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Romantic Adventures in Prose: Ren’ai Shōsetsu (Romance Novels) by Yuikawa Kei

From: U.S.-Japan Women's Journal
Number 43, 2013
pp. 85-105 | 10.1353/jwj.2013.0002

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Dedicated to Satoko:

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.

Anaïs Nin

For centuries, writers have ventured into the world of romance and captivated audiences with narratives of love. This “long history and wide distribution” have distinguished romantic writing, and as Kay Mussell points out in Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romantic Fiction, the genre boasts “generations of readers reading romances in English and other languages.”1 In 2008, as testimony to this legacy, Japan commemorated the one-thousandth anniversary of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, described by Chieko Irie Mulhern in “Japanese Harlequin Romances as Transcultural Women’s Fiction” as “a grand romance chronicling the types and phases of love and marriage in court circles.”2 Throughout the nation, festivals, parades, moon-viewings, Genji-themed poetry readings, and other such events were held, and an array of memorabilia, including limited-edition snacks, tea, sake, and even Hello Kitty goods,3 was created. Though some might question Cathy McClellan’s categorization of The Tale of Genji as “the first romance novel,”4 these festivities to celebrate what Edward G. Seidensticker called “a very long romance”5 represent, in a sense, a milestone for a genre that has been ridiculed and devalued as long as it has been in existence and as long as it has been read.

Yet, despite the fact that scores of romance writers and countless readers surely hailed this phenomenal feat, criticism of the genre remains unchanged even in the land that honored the legacy of what some consider to be its prototype. Just as The Tale of Genji was not considered to be “high” literature in its day, so ren’ai shōsetsu, or Japanese romance novels, are still viewed as a “low” form of writing in many literary circles. As Mulhern points out, “such classification is of particular significance in Japan, where the distinction between junbungaku (‘pure’ or mimetic literature) and taishū bungaku (mass or popular literature) is all but institutionalized.”6 Consequently, these works have clearly not yet been “gentrified,” a term coined in Elaine Wethington’s “Are Academic Opinions about Romance All Negative?” in reference to a genre that is still not considered “art” by “members of educated classes and critics.” 7 However, such “critics” do not seem to be the voice of the masses. Just as ren’ai shōsetsu in a sense fit Maria Bustillos’s definition of romance novels as “underground writing, almost never reviewed or discussed in the newpapers or literary rags, or a dinner party,”8 so these works can also be seen as a subgenre of one of the public’s (or at least half of the public’s) most savored forms of writing. Perhaps in the future ren’ai shōsetsu will join the ranks of Heian or Meiji fiction written by Japanese women writers—works that, although initially considered “low” literature, are, as Mulhern points out, “now legitimately accepted as mimetic literature.”9 For the time being, however, such novels remain low in literary rankings, and as a result research on this genre is lacking.

Sales, in contrast, are consistently high, and in today’s consumer’s world, where the popularity of any genre is based on such numbers, ren’ai shōsetsu, like romance novels in general, are clearly a success. This can, of course, be attributed to loyal readers, for even if society “disapproves”—and regardless of how embarrassed they are “supposed” to be for indulging in this genre—readers of romance novels are perhaps the most devoted of booklovers. As Julie Bosman explains in her New York Times article “Lust Tales and Hot Sales: Romance E-Books Thrive,” “the romance reader is a little like the Asian carp: insatiable and unstoppable.”10 And as Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley point out in Girl Reading Girl in Japan, “although the reading girl is a feature of many modern cultures, she has a particularly long tradition in Japan,”11 a tradition that continues when the “reading girl” becomes the “reading woman,” or Japanese “romance reader” of ren...



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