Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 30, November 2012
Noriko J. Horiguchi

Women Adrift: The Literature of Japan's Imperial Body

University of Minnesota Press; Minneapolis and London, 2012
ISBN 978-0-8166-6978-3 (pbk); xxv + 242pp.

reviewed by Jennifer Coates

  1. Drawing from works of literature and film, legal and educational documents, and academic critique and popular commentary, Noriko J. Horiguchi's study of the work and lives of three prominent female authors in imperial Japan is a fascinating approach to a popular topic. The authors in question, Yosano Akiko, Tamura Toshiko and Hayashi Fumiko have been the subject of much recent criticism; however Horiguchi's interdisciplinary study constitutes a rethinking of their writing and lives. While Horiguchi's work, Women Adrift: The Literature of Japan's Imperial Body, contributes to the extant discourse on the three women writers' work from a literary perspective, her intermixing of biographical, historical and popular subject matter, as well as her foray into film criticism at the end of the book, ensures that her work contributes to a variety of fields, including women's studies, Japanese history, film studies, studies of nationalism, memory studies and feminist studies.
  2. Horiguchi challenges popular views of these three writers' work as apolitical, and their personal positions as women innocent of collusion in the imperial project. Noting that Japanese women are often viewed in historical and popular discussion as 'passive victims of the government and military'(p. viii) during Japan's expansionist period, Horiguchi analyses not only the writers' literary output, but also their personal movements around expanding Japan, in order to demonstrate their active participation in the nation's imperial project. At the same time, Horiguchi problematises the polarising definition of Japanese subjects as either participants or objectors in the state's imperial drive, demonstrating clearly that each writer both opposed and condoned national aggression at various points in her career, and on various gender or class bases.
  3. The aim of the text is thus fairly complex, attempting to make some very big claims about the popular reception and memory of the three writers, while avoiding a simplistic black and white depiction of imperial Japan and its subjects. Horiguchi devotes a long introduction to laying out these aims clearly, making a connection between 'women's bodies that move and the border/body of the empire that expands' (p. viii), a theme which runs throughout the book. She is clear in her aim to demonstrate that not only the writers who are the focus of her study, but also large numbers of the population, were both victims and aggressors simultaneously.
  4. The first chapter introduces the concept of the nation as a body, on which much has recently been written. Horiguchi places analyses of the Civil Code (1897) and the Imperial Constitution (1889) in historical context to demonstrate the multiple ways in which the image of Japan as a body filtered down through the population. Exploring the place of women in this imperial body, the next chapter makes a case for female subjects as the 'universal womb' (p. 19) of Japan, part of a political agenda to produce children to become soldiers in the imperial army. Horiguchi also notes the image of working class women as the hands of Japan, used in manual labour in factory production, another facet of imperial expansion. While both these points have been addressed in previous scholarship such as the work of Sharalyn Orbaugh, Barbara Molony, Kim Brandt and Mariko Asano Tamanoi, Horiguchi's placing of these polar images side by side challenges the prevailing tendency to write of the female body in Japan as one cohesive entity, focusing either on working class women or middle and upper class women. By highlighting the differing implications for imperial interpellation inherent in class difference, Horiguchi makes a valuable contribution to scholarship on Japanese women's history.
  5. Leading into her third chapter on 'Resistance and Conformity,' Horiguchi notes at the end of chapter two that the different 'types' of women in imperial Japan were allocated different spaces within the empire and confined there (p. 30). Chapter three explores the ways in which women negotiated the borders of these spaces, both socially and physically. Ending with a discussion of the migrant female body, which will be the main focus of the rest of the book, Horiguchi notes that the migrant provides a paradigm for women's simultaneous resistance and conformity with the state in imperial Japan.
  6. The work and lives of Yosano, Tamura and Hayashi are the subject of the next three chapters—allocated one chapter each. The previous chapters' historical background is useful to the reader in following Horiguchi's argument through the particulars of each writer's movements around the empire and away from Japan. Figuring the migrant female body as free in a way impossible at home in Japan, at the same time Horiguchi acknowledges the ethical problems this poses, as each writer embraces selected aspects of imperial aggression in their desire for gender equality. While the setting of literary analysis alongside biographical information can be a little clumsy, and the necessarily concise descriptions of each writer's movements are listed rather than integrated within the writing, the careful work of the previous chapters serves to integrate this section with Horiguchi's overall structure and argument.
  7. By way of conclusion, Horiguchi turns to Naruse Mikio's adaptation of two of Hayashi Fumiko's novels, in order to introduce the ideas of memory and nostalgia into her argument. She demonstrates concisely how such post-war work as these adaptations assists in cementing the memory of women's experiences in imperial Japan as solely those of victims, discounting their collaborative past. While Catherine Russell, amongst other film historians, has written extensively on Naruse's work, Horiguchi is in a position to point out aspects of the original texts which have been excluded or revised in adaptation, given her background as a literary analyst and her careful analysis of the written texts in the previous chapters. This investigation supports her argument very well, as she notes that several passages in each novel alluding to women's complicity with the state in Japanese aggression have been left out of the subsequent film adaptations, in favour of apolitical scenes of female suffering.
  8. In her use of multiple mixed media primary sources, Horiguchi's book ties together many loose ends in Japanese literary, film and historical studies. Her attempt to use multiple media sources and her rigorous refusal to simplify this complex historical period often creates minor problems in clarity from one chapter to the next, but a strong overriding argument ensures her complex points come through. Covering a substantial period of Japanese history from a variety of angles, this book would make a good introduction to Japanese studies for the general reader. However, the ambitious interdisciplinarity of her approach also makes the text an ideal guide for students attempting to use a wide variety of materials in their own studies, and indicates how very productive an interdisciplinary approach to Japanese studies can be.
  9. A minor weaknesses of the work overall is that the stories of these three exceptional female writers give little indication of the experience of the everyday female subject of imperial Japan. Consideration of how the writer's work was received in their lifetime by the everyday reader rather than focusing entirely on the interpretations of literary critics may have provided some insights here. Horiguchi's work can be said to deal more with the female image than the reality of life for women in imperial Japan, as our understanding of events in the lives of Yosano, Tamura and Hayashi are inevitably relayed through their own writing, with its various political and social agendas.
  10. This is nonetheless an extremely valuable contribution to a variety of fields within scholarship on Japan, and a well-executed display of the interdisciplinary possibilities within Japanese literary, historical, film and women's studies, which as yet have had little to say to one another, and miss valuable opportunities as a consequence.


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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