Reviews 2011

Girl Reading Girl in Japan

Girl Reading Girl in Japan. Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley (eds.). London and New York: Routledge, 2010. 238 pages. $130 (hardback).

It is common knowledge that girls are perceived as liking reading more than boys and the reading culture of girls has therefore been studied in many different ways. Girl Reading Girl in Japan is an intriguing project which throws light on an area of research that is less accessible to the English speaking research community. For those unfamiliar with the Japanese literary field and particularly with the field of shōjō (girl) studies in Japan this book provides a valuable introduction to its many aspects. The book is divided into four parts, each highlighting a particular facet of shōjō culture with a first part providing an introduction to different forms of criticism within girl studies. This is followed in part 2 by an analysis of the reading practices of girls in different historical periods. Part 3 looks more specifically at girls and contemporary fiction with an erotic slant, while part 4 considers visual culture and the performing girl reader/writer.

Following the introduction to the book, a Japanese poem by Yagawa Sumiko and its translation into English (The Great March Forward of All Girls Who Support the Eternal Girl) set the tone of the volume and introduce the concept of social subversion. It draws attention to the many negative adjectives that are used to define ‘the eternal girl’: a composite figure comprised of all girls who refuse to follow the patriarchal norms and morals and for whom resistance is part of their being. This poem shows that the book stresses the power of girls to subvert the patriarchal order through innovation and subversive reading and writing practices.

As mentioned above, part 1 of the book focuses on the genealogy of the reading girl and has three chapters by women critics who present the study of girls and girls’ reading as a serious topic for research in the face of patriarchal rejection and patriarchal superiority. The first chapter is a translation of a pioneering article on girl culture by Honda Masuko and translated by the editors of the book. Almost all the other chapters in the book refer back to this article or take it as a point of departure. Girls’ culture is presented in opposition to conventional and traditional culture, never aligning with the mainstream, but rather subverting it. The concept of hirahira, a notion that Honda Masuko defines as “the movement of objects, such as ribbons, frills, or even lyrical word chains, which flutter in the breeze as symbols of girlhood” (p. 20), weaves itself through the argument of how girls’ reading, reading culture and reading materials matter. The first part of the article looks back at the memories of Honda Masuko’s own girlhood and her interest in the author Yoshiya Nobuko, the visual images by Jun’ichi and the power of lyrical poems. In the second part of the article, girls’ culture is studied through a comparison with boys’ culture and the signs of girls’ culture are defined in more detail. The visible signs of frills and ribbons as well as the musicality of the words are seen as symbols of the intrinsic characteristics of girls. The hirahira concept that defines girlhood and its culture is further linked with liminality. The culture develops in a closed area for girls only, and is looked down upon by patriarchal society. The hirahira idea is not simply a characteristic of the literature and culture of girls; it is a concept that applies to all aspects of their lives. Honda Masuko’s aim with this article is to bring girls’ culture to the foreground and establish it as an academic subject.

That Honda Masuko succeeded in her aim is elaborated in chapter 2 where Tomoko Aoyama discusses the contribution of prominent scholars and critics working in the field of girlhood and girlhood reading since the publication of Masuko’s seminal article. In her discussion of Honda Masuko’s work, Tomoko Aoyama further shows how the ambivalence and liminality that Honda Masuko identified as part of girls’ culture is also a characteristic of those who discuss girls’ culture in an academic context and especially Honda Masuko herself since as a critic she builds on the transgressive and subversive elements of the shōjō. The second pioneering critic discussed is Yagawa Sumiko whose writing is also considered ambivalent and who is portrayed as a han-shōjō (anti-girl) because she uses negation and rejection as strategies. She is not only a critic, but also a poet and translator. Two younger critics, Kawasaki Kenko and Saitō Minako, are introduced and although both critics differ in position and style they both write “against the grain of male-dominated literary criticism and journalism” (p. 45). All these critics are engaged in rescuing the ‘ambivalent eternal girl’ but in rich and diverse ways.

In chapter 3 an example of Kawasaki Kenko’s criticism is provided in her analysis of the girl figure in Banana Yoshimoto’s work. The paper wants to understand the popularity of Banana Yoshimoto, especially with girl readers, and refutes the attacks made on her and her work by Japan’s literary establishment. Kawasaki Kenko starts by attacking ‘unfair’ criticisms of Banana Yoshimoto’s work such as her narrative style, her themes, and the accusation that she does not read novels. As an example of shōjō-style criticism the article further discusses the work of Banana Yoshimoto as an exponent of girl culture and girl reading focusing on the instability of the narrators, the differentiation of the self, and the liminality of the characters.

Whereas part 1 sets the scene by sketching different critical voices, part 2 focuses on the reading materials and the reading practices of girls in different historical periods. The title of this part, ‘Reading against Social Constraint’, is chosen to highlight the ambivalent and contradictory features of girls’ reading practices. In chapter 4, Barbara Hartley discusses two stories by Shiraki Shizu in depth. Both stories, ‘A Flower About to Bloom’ and ‘Sister-in-law’, present reading girls in different contexts. Barbara Hartley deftly shows both the similarities and differences between these two girl narratives and other girl narratives showing the power of intertextuality as a strategy for both girl readers and writers. The first story connects reading with girls’ physical development (menstruation) while the second one looks at girls’ psychological development (seeking bonds with other girls). By showing fictional girls’ varied reactions to reading materials, the stories reveal both the diversity as well as the unpredictability of the shōjō reading and writing world.

The fact that the world of shōjō is characterized by unpredictable shifts and ruptures is taken up again in chapter 5. Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase analyses the conflicting views of girls’ culture and the battles to establish girls’ culture in girls’ magazines of the pre-war period. The girls’ magazines of the beginning of the 20th century are seen as a battleground where opposing views of girlhood were shared with a community of girl readers who reacted and helped steer the field. Traditional girlhood associated with ribbons is only found in books for upper middle class girls, while working class girls had fewer opportunities to participate in the girls’ culture of the time. Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase elaborates on the dialogue of what girls’ stories should be through a comparison of two major authors, Yoshiya Nobuko and Kitagawa Chiyo. The battle between these two authors and the two types of stories they tell is the conflict between sentimental fantasy and social realism. It is this confronting interaction that helped to create the evolving genre of shōjō.

A book on girls reading in Japan could not be complete without a chapter on the popularity of Anne of Green Gables in Japan. Chapter 6 looks at the phenomenon that is Anne of Green Gables exploring its strong social relevance to the lives of reading girls. Classic girls’ fiction in Japan is mostly comprised of translations of English classics, such as Little Women, The Secret Garden and, above all, Anne of Green Gables. Girls’ fiction in Japanese by Japanese authors was popular before the Second World War, but only regained dominance in the 1980s. Anne of Green Gables was not only popular with young Japanese girls, but also with mature women readers. Akiko Uchiyama, the author of this chapter, offers a different interpretation than traditional views about the popularity of Anne of Green Gables and ascribes its immense popularity to pragmatism and escapism. The subversion of social conventions and constraints is what makes the novel so attractive to Japanese readers. Akiko Uchiyama argues that Montgomery had a pragmatic life view that is reflected in the Anne books, but, at the same time, the novels reveal an intentional subversion of morality. Uchiyama maintains that it is this subversive element that accounts for the popularity of Anne of Green Gables. Moreover, the fact that the world of Avonlea is a safe matriarchal haven that allows both Anne and the reader to escape from the patriarchal world is another strategy that explains the continued interest in this narrative by both girls and mature women.

Whereas part 2 focused on older texts for girls, with part 3 the book enters the contemporary period and looks at the sexually explicit material that is discussed more openly than before. In Chapter 7, Kazumi Nagaike uses feminist psychoanalysis to look at Matsuura Rieko’s work Uravājon (The Reverse Version). The story has a complicated narrative structure with three levels, a primary story of a young woman writer and her friend, a framework narrative by a girl called Chiyoko and a third level of male homosexual stories created by Chiyoko. Kazumi Nagaike argues that the book is an example of shōjō culture as it includes the act of girls telling stories to other girls and a process of mediation between the writer and the reader that is typical of a shōjō community. Moreover, through the telling and controlling of male homosexual stories, the female protagonists not only subvert the established gender hierarchy, but also reclaim their own sexual identities.

Another analysis of female characters in a contemporary novel is the study of Kasahara Mei, a companion to the male protagonist Okada Tōru, in Murakami Haruki’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle discussed by Maria Flutsch in chapter 8. Adopting a Jungian approach, Flutsch demonstrates how Mei, who can be seen as Tōru’s anima and also as an embodiment of thanatos (Tōru’s trauma), helps Tōru to read the girl in himself to find out why he lost his wife. Mei introduces the concepts of eros, libido, thanatos and destrudo as elements present in the core of the psyche to Tōru. Although Mei is successful in teaching Tōru about reading the girl within, he ultimately rejects this and embraces the male world of action. Mei continues to be a presence in the book through her letters, which are never received by Tōru and through which she reflects on her sexual development. Her self-expression, however, leads to personal collapse in a male-dominated world where reading girls are not respected.

The idea of the collapsed or fractured girl is further developed in chapter 9, in which Rio Otomo discusses Amebic by Kanehara Hitomi. In the novella, the main character/narrator reads delusional writings left on her computer at night by herself, although she doesn’t remember writing them. The duality of the Self changes into a multiplicity of Selves as the narrative moves on and the reader discovers that the narrator is caught in a mechanism of desire to control her skinny physical body by not eating. Rio Otomo shows how the reading and writing of shōjō culture is now modernized through reading and writing on the machine. The breakdown of the unified Self and the fractured text it creates results in a defiance of patriarchal society and is also a critique of the ‘kawaii’ girl in contemporary Japanese society.

In part 4 of the book, attention turns to visual and three-dimensional materials, but also focuses on intertextuality which is an intrinsic characteristic of shōjō culture. In chapter 10, Helen Kilpatrick analyses a modern pictorial representation (picture book) of the story Marivuron to shōjō by Miyazawa Kenji, originally published in 1933. The story has a certain shōjō awareness, as reflected in the slightly transgressive shōjō protagonist who desires something different and gently resists patriarchal authority. Kilpatrick shows how the original story evokes a number of shōjō features, such as the importance of nature (flowers, birds, rainbows, etc.) as girl signifiers, an awareness of the negative impact of patriarchal ideology, a positive female voice, a feminine, emotional language, and the strong sense of a community of girls, even though the work was not originally aimed at shōjō readers. Kilpatrick further argues that Kitano Junko’s artwork for the picture book further emphasizes shōjō characteristics while at the same time linking the images intervisually to the Pre-Raphaelite movement in the UK. Kitano uses girl-affiliated symbols, such as flowers, androgynous girls, and background framing, in her illustrations. Colour and the use of light in the images are discussed in detail, and it is a pity that illustrations in the book are not in colour. Kilpatrick finishes her argument by linking Kitano’s use of lightness and swaying to Honda Masuko’s idea of the cocoon of girlhood.

Intertextual and intervisual qualities, Honda Masuko’s idea of a self-sustaining reading community, and the power of women translators are elaborated on in a discussion of shōjō manga. James Welker argues that translation and translated texts have been and continue to be vital to shōjō literature. He analyses Yoshida Akimi’s Sakura no sono (The Cherry Orchard) shōjō manga as a site where experimentation with gender and more particularly female-female romantic and sexual relationships are explored through the intertextual link with Chekhov’s play. Foreign, especially western, spaces have often been foregrounded in shōjō literature to create a sense of belonging for its readers. Welker demonstrates how shōjō manga uses the performance of the play, The Cherry Orchard, as a vehicle for female students to explore gender and sexual identities.

Translation both creates and informs the tradition of shōjō in Japan and this is not only a feature of the work of professional writers, amateur girl artists also take foreign texts and edit and re-write these texts as they read and self-publish their manga and fiction. Sharalyn Orbaugh purchased a number of yaoiani-paro (‘slash fiction’: parodies of the original texts which pair the fictional characters in homosexual relationships) versions of Harry Potter texts from the 2004 Comic Markets in Tokyo. This interest in male homosexuality by girls links this chapter to Nagaike’s discussion of The Reverse Version. A first part of the article discusses the historical development of the dōjinshi manga (zine-type publications) in Japan. Whereas previously these source texts were rewritten and produced by people (mostly girls and women) who met in real environments, the internet has changed the types of interaction which results in a blurring of boundaries between writer and reader and professional and amateur. In a second part Sharalyn Orbaugh highlights a number of shōjō literary tropes that this modern material demonstrates. The first pattern she discusses is that of the Gothic romance, where the female heroine is often under threat of rape by the male. Another pattern is that of apparent enemies who are mutually attracted which results in love stories such as that between Remus Lupin and Severus Snape. Orbaugh argues that many of the amateur writers intentionally queer the Harry Potter universe in a move that can be considered a deliberate creation of a counterculture with values that are very different from mainstream society. Since mainstream society does not value girls and women, the participation in this re-writing endeavour is empowering.

In a final chapter, Vera Mackie discusses the manifold cultural references of the Lolita figure in Japanese culture focused on the ‘Lolita’ fashion subculture as shown in Takemoto Novala’s Kamikaze Girls and its relation to shōjō culture. Although Lolita originally referred to Nabokov’s novel and the interest of middle-aged men in young teenage girls, this is not the focus of the Lolita subculture. Lolita fashion is characterized by lace and frills which relate it to the hirahira spirit of the shōjō culture as defined in chapter 1. The Lolita fashion is non-sexual and has two main categories: Sweet Lolita versus Gothic Lolita. This polarization into a good and bad Lolita also links it to shōjō culture. The fashion style is also highly intertextual since fashion often quotes styles or trends from previous periods. Moreover, there are also intertextual links to literature and to popular culture such as manga, pop music, fairy tales and kawaii goods. Vera Mackie discusses many intertextual shōjō elements in the novel including the name of the author, the names of characters, the musical alliterative language, the absence of gender, anxiety about the maternal body, and non-traditional families. But above all, shōjō culture is about nostalgia for an innocent past.

It was the authors’ wish that readers of this book will be inspired to pay homage to and support the eternal girl in her reading. It is obvious that the authors succeeded in that objective as all chapters in this book in some way highlight the hirahira aspect of the shōjō. The book traverses a wide field of shōjō culture and shows clearly that “Japanese women authors have depicted female characters as passionate readers and critics” (p. 176). For the reader unable to read Japanese this book offers a fascinating glimpse of the different aspects of girl culture and reading girls in Japan. The book is of interest to anyone who studies fiction for girls and girlhood in its broadest sense. It shows both similarities in circumstances that connect girls beyond cultures and differences that belong particularly to the Japanese cultural field. Critics working in other languages will be inspired to find similarities and differences with girls’ literature and studies in other cultures.

Mieke K.T. Desmet
Tunghai University, Taiwan