:

      just at that moment, the glass shōji door slid open and a prostitute in a long outer robe stepped out. She whispered what must have been words of encouragement in the man's ear for quite some time and, refusing to take no for an answer, led him inside. Surely he has a wife and child awaiting him at home. If they hear of what has taken place here, how they will weep.[6]

  8. The sight of this good-natured man being dragged into this unsavoury establishment leads the narrator to ruminate on the despicable nature of the trade—a trade that doesn't merely hurt the men who submit to their desires, but affects their wives and children, too. But the prostitute is not to be blamed. The narrator sympathises with her, too. 'Born pure, these women sink deeper and deeper into the muddy depths of prostitution. Like the caged bird unable to soar into the sky, how pitiful they are. Laughing, they put on a brave face, but deep in their hearts their sorrow knows no end. Unbeknownst to others, how they must resent the bitterness of this floating world.'[7] As the essay concludes, the narrator recalls a moment in her past where a strange man tried to lure her elder sister and herself off with the promise of a treat. If her maid had not intervened, she wonders, would she have ended up a 'wretched sight' as well?
  9. The essay sounded all the right chords—challenging a system that enslaves women and corrupts the moral fabric of the family, and doing so with empathy. But the rebuttal that appeared in the next issue of Bungei kurabu was scathing. The author of the piece, presumably male, assumed the guise of Usurai's prostitute—in her long outer robe—and castigated the author with ad hominem venom.

      That's right, I was sold into the business when I was seven. And since the time I was a courtesan's apprentice I've mastered … koto, samisen, incense, flower arts, tea,… fancy words, and love talk, too, until here I am now in my 'long outer robe,' And you! 'The new Murasaki of Japan'! You've learned all you know from reading Jogaku zasshi, Miyako no hana, and all those other new publications. How glad I am that my education differs so from that of a disgusting writer like you![8]

  10. Where had Usurai gone wrong? Clearly she had not only stepped over the line, but stepped on toes. And for that, she had to be 'put back in place.' But the method for the correction is as intriguing, if not more so, than the correction itself. The anonymous author of the rebuttal invents a confrontation between the 'proper wife' (behaving improperly) and the prostitute. It is for the latter that readers are to find sympathy, for she is merely doing her job (and doing it well). She has not presumed to criticise others (even though she has); she has not questioned her status. The 'Modern Murasaki,' on the other hand, by inserting herself into a realm that is beyond her ken, has been re-invented as the 'bad girl,' the wayward woman, mouthy, preachy and with an ambition that far exceeds her talent. She has become, whether she meant to or not, the prototypical 'New Woman'—unfeminine, outspoken and highly moralistic. In short, she has presented a threat to the neatly etched borders of gendered expectation and must be roped back in. The means for doing so, as Joanna Russ has cleverly observed, are as nonsensical and illogical as the expectations themselves. In short, the wayward woman must be de-sexed; over-sexed; de-talented; and silenced.[9] Ironically, whereas Usurai had set out to commiserate with the prostitute for her caged existence, she too is just as tightly bound—at least literarily—to a categoried life that is as sexually charged as that of the prostitute.
  11. At stake in the papers presented in this special issue—despite the diversity of the place and era explored—are power, knowledge and control. Regardless of class, education, profession or status, ultimately all categories of women—whether elegantly feminine kisaeng or be-whiskered new woman—become repositories for patriarchal expectation. Each is caged to some degree or another by this expectation. Each sits alongside the other—behind metaphorical harimise—on display for all and sundry to see. And yet these categories are unstable. The kisaeng, as Ruth Barraclough shows, can be both quintessentially traditional in her exquisite suffering while at the same time thoroughly modern in her ability to market her own re-invention. Alternatively, the 'good woman' of Tokyo and Seoul must carefully strike a balance between being a visibly modern, public persona and respectably modest. Each woman, in the end, becomes the focal point, if not the catalyst, for the frustrations and fears generated by the disruptions taking place in the societies around them.
  12. The instability of these categories is thus vexed by the instability of the times in which we encounter them in these papers. Whether in 1912 Tokyo or 1927 Seoul the social-political contexts were as volatile as the categories under discussion. Barraclough's neat summarisation of the socio-political landscape in Korea, could easily be applied to the other case studies—give or take an element or two: 'With the onset of colonial modernisation, received notions of morality, of the family, of marriage and of selfhood were challenged both by interaction with Japanese, Russian and Western ideas, and by the myriad indigenous responses to colonial modernity.'[10]
  13. The shifting landscape loosened the walls to these categories—which had never been completely fixed anyway—and gave rise to new kinds of anxieties. Not surprisingly, it is at the point where the competing categories collide, where 'good' girl intersects 'bad,' that anxiety grows most pronounced—at least the anxiety that accrued to those most committed to policing the categorical borders. It is also at these points of collision and rupture that we find an opening out onto new fields of creativity and the greatest potential for subversive play.
  14. There is after all something very positive, powerful and promising at these sites of intersection—where categories collide—where new woman meets kisaeng. The name the kisaeng selected for her journal—Enduring Bitterness (Chang han)—the journal by, for and of kisaeng, for example, seems to hint at this powerfully promising subversion.[11] Taken together, the words almost seem to cancel one another out, to contradict. And, in the friction that arises from this disconnect we feel the pride of the kisaeng—the celebration of survival—a celebration of such richness that it nearly topples the bitterness from which it was deployed. From the exquisite language of pain blooms power—as the subaltern speaks.
  15. That brings us to other contradictory pairs—the western-educated Korean woman and the traditional wife and also the courtesan and the new woman. I am particularly drawn to the fascinating cartoon that Jan Bardsley presents and discusses in her paper. That cartoon pulls to the forefront an aspect important to all the papers collected here, and that is the play of gazes and the struggle to control the gaze. The cartoon—which pits the lovely recumbent geisha against the unattractive New Woman flâneuse—reveals clearly that both sides of the equation are equally susceptible to the unequal, asymmetrical polarising force of the gaze. Both sides are made to attend to the objectifying demands of the male viewer. Both are trapped. But in her paper, Bardsley pushes past this play of gazes and challenges us to look behind the scenes, to see—not what the male viewer saw or imagined he saw—but what the women saw themselves, of themselves.
  16. But how do we access this vision? To get behind the scenes we have to see—as Bardsley suggests—beyond the binaristic categories of new and old, past and present, good and bad, westernised and non-westernised, masculine and feminine. What DID the new woman see when she beheld the courtesan? And did the object of her gaze have her own agency? Standard discussions of 'the gaze' inevitably involve questions of power. One person has it, the other does not. Even when women assume the position of the gazer, the inequity in the hierarchies of power is not loosened. Do Lacanian, Kristevian, Mulvian binaristic objectification of the gaze get us where we need to be—to see? Or, here can we turn to Bracha Ettinger's concept of the matrixial gaze to see how maybe the new woman and the courtesan might both gain from their encounter? And that the encounter does not need to be at the expense of the other? I suggest that this matrixial gaze invites a non-binaristic vision that opens new fields of imaginings.
  17. As I understand Bracha L Ettinger's anti-logocentric, impression-driven, complex but nevertheless absolutely beguiling system of seeing, she challenges us to move beyond a Lacanian gaze where men are always the subject of the gaze and women the object—and enter a different system of seeing that frees women of objectification—of the kind of objectification we see in this cartoon. Her matrixial gaze shifts the emphasis away from subject and object, from existing and lacking, and focuses on the trans-subjectivity or sharing that escapes the binaristic claims of male-female. In a way, I see the Ettinger-matrixial gaze as restoring an original pre-patriarchial, pre-signifier, pre-gaze genius to these female figures. A genius that need not be spoken, cannot be spoken—an 'Original-Woman-was-the-Sun'-kind of genius.[12]
  18. Here, where the courtesan and new woman square off in a play of gazes we might imagine that they see not their antithesis, not even a mirror image of themselves or of the selves they might have been or could become. Rather they would behold a magic mirror of sorts where outlines blur and in the interstices between the categories that once contained these women we have a matrixial borderland where the self and the other—the I and the non-I— confront traces of experience and memory and lost desires and the threads and pathways of a shared unconscious that merge into a plurality of shared female experience and produce a particular kind of knowledge. To quote from Ettinger:

      The matrixial gaze exposes instances of co-birthing and co-fading in which some excess that surpasses the artist as subject is suddenly distinguished out. What is captured and is given form to at the end of such a trajectory is what was waiting to be born and to receive almost-impossible articulation, in a body-psyche-time-space of suspension-anticipation that you can only 'view' or glimpse by joining in.[13]

  19. Ettinger is also a visual artist and for her it seems the process of achieving this matrixial gaze, this borderland is often done best through art. We, too, can find a matrixial gaze—a gaze that will help us work through the myopic binarisms we behold in cartoons such as the one in the art work of the women we are pursuing here. We see this in Raichō's impassioned essays—such as 'Original Woman Was the Sun' and in Yosano Akiko's magical poetry on moving mountains and curtains of mystery.[14] We see this in the kisaeng's efforts to express (and market) her 'enduring bitterness.' And we see this in the nearly imperceptible shift between glamorous woman and hardened gambler—at the borderlands where good woman and bad women meet, shed their inauthentic, socially-instituted identities, and share in a female knowing.


    [1] Melek Ortabasi, 'Introduction to Kitada Usurai,' in The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan, ed. Rebecca Copeland and Melek Ortabasi, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006, pp. 185–91, p. 186.

    [2] As cited in Indra Levy, Sirens of the Western Shore: The Westernesque Femme Fatale, Translation, and Vernacular Style in Modern Japanese Literature, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006, p. 51.

    [3] Iwamoto Yoshiharu, Jogaku zasshi no. 80 (October 15, 1887): 182. As cited in Rebecca Copeland, Lost Leaves: Women Writers of Meiji Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000, p. 30.

    [4] Iwamoto, Jogaku zasshi no. 32 (August 15, 1886): p. 23. As cited in Copeland, Lost Leaves, p. 32.

    [5] Edward Seidensticker describes the Niwaka festival as follows:

      In late summer and early autumn the quarter set out lanterns in memory of an eighteenth-century courtesan of great popularity and sensitivity and high attainments, while dances known as Niwaka were performed on wheeled stages that moved up and down the main central street. They were sometimes humorous and sometimes solemnly dramatic, and the performers were the geisha, male and female, of the quarter.

    From Low City, High City, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 173.

    [6] Kitada Usurai, 'Wretched Sights,' trans. Rebecca Copeland in The Modern Murasaki, p. 216.

    [7] Kitada Usurai, 'Wretched Sights,' trans. Rebecca Copeland in The Modern Murasaki, p. 216.

    [8] As cited in Copeland, Lost Leaves, p. 40.

    [9] Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women's Writing, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. See particularly Chapter 4 'Pollution of Agency,' pp. 25–38.

    [10] Ruth Barraclough, 'The courtesan's journal: kisaeng and the sex labour market in colonial Korea,' in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, issue 29, (May 2012), para. 20, online:

    [11] The image is further complicated and enriched by the fact that the title points to the famous poem by Tang Dynasty's Bai Juyi, Song of Eternal Sorrow which mourned the loss of the beautiful femme fatale Yang Guifei. Consort Yang, beloved by the Emperor Xuanzong, was blamed for the Anshi Rebellion and forced to kill herself. But the poem, celebrating her beauty and loyalty and love, restore her to history as a tragic figure. Yang Guifei, beautiful, vulnerable, and fated for destruction, survives as an icon of exquisite suffering. Or as the final lines of the poem read: 'Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days./But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.'

    [12] 'Original woman was the Sun,' or 'Genshi josei wa taiyō de atta' was the essay by Hiratsuka Raichō that opened the inaugural issue of the feminist journal Seitō (1911–1916) and electrified a generation. In the essay Raichō urges women to uncover their hidden strengths, their innate talents, and unearth their geniuses. 'I, together with all women, want to believe in hidden Genius. Simply believing in that possibility makes me want to rejoice with all my heart in our good fortune at having been born into this world as women. Our savior is solely the Genius that exists within us. It is not something we seek through Buddha or God, in temples or churches.' See Jan Bardsley, The Bluestockings of Japan: New Woman Essays and Fiction from Seitō, 1911–16, Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2007, p. 101.

    [13] Bracha L. Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2006, p. 150.

    [14] For Raichō's essay, 'Original woman was the Sun,' see Bardsley, The Bluestockings of Japan, pp. 94–103. For more on Yosano Akiko's poem 'Mountain Moving Day,' see Bardsely, The Bluestockings of Japan, pp. 246–58. For Yosano Akiko's poetic reference to 'curtains of mystery,' see Laurel Rasplica Rodd, 'Meiji Women's Poetry,' in The Modern Murasaki, pp. 29–54, esp. p. 41.


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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