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  • When Women Narrate the Self:Personal Narratives in Modern Women's Literature
  • Mizuta Noriko
    Translated by Nadeschda Bachem (bio)

In her essay "When Women Narrate the Self: Personal Narratives in Modern Women's Literature" (1992), Mizuta Noriko reflects on how women's socially marginalized position has compelled female writers to create innovative narratives of the self. In a departure from the perception of femininity as a lack and constrained by restrictive models of maternity, for women to narrate meant creating a substance for the female self anew and freeing themselves from the limiting conceptions that bound them. Mizuta cites two archetypal strategies that female writers employed in order to create a "narratable" female substance: on the one hand, a specifically female recourse to motherhood that reclaimed maternity for female artists, and on the other hand, its reversal, the exploration of the destructive "witch-like" woman as counter example to the socially constrained version of motherhood. However, as Mizuta explains, these strategies are still fundamentally bound by the myth of motherhood, even in their attempts to subvert it. She therefore goes on to show how writers like Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) and Miyamoto Yuriko (1899-1951), who also grappled with the fundamentally binding concept of motherhood, tried to dissolve the myth of femininity within larger categories of the existentialist human or classed subject. Mizuta concludes that these authors posit the self as a "concrete universal" in exchange with the other, with society. In the second part of her essay, Mizuta discusses the skillful use of the everyday and ordinary in the work of Tomioka Taeko (b. 1935). She explains that Tomioka's recourse to the mundane offers new paths for dealing with the ego in modern literature. Mizuta holds that female writers who narrate the self ultimately provide a countermeasure to the exhibitionist tendencies of self-referential exposure that prevail in much of modern literature.

(Nadeschda Bachem) [End Page 166]

Throughout long periods of history, women were unable to participate in the arena of public discourse. When women, barred from writing and expressing themselves as subjects, in turn became the objects of depiction, they were inscribed in a highly conceptualized manner. That this depiction of women was realized within the ideological framework of the "pure woman" (junsui josei) means that the men depicting them did not attempt to write women as individuals with a sense of selfhood.

However, this does not mean that women did not express themselves. Through informal and private systems of expression—such as letters or conversations—from confessional narratives to assessments of the people around them, women had at their command a less constrained means of expression precisely because it was informal. Alongside official modes of expression, female communication therefore occupied an important structural position as a private means of expression. And while female communication was indeed private, it went beyond private expression in the sense of mere conversation between individuals or within the family; holding a "semi-official" (hankōshiki) position within the domain of female culture. Indeed, women's expression fulfilled its function superbly and circulated within a cultural domain that realized its main role not in society but in the unideological everyday space of the community.1

This tells us that all discourses in society were considered "public" (i.e. official) and thus male. Meanwhile, although society may have considered women's expression to be unofficial, "private" (shiteki), and peripheral, women themselves considered it as also having a public form. For women, neither the home, nor the domain of female culture were private individual spheres at all. While for men, the singularity of both their respective households and their everyday lives were afforded as private spheres, for women, only their own individual interiority was entirely private.

"Narration of the self" (jikogatari) is thought characteristic of modern Japanese women's literature. This means that when women—who held awareness of this private realm—gained the possibility of expression, they did not conceive of themselves as narrating an overall female culture. When deciding to become writers, women are aware of the discomfort arising from their double estrangement from both female culture, to which they belong, and official society, from which they are excluded. It is...


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pp. 166-181
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