Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 34, March 2014

Ronald P. Loftus

Changing Lives:
The 'Postwar' in Japanese Women's Autobiographies and Memoirs

Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, 2013
ISBN ISBN: 978-0-924304-69-9 (pbk), 206 pp.

reviewed by Aya Nakamura

  1. Changing Lives: The 'Postwar' in Japanese Women's Autobiographies and Memoirs by Ronald P. Loftus is an insightful addition to current scholarship on Japanese post-war and women's history. A major portion of Loftus's research is dedicated to translating memoirs and autobiographies written by Japanese women in the decades after World War II. By reproducing these texts in excerpted form and by situating them within a broader historical and discursive framework, Loftus effectively argues that individual reaction to the Allied occupation and later post-war events split along gender lines.
  2. Changing Lives is divided into six chapters and organised according to a rough chronology of Japanese history, beginning with Japan's defeat and the Allied occupation. Historical background, research objectives and methodology, and theoretical considerations regarding history as a discipline are addressed at the beginning of the first chapter. Loftus proposes to research Japanese women's post-war experiences by reading their memoirs and autobiographies, in order to 'explore their reactions to the end of the war and to the challenges and opportunities that the early post-war years presented to them' (p. 2). Although he does not divulge his selection process, he consistently chooses authors that contextualise personal narratives in relation to larger national events, including the war, the occupation, Japan's new democracy, the Ampo struggle of 1960, the 'women's lib' movement of 1970, and beyond.[1]
  3. Loftus's main analytical work lies in examining the central role that textual strategies play in the development of historical agency or 'feminine consciousness.' The authors' move to describe and reflect upon their experiences in print is instrumental to the development of their agency vis-à-vis a reality conditioned by Japan's conservative patriarchal system. Reconstructing a coherent narrative of one's life cements a consciousness of oneself as a semi-autonomous actor, one that is both enmeshed in the social order and capable of acting within it. Within textual and discursive space, the authors articulate themselves and their experiences in relation to dominant cultural mores, political ideologies, corporate structures, the educational system, government policy, and language itself. Doing so allows them to develop a consciousness about how these institutions have shaped them, and how they have in turn impacted on these institutions. Loftus is therefore interested in first hand accounts both for their capacity to provide a tangible link to the past, and as textual constructions, the result of complex and often fraught negotiations between individuals and the world they inhabit.
  4. The accounts featured in this volume vividly illustrate this point. Chapter 1, which focuses on the war and its immediate aftermath, includes writing by Istuko Okabe, Teruko Yoshitake, Eiko Shinya and Hisae Sawachi. The authors condemn the war in no uncertain terms; Okabe tells the story of her teenage years during the war and her failure at the time to support her fiancée's controversial anti-war stance, conditioned as she was by imperial propaganda. Her personal anecdote serves a metaphoric function to reveal the extent to which Japan's citizenry had been co-opted by wartime government and military rhetoric, for which it ultimately paid the price. Sawachi criticises the military invasion of Manchuria by blending historical reportage with accounts of her and her family's experience of the Japanese invasion in Jilin. She prevails upon Japan to confront its history and to accept responsibility for its actions in order to prevent similar incidents from recurring. Shinya develops her own brand of historical consciousness by staging one-woman plays that represent oppressed female minorities in Japanese history and society. Disillusioned by Japan's defeat and her own part in the war, she reformulates her beliefs: 'I began to become aware of the importance of seeing with your own eyes and speaking from your own heart' [Loftus' emphasis] (p. 25). Her answer to the war is to recover marginalised histories in order to spread awareness and agitate for peace.
  5. Teruko Yoshitake's A History of Women's Movements-and My Experience of the Postwar Years is the most extensively quoted work in this volume, appearing in chapters 1, 2 and 3. For Yoshitake, 'defeat in the war was for Japanese women the beginning of a new life' [Loftus' emphasis] (p. 19). The legal status of women changed radically with the Allied authorities' passing of the equal rights clause of the 1947 Constitution and the revised Civil Code of 1948; they granted women the legal right to vote, participate in politics, and access higher education and jobs once reserved for men. Yoshitake recounts how her determination to take advantage of this major turning point in Japanese history led her to tackle the various opportunities and obstacles in store for her, including college and a career in marketing at a major film studio. Her deep level of engagement with women's post-war activism is evident not only in accounts of her direct involvement as an activist, but also in her writing of history from the perspective of women's movements as they fought to protect Japan's new democratic ideals. For instance, her account of the Ampo struggle of 1960, which saw mass protests over the renewal of the US-Japan security treaty and Japan's rearmament, sheds light on the role that groups like the Women's Bureau of the Socialist Party played in curbing government efforts to stifle protest activities. Yoshitake demonstrates that history is personal, its outcome the responsibility of every individual, and that the personal is history writ small, the product of a particular time and place.
  6. Junko Kishino's Things Visible From a Woman's Perspective: My Personal History as a Female Reporter is presented in chapter 4. After a decades-long career as a newspaper reporter during which she competed alongside her male coworkers and focussed entirely on work, Kishino makes the choice to retrieve her yasashisa (gentleness) and nurture a feminine consciousness that she had neglected in her fight to make gender equality a reality. She realises that by forcing herself to match her male counterparts' standards, she had ignored crucial aspects of herself as a woman. Furthermore, she draws parallels between her experience and the decline of Japan's post-war democracy, as conservative government forces clamped down on labour activism, remilitarised the nation and ushered in an era of high speed economic growth. Just as she had cast aside her 'gentleness' in her race to succeed, Japan had lost sight of its commitments—to remain a peaceful nation, to allow political diversity, etc.—in its race to become an economic superpower. By taking a stand with the 'gentler' side, a side that represents the values worth protecting in Japanese society, Kishino compels her readers to rethink the direction and identity of the nation.
  7. Toshie Kanamori's writing is featured in chapter 5 and serves a specific function; by drawing on her experiences of simultaneously working and caring for an ailing husband and an older family member, Kanamori makes a series of recommendations that would alleviate the burden disproportionately placed on women to provide family care. What she calls for is no less than a major transformation of Japanese society, in which the state and the male population would play an active part. Her activism stems from her lived experience, and her account of history is agential, with a view to tackling major issues looming in Japan's future regarding its aging population.
  8. In the final analysis, Changing Lives does the valuable work of presenting Japanese women's autobiographies and memoirs to English readers. The texts reveal the gendered nature of the post-war experience and foreground average, professional women as historical agents. In his interpretation of these texts, Loftus opts for a literary approach, one that allows him to analyse their construction and evaluate their function for the authors. That the texts are deeply motivated, that they contain the sum of the authors' efforts to situate themselves within history, and that they help to cement the authors' sense of agency and responsibility at the time of their writing are all shown to be positive and integral aspects of self-narration. Loftus seems at a loss only when weighing the merits of such texts against the standards of his discipline as he defines them, namely the telling of history from an 'objective and rational perspective.' How are subjective accounts to be evaluated? Do they function merely as artefacts that are subsumed under more authoritative, objective accounts? Or can their contents be relied upon to provide new historical data? Loftus himself appears unsure and vacillates between these two poles of thought in his treatment of the texts, which adversely affects an otherwise interesting work.


    [1] For more on the 1960 AMPO struggle, see Simon Andrew Avenell, Making Japanese Citizens: Civil Society and the Mythology of the Shimin in Postwar Japan, University of California Press, 2010, pp. 66–71.


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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