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Sunday, July 6, 2008

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Fearless bluestockings in Japan


THE BLUESTOCKINGS OF JAPAN: New Woman Essays and Fiction From Seito, 1911-16, edited by Jan Bardsley. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2007; xii + 308 pp., $70 (cloth), $26 (paper)

In 1911 a new publication appeared in Japan. It was singular in that it was written, edited and published entirely by women, and that it was named after an 18th-century English all-women salon (Seito is the translation of Blue Stocking). Few Japanese readers could have appreciated this connection, but this did not prevent the response to the new journal from being surprising.

The first issue, 1,000 copies, was sold out in a month, and the modest editorial offices were flooded with more than 3,000 letters asking for memberships, subscriptions and personal advice. And the success continued — a complete set of Seito consists of 52 issues and thousands of pages. At its height the magazine was selling 3,000 a month and was sold in bookstores or by subscription all over Japan.

Here women authors wrote in every available genre. There were classical waka, haiku, experimental modern poetry; sketches, stories and the popular kanso, impressionistic essays; and a large amount of dramatic criticism. The writers had been inspired by recent Japanese productions of Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" and "A Doll's House." There was also an amount of translation: stories by Anton Chekhov, essays by Havelock Ellis, writings by Western women (Emma Goldman, Olive Schreiner) related to what became known as the fujin mondai, "the Woman Question."

This question interrogated a society where adultery by husbands was condoned, but was considered a crime for wives and could result in a two-year prison term; where abortion was criminalized; where suing for divorce was permitted but divorce itself was considered a source of social shame.

By questioning such assumptions Seito won itself both popularity and authority, offering proof that many Japanese women were not content aspiring to become merely ryosai kenbo — good wives and wise mothers. It was these women who read and supported the publication.

There was, as might be expected, an amount of male retaliation. Some of the more controversial material brought the publication into conflict with the police, and on three occasions whole issues of the magazine were removed from bookstores after censors banned entire publishing runs as "injurious to public morals."

To make such charges stick, the authorities provoked public attention, which in turn resulted in police inquiries, the displeasure of many of the members' parents and the fear of losing employment and marriage prospects. This cut down the number of bluestocking applicants.

Though the bluestocking writers rightly regarded themselves as intellectuals, they were never so portrayed in the popular press. Instead, the personal lives (particularly their love lives) were publicly examined by the press. Eventually, as Jan Bardsley, the editor and translator of this interesting volume, maintains, their "highly published unions, divorces and childbirths out of wedlock had virtually overshadowed the diversity and complexity of the women's writing."

In presenting in translation just what the women were writing, Bardsley divides her translations into 12 chapters, each organized around a different member.

Among these is the most famous of the editors, Hiratsuka Raicho. She made more than 70 contributions to the journal including the now well-known proclamation in the first number of Seito: "In the beginning, Woman was truly the Sun, an authentic person. Now, Woman is the Moon, living off another, reflecting another's brilliance, she is the Moon whose face is sickly and wan." It is here that Seito is born, "created by the brains and hands of today's Japanese women . . ."

Equally famous, however, were the various canards invented by the male opposition. This included the "scandalous" bluestocking visit to a geisha house, and the imputed existence of same-sex love between Raicho and a fellow bluestocking, This resulted in the Asahi Shimbun's condemning her as loving Russian literature, smoking cigarettes and being the "masculine" kind of woman who merely toyed with men. The Japan Women's College consequently struck Raicho's name from their alumni list — and did not, amazingly, reinstate it until 1992.

Altogether, 17 Seito pieces make up this collection, including the more controversial writing. Four of the contributions provoked a strong reprimand or an outright ban on the entire issue. These are given to us in full translation, thus continuing Bardsley's important prior work as codirector of the 2002 documentary "Women in Japan" and as co-editor of the 2005 "Bad Girls of Japan."

We can here hear the powerful voices of these brave and defiant women clearly, cutting through a century of accomplishment and of cant. We are here offered a step forward in the history of Japanese women — one that, in English translation, makes possible the inclusion of the Japanese woman's experience into the international context of the woman's movement itself.



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