40b. The Mobilization of Shōjo Culture pt. 1

Having recently committed myself to a scholarly schizophrenia, wherein I write the way others want me to for academic presses, I am now more or less free on this blog to write off the cuff in the manner I find most suited to the way I think.  With that in mind, I’d like to take you all on a bit of wayward, digressive journey through how I came to the critical conundrum in which I find myself, how I had to work my way out of it, and what all that has to do with manga.  I warn you in advance that while I will waste a great deal of space in today’s post on Japanese history and media, manga figures in only tangentially and only near the end.  One of the problems I consistently encounter in trying to make the arguments that I do is how the right or shall we say salient historiographic information is rarely in clear view.  The same old sequences of events with big names get repeated again and again, so much so that they take on a seeming obviousness.  I, then, find myself in the position of pointing out the not-so-obvious and therefore needing to rehash the most basic facts and historical analyses.

For some time, I have been trying to say something–anything, really, about Shiina Ringo.  I tried in my dissertation, I tried again a few years later by writing a misbegotten novel with a thinly veiled Shiina Ringo type at its core, then there was the paper I wrote about her “awkward poetics” that I ultimately set to one side, and then most recently I have tried putting together a manuscript on prostitution as metaphor for performance in her music as well as how she constructs the nature of desire.  One of my notebooks is now full of a bunch Lacanian claptrap I’m not sure even I can decipher anymore–and I’m the one who wrote it.  All this graphomania has been spurred by what for some time now has seemed an ineluctable contradiction: how can someone whose artistic output seems so avant-garde be at the same time thoroughly mainstream?  Not only is she ridiculously popular–in Asia, at least–but in 2009 she received a prize from the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs for her contribution to the arts.  In addition to her pop music career, she has scored films (e.g. 2007’s Sakuran, an adaptation of the excellent comic by Anno Moyoko), contributed original music to kabuki performances, and run her own production company, Kuronekodow.  She is about as “inside” as you can get.


Shiina Ringo as Sagi musume from the Just Can’t Help It tour

Yet, there remains that seeming contradiction.  For those of you not familiar with the landscape of J-pop, it roughly runs the gamut from off key and terrible to more or less passable.  Ringo’s work is, by contrast, heavily orchestrated, pulls from nearly the full range of musical genres in and outside Japan, is both musically and lyrically complex, and anchors itself in a performer who is as peculiar as she is virtuosic.  In trying to theorize what is going on in her total media persona, I kept running headlong into the insufficiencies of the feminist categories I had been relying on.  For as transgressive as any of her several masks appeared to be in an isolated close reading, they never seemed to actually transgress anything in the broader society.  On the contrary, she has always been met with wild, enthusiastic applause from nearly all social strata.  Her work, in practice, is the very opposite of contrarian.

Thinking Back on Japanese Feminism

At this point in a scholarly essay, after you’ve meandered a bit, you’re supposed to finally deliver the nuts, to outline in more or less uncertain terms what the point you’re meant to arrive at is, so that the vast preponderance of readers, who simply need to cite your work in the vaguest terms, might quickly find the take away to which they will append the necessary (Theisen 2016) to at least signal that they have done their homework, even if, upon close inspection, it’s clear they never bothered to actually read the critic at any great length.  I’m not entirely against such things, but having bifurcated my scholarly output into the selfless[ish] and the self-indulgent, I’d much rather forego such pleasantries and drag you through yet another seeming contradiction.  I promise that, if you stick around, its relevance will become apparent.

Japanese feminism, like its Western analogue, comes in waves.  Just as in the Anglophone world, the first wave was largely devoted to carving out a place for women in the public sphere with a special emphasis on suffrage, so too in Japan.  In the Anglophone world, this constituted a great victory, when in the US the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, or in 1918 the Representation of People Act was passed in the House of Commons.  In Japan, however, universal male suffrage wasn’t even achieved until 1925 and women’s suffrage not until after the war and the rewriting of the Japanese constitution.  This meant that women’s participation in the public sphere had to take a form other than those means which democratic voting rights typically allow.  There was, then, in the kindai period a flowering [sic] of women’s patriotic associations and leagues, and women took an active role in Japan’s various wars and colonial intrusions as nurses and as administrative workers.  In other words, the primary means by which women could be more than just “good wives and mothers” (ryōsai kenbo)–though we will return to that condition later on–was to directly serve Japan’s militarism and imperialist ambitions in the early modern era.

One of Japan’s second wave feminists, Ueno Chizuko, has identified this contradiction, the empowerment of women as means to oppress foreign peoples, as a festering sore at the heart of Japanese feminist history.

The feminist paradigm change, within which women emerged as subjects rather than objects of history, also brought about awareness that women are not simply the victims of war, but also active perpetrators in prosecuting it… As we have seen, most [Japanese] feminists in some way or other welcomed the plan for the nationalisation of women through modern, total war… It should not be forgotten that for women’s activists the nationalisation of women project was not in any way considered a reverse course or action, but was received as an innovation.  Women received this new system that both demanded and made possible women’s activity in the public sphere with excitement and something resembling a sense of mission.

(Nationalism and Gender p. 39, trans. Beverley Yamamoto)

Ueno goes on to quote a number of leading feminist lights of the first half of the 20th century, including Hiratsuka Raichō, on how the “mobilization” of women in service of the state can only have a positive outcome in how it both encouraged women to congregate and forced men to accept women leaving home and being in public.  As Ueno notes, though, this unquestioning attitude toward service to the nation state simply sets aside the fact that the very nation created in the wake of the Meiji Restoration was fundamentally imperialist and its identity was predicated on the subjugation of other East Asian peoples, supposedly in an effort to confront and beat back the imperial ambitions of Western powers.  Yet another seeming contradiction: in order to beat back colonialism, you have to colonize those “other places” first.

Of course, Raichō’s brand of feminist mobilization, born as it was from the activist ethos of the group she helped found, Seitō (“Bluestocking,” after the Blue Stockings Society), was not the only intellectual feminism in play.  The other, here represented by Yosano Akiko, was both less but not un-concerned with women’s public role as well as being ardently anti-imperialist/anti-militarist.  Aside from her seminal collection of waka, the Midaregami of 1901, Akiko was most famous for a poem addressed to her younger brother, in which she muses whether the sole purpose for which he was born was merely to be cut down in some foreign land.  Moreover, the fact that Akiko openly criticized Japan’s increasing militarism not only likely led to gross public indifference to her death in 1942 but also brought her into a very public row with Raichō over whether the state ought to provide assistance to families.  Akiko thought women should remain independent of the state and that their empowerment ought to be the means to provide for their families as individuals, not as imperial subjects.

In both cases, though, we see examples of what I am going to a call (small c) conservative feminism (there’s your take away).  What I mean by this is a kind of untethered, free-wheeling feminist thought in which women’s empowerment seeks in no way to challenge the underlying conditions that necessitated the drive for equal rights in the first place.  For Raichō, this means a failure to challenge the overlapping interests of capitalism and militarism that led to Japan’s aggressive incursions into other sovereign nation states.  For Akiko, this means a failure to challenge the patriarchal order that could only conceive of women as good wives/mothers.  In the modern day and in the West, it has produced media figures who, on the one hand, boldly celebrate the experiences of black women but who, on the other hand, depend upon the exploited labor of impoverished women to manufacture their high-end clothing lines.  This, then, in the modern intellectual economy, typically leads to both those who have become so invested in what said media figure represents that they bend over backwards to defend them (everybody does it!) as well as those who call out said figure as a “terrorist.”  What bell hooks tries to remind her audience, through hyperbole, is that there can be a form of female empowerment (and by extension empowerment of any oppressed group) that not only fails to challenge the status quo but actively colludes with it in furtherance of what are otherwise transformative or progressive goals.


Scan from Rakuten manga-shū taisei vol. 1 p. 170-1

In the process of writing today’s post I was reminded of this Rakuten comic I talk about at greater length in the second chapter of my book project.  What keeps bringing me back to this image is the sheer variety of readings it leaves itself open to, depending upon the perspective you bring to bear upon it.  Previously, I emphasized its ambivalence, but in light of the kind of (small c) conservative feminism I have tried to identify, the diptych strikes me not so much as a contradiction or even “two types of the new woman” but rather as a visualization of that which on the surface might appear to be contradictory but in the light of the practical realities of Japanese women’s history makes all too much sense: a woman is “awakened to the rights of her sex” so as to be “awakened to the duties of her sex.”  What feminist collusion in the project of Japanese nationalism as imperial ambition makes clear is that the practical realities of women’s liberation sometimes necessitate fundamental compromises, even of basic principles of social justice.  You take the much smaller victory on offer now to materially benefit the lives of women, even if that means giving up on the revolution.

“I Sing My Songs as if I Were a Prostitute”

Which brings me back, momentarily, to Shiina Ringo and the problem of transgression in one domain not equating to a broader revolutionary gesture.  By adopting the persona of the prostitute, the kept woman, as a metaphor for the situation of the performer on stage, Ringo in fact buys into the very idea of mobilization of one’s sexual identity that was at the very heart of kindai gender politics and, I would argue, remains so to this day.  In the US, where I grew up and now live, it is a genuinely progressive cause to champion the rights of sex workers and support decriminalization, even if this is a very contentious issue on the Left, because sex work of various kinds is either illegal or broadly frowned upon by (small c) conservative, state interests, and so laws governing it are strictly enforced.  In kindai Japan, though, not only was prostitution not illegal, prostitutes were both licensed by the Japanese state and Korean women conscripted (the euphemism is, again, “mobilized”) to serve as “comfort women” (read “sex slaves”) for Japanese officers on the front lines.  In modern times, prostitution is statutorily prohibited but not meaningfully enforced.  As a result, sex trades of various kinds proliferate more or less in full public view, and walking through Akihabara you can expect to be accosted by pimps and hawkers peddling a surprising assortment of commodified female bodies.

There were–and remain–then, two forms of sexual expression that were both mandated and directly overseen by the Imperial (now “democratic”) state: motherhood and prostitution.  With motherhood, the state controlled the means of reproduction, the means by which imperial subjects were created and inculcated with certain values.  Prostitution was sanctioned by the state in order to appease the all male military and keep them in line.  Stability in the military was important given the frequency with which splinter factions within it mounted insurrections meant to “restore the Emperor,” a polite euphemism for “our ruling on his behalf.”  Also, this official sanctioning was a fairly clear and obvious extension of the practice of limited prostitution made available to bourgeois males in the pleasure quarters that thrived under the shogunate.  It is to this image of the courtesan that Ringo repeatedly turns to in her music and visually on stage, a figure who is, on the one hand, liberated in so far as she is libertine, yet still in service to a society that has no real interest in granting her real self-determination.

In my notes, I had planned to turn now to the history of kabuki and the unregulated forms of prostitution that flourished for a time within it–but that’s a point for the Ringo book.  I’m already well far afield of anything having to do with contemporary manga, so it’s about time to draw the threads back together.  In my response to Prof. Lunning back in February, I finally settled on what I think is fundamental to these shōjo discussions and which is so often omitted from them: the experiences of actual adolescent girls in Japanese society.  It had seemed, way back in 1999, that the troubling phenomenon of teenage prostitution, so-called enjō kōsai (“compensated dating”), had finally been stamped out, when the Japanese government made the practice illegal and made a big show of cracking down.  This being Japan, though, statutory prohibition does not equate to disapproval in practice, and given the recent rise of so-called JK businesses (for joshi kōsei, “female high school student”), it’s unlikely that the 1999 crackdown was anything but the periodic show of force the authorities engage in to maintain the pretense that the country doesn’t run by way of a gentlemen’s agreement between local officials and organized crime.

It’s not my interest to engage in the debates over sex work, even though I have fairly clear opinions about it, but rather to show how the commodification of images of adolescent girls, the supposed shōjo of critical imagination, stems from an ideology rooted in the ongoing development of the Japanese nation state and its mobilization of women’s sexuality and domestic labor for imperialistic, militaristic ends.  It is through this mobilization that the proliferation of images of “the shōjo” touch upon the lived experiences of actual teenage girls in ways that are far from liberating or revolutionary.

So, next week, I will continue with a discussion of the history of those images in Japanese media, how they tie into the history of Japanese education, and how that education imposes a cultural identity upon Japanese adolescent girls even where it appears to free them from the impositions of a widely sexist civil society.

Stay tuned!


  1. […] no coincidence that I arrived last time, by way of a necessary digression on Japanese women’s activism and imperia….  One of the most fruitful intellectual exercises I have made use of over the years and which I […]

  2. […] I and the world would most likely be better served by finishing part 3 of my series on shōjo bunka, I thought I might return to a critical controversy whose most recent discursive […]

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