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Reviewed by:
  • The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan
  • Reiko Abe Auestad
The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan. Edited by Rebecca Copeland and Melek Ortabasi. Columbia University Press, 2006. 416 pages. Hardcover $22.50.

Pointing out the dearth of critical analysis of Meiji women writers, in her review of Rebecca Copeland's Lost Leaves: Women Writers of Meiji Japan (University of Hawai'i Press, 2000) and Yukiko Tanaka's Women Writers of Meiji and Taishō Japan: Their Lives, Works and Critical Reception, 1868–1926 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2000), Angela Yiu gave Copeland and Tanaka credit for "put[ting] a number of Meiji women writers back on the pages of literary history" (MN 56:3, Autumn 2001, p. 418). Noting, however, the scarcity of translations of works by Meiji women writers compared to those by writers from later periods, Yiu concluded her review by appealing to Tanaka, Copeland, and other researchers on Meiji women writers to "join in this enterprise" to translate, "so that the Anglophone reader can have access to this fascinating territory." The editors of The Modern Murasaki, Copeland and Melek Ortabasi, have responded to this appeal, putting together translations of an impressive range of writings by women, dating from 1883 to 1912, from poetry, essays, and journal entries to novellas.

In more general terms, to borrow Timothy J. Compernolle's words, The Modern Murasaki is also "an heir to that branch of feminist inquiry—the roots of which lie in studies such as Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (Princeton University Press, 1977)—that seek to (re)construct a female literary tradition by interrogating the gender configurations of literary memory and recovering lost voices" (review of Lost Leaves, JAS 60:2, 2001, pp. 546–47). We have every reason to welcome this book as a valuable contribution to this project of "recovering lost voices." Many of the works translated in this volume have been discussed or analyzed in the two aforementioned books on Meiji writers, and the Anglophone reader is finally given the opportunity to fully appreciate these discussions or/and analyses.

Unlike most books of this length, the book is not divided into parts. It starts with Copeland's introduction, followed by chapters on poetry and individual authors in chronological order. Briefly tracing the Japanese female literary tradition, Copeland points out the general misconception that modern women's literature "did not begin in earnest until the advent of [Higuchi Ichiyō and] Seitō." In an attempt to prove "there is evidence to the contrary," and to show the indebtedness of Ichiyō and Seitō writers to the literary heritage collectively created by earlier, lesser-known Meiji writers, the "anthology showcases these talents, from feminist orator to cloistered daughter, from imperial tutor to household maid. Meiji women writers hailed from diverse backgrounds and made their mark in an impressive assortment of genres and styles: romantic poetry, political essays, Kabuki dramas, novellas, and stories." The volume demonstrates, indeed, "the diversity, the vitality, and the tenacity of the Meiji literary women" by beautifully rendering into English samples of "the rhetorical strategies and experiments these writers tested and adapted" (p. 2).

The translations begin with Meiji women's poetry, mostly a selection of poems by relatively unknown Meiji women, but also some by celebrities such as Higuchi Ichiyō and Yosano Akiko. With tanka in Meiji representing the feminine tradition, "[v]irtually [End Page 196] every woman writer of the era wrote poetry to some extent," and "almost all received some training in the classics and in poetic composition," including Miyake Kaho and Higuchi Ichiyō (p. 33). The section on tanka is a thought-provoking reminder of the heritage in classical literature women were thought "naturally" to possess. The term "the modern Murasaki" is thus a double-edged sword for the female writers, since they were to be modern in their endeavor to assert themselves in writing, but were expected at the same time to be "perpetuator[s] of native courtly tradition who w[ere] elegant and above all 'feminine'"(p. 23).

The section on tanka is followed by translations of writing by individual authors, each accompanied by introductory biographical and historical background information as...


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