Feminism: An Alternative Point of View

Feminism: An alternative point of view (Part 2)

The new Japanese Constitution of 1947 codified what had heretofore been considered shocking and disruptive concepts of marriage:

“Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis. With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential quality of the sexes” (Hendry, 1981).

Primogeniture was abolished and marriage regulations changed. If a girl was over twenty, she no longer needed parental consent to marry. Women were given the vote in 1946. The emperor disclaimed his divinity on January 1, 1946, thereby effecting the separation of state and religion. Textbooks were changed, and history and mythology became separate disciplines.

Although a milestone had been officially reached and the abolition of patriarchal authority had become law, in practice conservatism still prevailed. Even in the 1960s, the consensus was that wives and mothers should not work; women were exploited in the workplace, receiving less salary for the same work as the man; and marriages continued to be arranged.

Twentieth century Japanese short story writers and novelists were increasingly outspoken in the variety of topics they broached ranging from sexual oppression, feminist consciousness, and free love, to political, aesthetic, and spiritual ideals. Avant-garde women writers showed deep understanding and consciousness of themselves as well as of their psychological and empirical situations. Movements were being formed and their goals met.

One of the earliest organizations created by women for the purpose of teaching them about themselves was the Bluestocking society founded in 1911 by Hiratsuka Raicho ( 1886-1971). The organization’s literary magazine, Bluestocking, focused on the significant issues of marriage, abortion, and prostitution. Due to coercion by both governmental and educational institutions, the magazine was forced to cease publication in 1916. Nevertheless it remained in the minds of many as a symbol of the woman of the future, who would learn to think and function independently, and would rebel against restrictive social conditions and family autocracy

Feminine militancy, however, was not to be stopped. It continued its activities for six more years, until women succeeded in bringing about the revision of the Peace Preservation Act, giving them permission to join and participate in political groups and parties. The vote was granted to them, however, only in 1945. (Tanaka, 1987).

Although women had been denied permission to function politically during the 1920’s and 1930’s, many joined unions and became important powers in the labor movement. A woman factory worker, Toyo Muslin, organized an important strike in 1927. A medical school for women funded by the public opened in 1925; the first woman passed the bar examinations in 1938. Growing militarism, resulting in increasing intimidation by the government, obliged women to backtrack. They were urged to work for the good of their country–that is, to bring more children into the world (Tanaka, 1987).

Whatever popularity women writers achieved at this time was due not exclusively to their literary innovations, but to their militant feminism and to their flagrantly promiscuous sexual activities as well. Because their worlds had been so restricted, educationally speaking, and because of their arranged marriages which had, with few exceptions, been loveless, women in general knew little about life. Never, for example, were they admitted to men’s literary circles, such as the one headed by the much-adulated anti-Naturalist writer, Soseki Natsume ( 1867-1916), which met on Thursday afternoons. Nevertheless, women authors such as Tamura Toshiko, Nogami Yaeko, Okamoto Kanoko, Uno Chiyo, Hayashi Fumiko, Setouchi Harumi, Enchi Fumiko, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Tsushima Yuko, forged ahead.

Tsushima Yuko, who has a heavy psychological burden to bear, does so with strength, courage, and great talent. Her father, the celebrated novelist Dazai Osamu (Shoji Tsushima), committed suicide at the age of thirty-eight (1948) after several unsuccessful attempts to end his life. The author of such unforgettable novels as The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, Dazai Osamu explored the changing climate between pre and post-war Japan, including the breaking up of the tightly structured family unit and the liberation of women. It was he who coined the phrase, “the people of the setting sun,” referring to the decline of the Japanese aristocracy.

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Although other renowned writers had also committed suicide–Mishima Yukio in 1970 and Kawabata Yasunari in 1972–and the notion of seppuku had been ingrained in the Japanese psyche since samurai times, nonetheless, living with the thought of death in the insecure climate of postwar Japan was arduous for the young Tsushima Yuko. Understandably, the motifs of her short stories are death, aloneness, the couple, and desertion of the child by the parent. Abandonment, the subject of many of Tsushima Yuko’s poignant tales, compels one to face life’s vagaries alone and in an open and objective manner; it is a problematic and humiliating experience for anyone and especially for the Japanese.

Particularly moving, perhaps, because of the biographical element, is her short story, “An Embrace” (Tsushima, 1980). It relates the painful emotions of a young divorcee and mother, whose father had committed suicide when she was a child, and whose former classmate, Megumi, had done likewise many years later. Why Megumi’s husband should want to see her, she wondered. It had been so many years since she had seen her friend. While meditating upon the question, she probes her own life: she had opted for divorce, raised her child herself, and held a full time job. Why had she gotten married? “I was determined to get away from home. As long as I stayed there I would always be treated like a child. It was to get away.” Life with her mother–the father being dead–was untenable, “claustrophobic.”

The very act of meeting Megumi’s husband soon thereafter triggers clusters of associations in her mind. Segments of her past imbricate themselves into her present: the suicide of the mother of one of her classmates; the English teacher who went up to the sixteen-year old student and “without a word, put her arms around her shoulders and hugged her to her breast.” The narrator feels pangs of jealousy for such a show of feeling.

Tsushima Yuko’s sensitivity and the starkness of her heroic prose when confronting her still bleeding wounds are also apparent in some of her other tales, as, for example, “Missing.” Here, a mother, rather than face the reality of her daughter’s departure, cloisters herself in her home, cleaning its rooms over and over again, tidying up, monologuing with herself. The emptiness of her life and the vacuity of her endless gestures do nothing to diminish her misfortune. After waiting in vain for her daughter’s return, she finally walks into the street– into the world–and begins to face the possibility of a life doomed to loneliness–without her daughter. Indelibly marked by her father’s suicide, Tsushima Yuko’s hurt, revealed in one way or another in her tales, lends them a rare brand of authenticity.

Western literary critics have continually labeled Tsushima Yuko, the contemporary Japanese writer, a feminist writer, requesting the application of the feminist literary theory to her work. Accepting the challenge is, nonetheless, a very many-faceted task, considering that, although Japan has assimilated many Western ideologies and theoretical apparatus, its literary incipience has been hermetically closed to any Western influence. The Japanese historical and cultural factors that condition the sociology of gender have differed substantially from those of the Western nations. The reciprocal action between Japanese and Western epistemologies in building and modifying modern Japan is obvious. The work of Tsushima, who uses both classical Japanese literature and Western writers such as Poe, Woolf and Faulkner as reference, is a clear example of this interaction. During the attempt to achieve a feminist analysis of Tsushima’s work, the main task was to develop methodology that encompasses and gives voice to both Western and Japanese theoretical concerns.

This paper aims at clarifying the  intrinsic problems in the use of Western theoretical apparatus in the examination of Japanese texts, and to stress the importance and the necessity of conceiving a theoretical frame that will not only allow cultural differences to interact with Western theories, but can also keep record of the specific environment in which the text was generated, deploy the linguistic, psychoanalytic and biological characteristics of the feminist theory and sustain that ’women’ represents a cultural group in itself. While preserving the main concerns and inquiry procedures of feminist criticism, it must also take into consideration the different approaches to these issues that are present in Japan, but not in Western cultures.

Keeping in mind the cultural Japanese background and looking from a Western perspective, the reasons why the feminist movement in Japan is less influential come forth. From Sumiko Iwao’s point of view, the Japanese feminist movement ´muted’, mainly due to the Japanese reluctance to direct confrontation as a form of objection (Iwao, 1993). She suggests that, due to the fact that this type of confrontations can obstruct the problem solving process, the Japanese feminist cause adopts a more ’silent’, pragmatic and non-confrontation approach rather than one based on principles. Many analysts of the Japanese society hold Western frames of reference users guilty of ‘overlooking the context of power of Japanese women,’ (Berger, 1976). As a reaction against the Western tendency of stereotyping Japanese women as compliable and helpless, they sustain that the definition of family is where a woman’s locus of power exists (Berger, 1976). They acknowledge that, though different, the power of women is not substandard. According to this theory, though gender roles are clearly confined, the Japanese archetype contemplates both roles as coequally important. Moreover, most of the Japanese women neither develop a feeling of inferiority, nor they want to move to the so called ’males- dominated’ dimension. It is striking that most of these statements have been made by analysts who are neither Japanese, nor Western males. None of them has offered an opinion from a feminist and Western perspective.

From a Western feminist point of view, the position of women can be described as insignificant at best, not to say appalling. Western feminists who are considering the Japanese situation consider that this concept of superiority “serves to enslave Japanese women by convincing them that only they are capable of making the required sacrifices. The male is thereby absolved from reciprocal actions due to his inherent weakness” (Wawrytko, 1995). Michael Berger statement that, despite the fact that women are confined to the domestic sphere, they also develop a sense of their value could not stand up to the critical examination of Western feminism, which considers that this strategy is reinforcing the patriarchal model and imprison women in their assigned roles.  Berger’s allegation that ‘Japanese men look down on women in many categorical ways, but they do not look down on women’s role’ (Wawrytko, 1995) still holds in the feminist onlooker’s eyes, a consistent apprehension of women as inferior and confined to their roles. Nevertheless, these opinions originate from a Western feminist point of view, just like the others arise from the vocal stance of the Japanese woman, feminist or the Western male. Instead of embracing any of these divergent opinions over the other, I have decided to take into consideration all these viewpoints and use them as valuable bequests for my own theoretical approach.

Despite the explicit differences between the Japanese and Western perception and representation of women, both ambits make a clear connection between men and culture and domination, while women are perceived as passive, as part of the natural. Both the West and Japan use the same dualistic model:   active/passive, dominance/submission, victim/ victimizer, and nature/culture. Nevertheless, in the Japanese context, this dualistic model is organized in a rather distinct manner. For example, verbalization, as a part of the active side of the dualistic model, has less relevance in a cultural background in which silence is perceived more in terms of self-control, rather than an unsuccessful attempt to speak. During a talk about the writing of Asian women, Cheung (1993) claimed that ‘monocultural criteria of competence and even feminist antipathy toward silence may run roughshod over the sensibilities of some ethnic groups’. According to him, a Japanese woman’s non-confrontational attitude, silence and docility contribute to construct meaning, a fact that could be easily overlooked by a Western feminist adept. The aim of this research is not to go against the Western model by regarding the Japanese pattern of the dualistic model as a concrete concept, but, by questioning them, prove that being a woman and feminist at the same time can be achieved in various ways.

While there are records regarding the Western literary influence during the Meiji period, the impact of classical poetry on the contemporary Japanese literature is a salient quality. The influence of the uta monogatari or ‘song story’ on the Japanese narrative method has also been mentioned, implying that a text does not build to a climax, but follows a more circular form. Though from a different perspective, Kemmochi Takehiko reaches the same conclusion and claims that the Japanese language consists of contains ‘internal gaps and pauses…and fixed endings’ (Pilgrim, 1995). According to him, the Japanese narrative does not follow the linear and logical order of Western languages. The Japanese grammatical structure and poetic tradition find their reflection in the cyclical character and lack of closure that define Cixous’ feminist work. Special care should be taken with any linguistic feminine approach based on image patterns and stylistic devices and that aims to transgress a well-established cultural space. The analysis of Tsushima’s work from the perspective of such an approach might result in overlooking the fact that specific constructs in Japanese are not gender based, but determined by linguistic and cultural particularities.

It is obvious that unrestrictedly applying Western theoretical approaches bears risks. Whereon, as this study evolved, it significantly transformed itself into a practice of applying theoretical approaches in a cross-cultural model. The aim of this study was to assess what traits can be considered feminist in the Japanese context and the influences this might have on the autochthonous literature. The study aims at setting up a theoretical frame which allows the interaction of Japanese and Western constructions, situating texts in a cross-cultural model that has not been previously available, while at the same time questioning the Western theories.

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