- Japanese Feminist Debates: A Century of Contention on Sex, Love, and Labor by Ayako Kano
In the past three decades we have seen a fair number of new monographs and essay collections in European languages that contribute to an intellectual history of feminisms in modern Japan. The Anglophone publications receive greater attention than others as they are the most numerous and within the linguistic command of most scholars. Of these, the works of Gail Lee Bernstein, Vera Mackie, Barbara Molony, Sally Ann Hastings, and Setsu Shigematsu stand out. While there are many more publications on gender history, including recent masculinity studies collections and new queer studies anthologies, Ayako Kano's book Japanese Feminist Debates of 2016 needs to be seen within the trajectory of research that explicitly takes the specter of feminist discourse, thought, and theory into focus. And while her research draws on the discussions of all the above authors, her book uses a fresh approach in outlining some of the crucial conceptual threads of thinking that feminists in Japan have struggled with in the face of ever-changing yet curiously persisting societal norms and ideas of gender. As Kano explains, "various anthologies of Japanese feminism … attest to a process of selection and canonization. Such a process is full of contentions and contradictions" (p. 26).
It seems that Kano is the perfect researcher to tackle the paradoxes emerging within "A Century of Contention on Sex, Love, and Labor," as indicated in the subtitle of this book. Hers is a soft-toed entry and an extremely careful and nuanced approach to conflicting ideas of different feminisms, laying open also the U.S. paradigm from which she observes and sometimes compares the Japanese feminist struggles and their antifeminist adversaries. Kano's prose provides an entry into the diversity of feminisms and invites readers to glide into the thought and rationales of different actors [End Page 523] within women's movements in Japan. Moreover, her monograph of 2016 opens up to us the feminist discursive space of the 2010s which has subsequently been followed up and pursued with closer scrutiny of (sexual) diversity in yet another anthology, Rethinking Japanese Feminisms, which she coedited along with Julia Bullock and James Welker in 2018.1
Kano lays out the structure of her book in the first chapter "Debates? Feminist? Japanese?" by defining each of these major tropes that govern and guide her text. Debates, termed ronsō in Japanese, are written intellectual exchanges and contestations over any sort of political or cultural topic; and rondan is the related expression for the public sphere of such discourses. Historically, rondan have marked a male-dominated space. In a rapidly modernizing society such as post-Meiji Japan, the feminist rondan that Kano unfolds in her discussion emerge as a lively and highly complex sphere of feminists' search for gendered rights and identities. Kano's book then is "about feminism as a thoughtful and contentious practice, about women thinking, reflecting, analyzing, and verbalizing" (p. 13). Yet the shifts in media over the past century have been crucial for the possibilities of this sphere of feminist communication and practice. The recent changes engendered by online debates enhance the basis for critical participation of all men and women, but they are disproportionately used by reactionary, populist, and backlash organizations, individuals, and bots, signaling indeed a new era of vilifying debate that is often more adequately termed harassment and is changing, as Kano writes, "the nature of the thing" (p. 22).
The topics of debate that Kano identifies and traces in the core chapters of her book are sexuality, reproduction, and the relationship between motherhood and work, each involving the discussion of multiple intellectual actors, organizations, and transnational theoretical trajectories. Central to the chapter on sexuality (chapter 2) is the contention of "sex for sale" or "sex for self," where Kano identifies the term sei no shōhinka (commodification of sex) as a key concept within Japanese feminisms that captures to a fuller extent the capitalist...