- The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan
Barbara Sato sets out to examine three new types of urban women—the modern girl, the housewife, and the professional working woman—that appeared in magazines, books, and movies of the interwar years, most especially in mass women's magazines. The modern girl, an icon of consumerism, sported bobbed hair and short skirts in advertisements for beer, wine, and cosmetics and figured prominently in the writings of leftist critics. The self-motivated middle-class housewife found herself reflected in the articles on family, cooking, housework, and clothing in the pages of women's magazines, but such publications also contained fiction and confessional articles that allowed her to imagine her life with romance and glamour. The professional working women in department stores and offices earned wages and operated in public rather than domestic space.
In distilling her rich knowledge of interwar culture and her considerable grasp of secondary and theoretical literature into the limited space of a book, Sato uses a tight framework of a foundational essay and three substantive chapters, one on each of her three types of women, sandwiched between the brief introduction and the conclusion. The intersection of her immensely rich material with the finite structure of a book generates a number of contradictions and ambiguities. She writes about images of the feminine, representations of Japanese women, disparate discourses, and lively debates. Her conclusions, however, are about how the changes portended by the three types of imagined urban women affected the actions and thoughts of actual middle-class women. The contradictions and ambiguities arise from the conflation of the imagined with the actual, men's ideals with women's aspirations. Contradictions and ambiguities have, of course, the inherent potential to generate creative resolutions. Despite the seeming mismatch between evidence and conclusion, Sato succeeds in adding significantly to our understanding of gender in interwar culture.
The ambiguities begin with the title. I could find no instance in the introduction or the first chapter of the three words "new Japanese woman" occurring in sequence. Careful reading suggests that Sato considers the "new" Japanese woman to be a challenge to the "Japanese woman," the prevailing monolithic stereotype of domestic gentleness. The new Japanese woman seems to share some characteristics with the so-called modern woman. Sato discusses in some detail the "new woman," a term that connoted a particular [End Page 499] group of well-educated literary women in the opening years of the twentieth century. Sato's primary subject, however, is a far broader range of women who lived somewhat later, after World War I rather than before. A number of activist women, including Hiratsuka Raichō, proudly identified with the status of "new woman." Were there women in the interwar years who self-identified as "new Japanese women"? Or is the title of the book a newly coined term?
Ambiguities are apparent in the visual images, certainly among the riches of the book. There are four color plates, each showing an artist's rendition of an ideal woman. Three are from the covers of women's magazines and one is from an advertisement for a light bulb. The other 29 images include cartoons and photographs as well as additional material from women's magazines and advertisements. The four cartoons document a somewhat derisive male gaze. The stylized representation of women on magazine covers and in advertisements, often the products of male activity, were images designed to sell products to women and thus reveal what merchants of popular culture imagined women wanted to be—stylish, well coifed, perfectly made up, and bedecked with elegant jewelry. In the photographs, we see department stores, streets, and movie theaters that are identified by name, but the women who stare back at us from the page remain merely anonymous representations of types of women: modern girls, dance-hall dancers, showgirls, clerks, bus girls, elevator girls, and streetcar girls.
The anonymity of the women in photographs parallels the absence of names...