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Reviewed by:
  • Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan by Amanda C. Seaman
  • Ayako Kano (bio)
Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan. By Amanda C. Seaman. University of Hawai'i Press, 2017. x, 230 pages. $62.00.

Amanda Seaman's Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan is an informative and thought-provoking book that offers many fascinating insights into pregnancy—in both its mundane and its outlandish modes—in the last few decades in Japan. As a study of pregnancy in Japan, it joins the ethnography Embodying Culture: Pregnancy in Japan and Israel (Rutgers University Press, 2010) by Tsipy Ivry. As a study of female authors foregrounding their bodily experiences, it joins books like Seaman's own Bodies of Evidence: Women, Society, and Detective Fiction in 1990s Japan (University of Hawai'i Press, 2004) and Julia Bullock's The Other Women's Lib: Gender and Body in Japanese Women's Fiction (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010).

The book that most persistently calls for comparison with Seaman's, however, is Saitō Minako's Ninshin shōsetsu (Pregnancy fiction [Chikuma Shobō, 1994]), which is (in my opinion lamentably) not yet translated. Saitō's book does a masterful chopping and roasting job on canonical fiction written mostly, but not exclusively, by men, from the 1890s to the 1980s. In contrast, Seaman's deals primarily with the 1970s onward and exclusively focuses on works by women, also including works by manga artists and those blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction. Thus, in terms of the oeuvre discussed, there is hardly any overlap. The two contrasting books have much to tell us about pregnancy and about writing (or drawing) pregnancy in modern and contemporary Japan.

What Saitō Minako ends up doing in her satirical study, I would argue, is not to describe a subgenre of Japanese fiction but to send up the institution of canonical "modern Japanese fiction" itself, in all its masculinist glory. [End Page 385] Pregnancy turns out to be crucial to the institution of modern Japanese fiction, a secret ingredient that exposes all manner of tired tropes and stereotypes about women and men and the meaning of life.

What Amanda Seaman accomplishes is something quite different. As she points out, the decades since the 1980s are ones of low fertility, in which marriage and childbirth circumscribe less and less of women's lives. The dominant figure in cultural representation of women is not that of the mother, or the pregnant woman, but that of the girl (shMjo). For example, Nobuko Anan's Contemporary Japanese Women's Theatre and Visual Arts: Performing Girls' Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) captures the cultural visibility of the girlish figure on stage and screen. Low fertility as social reality and the prevalence of the shōjo ideal means that the pregnant woman is rarely seen, on the page or in the streets.

The topic of Seaman's study then is something of a paradox. On the one hand, pregnancy continues to be a defining feature of what is understood to be a woman's life-course in social common sense and in government policy. (As I describe in my own work, Japanese Feminist Debates [University of Hawai'i Press, 2016], the basic assumption of Japanese welfare policy is that all women marry and become mothers.) Yet, on the other hand, pregnancy is increasingly absent from women's lives. There is another paradox: In Seaman's words, "pregnancy makes for great literature: there is an alien creature growing inside a woman's body, sucking the life from her, parasitical and potentially horrific. When it painfully erupts, it is demanding and all-encompassing. On the other hand, stories about pregnancy are really boring" (p. 16) because modern medical development makes gestation non-eventful and parturition usually nonhorrific. Thus, pregnancy stories tend to be dominated by "intense personal reflection on the part of the woman" (p. 16) that may be variously insightful and enlightening, but might not make for entertaining reading. This is why in the works discussed by Seaman, something usually intrudes to make the pregnancy exciting and worthy of publication.

Saitō Minako points to the same problem when she notes that in fiction, all pregnancy is unwanted, or...


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pp. 385-389
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