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  • From the Nikutai to the Kokutai:Nationalizing the Maternal Body in Ushijima Haruko’s “Woman”
  • Kimberly Kono (bio)

In late 1930s and early 1940s Japan, the maternal body played an important role in nationalist discourse, both as a symbol of the nation and as a vessel for future national subjects. The slogan umeyo fuyaseyo urged Japanese women to “bear children and multiply” for the sake of the nation, underscoring the official expectation of women fulfilling their reproductive responsibilities as mothers.1 Popular women’s magazines of the time, such as Shufu no tomo (Housewife’s companion), contained images of young mothers breastfeeding babies or taking their children to shrines—portrayals that explicitly situated such maternal duties within the context of the war effort and the imperial project.2 Similar representations of motherhood also appeared in the colonies, where officials urged Japanese women in Korea, Manchuria, and Taiwan to contribute to empire-building as imperialist mothers.3 However, despite the shared focus on motherhood, the translation of domestic discourses of maternity into the colonial context served different purposes and often yielded varying results.

One of the distinctions between maternalist discourse in the metropole and in the colonies consisted of the object of mothering. In Japan proper,4 the government and the mass media urged Japanese women to take care of their biological children and, later, the “sons of the nation,” namely, soldiers.5 Japanese mothers in the colonies were exhorted to fulfill similar responsibilities as well as to support imperial expansion by “taking care of” [End Page 69] the so-called “children of empire,” namely, colonized subjects of all ages, by helping them assimilate Japan’s purportedly modern ways. Thus, while Japanese women were encouraged to provide maternal support for other imperial subjects, varying ideas in the colonies and Japan proper as to who qualified for this category resulted in different expectations for Japanese mothers throughout the empire. Such divergent ideas about imperial subjecthood in the gaichi (the colonies or, literally, “outer territories”) and the naichi (the metropole or, literally, “inner territory”) also reflected other discontinuities in colonial and mainland perspectives—particularly in terms of the aims of the war effort and Japan’s empire.

This essay discusses a literary depiction of a Japanese colonialist woman who is negotiating her identity through multiple discourses of motherhood, gender, and nation both in the colonies and in Japan proper. The short story “Woman” (Onna), by Japanese writer Ushijima Haruko, was first published in colonial Manchuria in 1942.6 In the story the protagonist Kazue, a Japanese woman who has been living in Mukden with her Japanese husband and young son, has returned to her parents’ home in Kyūshū, Japan, to give birth. After delivering a stillborn girl, she struggles with her loss. Kazue contemplates her past, mulling over the hopes she had for herself and for her daughter, and also confronts her own sense of dislocation upon returning to Japan. In the closing scene of the story, after hearing a radio account of Japanese soldiers’ bravery on the warfront, she seems to recover from her grief. Kazue once again embraces motherhood, passionately vowing to serve the nation by bearing many more children. As with other texts from this period, the story’s ending ultimately advocates a view of maternity whereby women serve the nation or empire through their reproductive capabilities.

Despite its propagandist conclusion celebrating the war effort, “Woman” reveals fissures in Japan’s imperial project. Juxtaposing different images of motherhood, this story underscores the diverse and oftentimes conflicting goals of Japan’s nationalist and imperialist agendas, and reveals the effect of these inconsistencies, particularly on Japanese women of the colonies. Ushijima’s story highlights these disjunctures through three particular elements: (1) the shifting depiction of the maternal body, (2) the occurrence and effects of a stillbirth, and (3) a focus on the protagonist’s relationship to Manchuria and its influence on her identity upon her return to Japan. These three elements interweave to challenge the protagonist’s identity as a woman, as a mother, and as a subject of the Japanese empire. This essay discusses the story’s development of these elements in order to explore a broader commentary on the...


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pp. 69-88
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