- Becoming Modern Women: Love and Female Identity in Prewar Japanese Literature and Culture
Michiko Suzuki’s remarkable new study, Becoming Modern Women, challenges established interpretations of work by three of Japan’s most famous modern women writers: Miyamoto Yuriko (1899–1951), Okamoto Kanoko (1889–1939), and Yoshiya Nobuko (1896–1973). The book also provides fresh views on writing by two women who influenced the intellectual trajectory of modern Japanese feminism, Hiratsuka Raichō and Takamure Itsue. Reading these women’s works through the lens of modern love ideology, argues Suzuki, reveals the ways in which they creatively engaged with contemporary conversations on same-sex love, marriage, divorce, and motherhood, and how they imagined alternative models for the creation of female identity. In making this case, Suzuki aims to show how these readings enrich what we have learned through past research focused on “autobiography, literary traditions, or the unified notion of female authorship” (p. 148). In the process, Suzuki not only draws critical attention to the work of women whose celebrated lives have often outshone their work but presents a provocative model for new directions in feminist scholarship on Japanese literature.
Becoming Modern Women takes on a range of sources spanning the 1910s to the 1930s, yet Suzuki makes her argument with economy. She refers to books, trends, and events that set the discursive context within which the authors worked but relies most heavily on her own insightful readings of the primary texts. The strength of this book’s conceptualizations owes in part to the clarity of its format and the coherence of the argument that threads through the entire work. Becoming Modern Women is organized into an introduction followed by three parts, each focused on a different aspect of love: “Girls and Virgins,” “The Wife’s Progress,” and “Reinventing Motherhood.” Each part contains two chapters: the first establishes the broad “discursive context” that sets the stage for the second chapter, a close analysis of a particular woman’s work. Since definitions of love change, “modern love ideology” does not serve as a template that produces the same view of all works; rather, as definitions of love alter, so do writers’ responses. Becoming Modern Women discusses its major works in chronological order but builds the argument all along by pointing out connections and differences among the authors. Although texts are introduced [End Page 225] by giving titles in the Japanese original and English gloss, the decision to make all further references only to the English titles makes this book more easily accessible to a wide audience. Crafting the book through relatively short chapters disciplines the discussion and gives the book an engaging momentum. Discussion of related texts, biographical notes, and other finer points are available in the 43 pages of notes at the end of the book.
The one problem I find with the book’s overall organization lies in the choice to use the two-and-a half page conclusion as a reprise of the book’s main points. It is an excellent summary, but given its brevity, I wonder if this piece should have been worked into the introduction. If the conclusion is to stand alone, it would have been interesting had Suzuki followed up on her hope that this book “offers some useful tools for thinking about the impact that love has had on female self-construction and representation in postwar Japan and beyond” (p. 149). But this is a minor criticism, and I learned a good deal about how to make a book about literary investigation approachable—an important issue at a time when studies concentrating on literature, and even the material reality of the book itself, seem increasingly under threat.
Several aspects of Becoming Modern Women struck me as noteworthy, and I give but a few of these here. Although modern love ideology accounted for the biology of reproductive life, it was not constrained by the physical. Virginity did not always—or only—signify sexual inexperience, for instance...