Feminism: The New "F-word" in Japan?

Apr 26, 2016

Senior Fellow Devin Stewart speaks with Natsumi Ikoma, the Center for Gender Studies director, International Christian University, Japan, about the state of feminism in Japanese art, literature, and society. Ikoma, a Carnegie Council Pacific Fellow, describes how women are portrayed in Japanese theater and how female writers are changing public debate.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart at Carnegie Council. I am talking today with Natsumi Ikoma.


DEVIN STEWART: Great to talk with you, Natsumi.

Natsumi is director of the Center for Gender Studies and she is also professor of literature at International Christian University in Japan. Natsumi has recently become one of our Pacific Fellows at Carnegie Council.

Thank you so much, Natsumi, for talking with us today about gender in Japan.

NATSUMI IKOMA: Not at all. It's my pleasure.

DEVIN STEWART: Tell me a little bit about your research interests.

NATSUMI IKOMA: I am basically interested in the representation of women's bodies in women's writings, both in British literature and Japanese literature. My research focus at the moment is Angela Carter and her fiction, and especially how gender performativity functions in her works.

DEVIN STEWART: Tell me a little bit about Angela Carter and her work. What have you found so far?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Angela Carter is a British writer. She actually passed away in 1992, prematurely. She is a very famous British women's writer. A lot of graduate students are doing research on her. But unfortunately in Japan she is not very popular because of the difficulty—well, her fiction is really a feminist work. Japanese readers are not really into that sort of thing. So I am really trying to promote her works in Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you saying that generally Japanese readers and students are unfamiliar with Western feminism, generally speaking?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Yes, yes, that's what I think.

DEVIN STEWART: Why is that the case?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Angela Carter is a strong feminist. Her tone is not really welcome in Japan somehow.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you explain why?

NATSUMI IKOMA: She's incredibly funny. So I am trying to decode her work to a Japanese audience.

DEVIN STEWART: And why would a feminist voice be less welcome?

NATSUMI IKOMA: That's the Japanese thing. In recent years feminism itself has become a new "f-word" in Japan, as it were. It is such a hated word. Especially among the young generation, "feminism" is not really a popular term. Younger women don't really want themselves to be connected to the term.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you tell me, why is this environment so hostile to the term "feminism"?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Oh, I don't know. I think because of the male centrality of Japanese society in general. Women here, generally speaking, are still trying to be popular among male groups. So they don't really want to be recognized as feminists. That's what I think.

DEVIN STEWART: And you are introducing Carter as a way to maybe change the discourse a little bit?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Yes, exactly. I think literature is one of the effective ways to change people's perception about society in general, but about feminism as well.

DEVIN STEWART: And how is that going so far?

NATSUMI IKOMA: I think it is a good way to go into the minds of people.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you seeing any positive results?

NATSUMI IKOMA: I'm teaching Angela Carter's works in my courses at International Christian University, where I teach. A lot of students have found Angela Carter's works very interesting. So I think I am contributing to the expansion of her fandom in Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: You talk about looking at the representation of body in modern literature, in Japanese literature. What is that about? Please explain.

NATSUMI IKOMA: Right. I have been dealing with that research topic since the time I was writing a doctoral thesis at Durham University in England. I find commonalities between British contemporary writing and Japanese contemporary writing, especially in women's writing, very interesting. They feature a lot of monstrous women or monsters in their works. I think they may be using those sort of monstrous figures to represent some aspects of femininity represented in society. Also they are using the monstrous representation as a sort of weapon against patriarchal control of women's bodies.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you mean by "monstrous"?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Literally, it is monstrous figures, like women with, for instance, a huge torso or sometimes disfigured body parts, something like that.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see this in other elements of Japanese art?

NATSUMI IKOMA: One Japanese author, a contemporary author, is using a very interesting bodily representation, which is an enlarged thumb, tall thumb of a foot long. It's a very funny story. This woman with this large thumb has been used as a sex toy because that thumb looks exactly like a penis. So even though she is a woman, she has this penis-like thumb. She experiences male experience as well as female experience. It's a sort of adventure story, with lots of strange characters. She is sort of a highlight of the novel, of that woman author.

DEVIN STEWART: And you are looking at other types of Japanese art, like the theater and other types. Do you see this theme in other arts?

NATSUMI IKOMA: I'm not really specializing in other art forms. But I am interested in kabuki, because that is a very stylized gender performance that has been in Japanese culture for a long time, since the Edo period. Yes, I'm interested in that.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the gender focus in kabuki?

NATSUMI IKOMA: As you know, kabuki performers are all male. Female roles are played by male actors. It is a very stylized and very ritualistic thing. Usually those male actors who perform as women on the stage only play women's roles in their career. They literally internalize femininity in their daily lives as well. Mishima Yukio, the famous Japanese writer, wrote about it. There seems to be a very blurred distinction between reality and the played roles. It seems that Western distinctions of what is art and what is fiction don't really apply to Japanese culture. I am very interested in that sort of thing.

DEVIN STEWART: How are women portrayed by these male actors? Do you think they are believable?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Yes, yes, they are quite believable. That is the interesting part, because through kabuki performances we know exactly what femininity is. It is basically a performance. Male actors can imitate women perfectly. That means gender performance of femininity is exactly an art. It's an art.

DEVIN STEWART: How would you describe that performance? What are the characteristics of femininity?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Women are very docile. They are really caring and tender and gentle—all those characteristics of the "eternal feminine," as described by Simone de Beauvoir.

DEVIN STEWART: Does this have anything to do with how feminism is viewed in Japan today?

NATSUMI IKOMA: I think the eternal feminine still is very much alive in Japanese society. There is a strong motivation for Japanese women to be that eternal feminine character. Probably that might be one of the reasons why feminism is not really popular.

DEVIN STEWART: What does it mean to be feminine? Is that changing in Japan today?

NATSUMI IKOMA: I'm not sure. I have never thought about that. Well, it is changing in a way. Two decades ago, for instance, women were not really required or expected to work outside. But nowadays they are expected to work as well as do the house chores. So the quality required among women is slightly changing. They have to be really efficient at work, but they are expected to be tender and motherly and gentle at the same time. So I think Japanese women, especially young generations, have double expectancies. They have to fulfill the docile part as well as the efficient working women part.

DEVIN STEWART: That sounds like a lot of pressure. Is that stressful?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Yes, yes. That's one of the reasons why the Japanese population is suffering a lower birthrate at the moment. Japanese women are not really coping well with this burden.

DEVIN STEWART: Are there any reasons to be more optimistic?

NATSUMI IKOMA: I'm not sure. At the moment Japanese companies, the big companies, are not really accommodating the women's needs yet. But I think the social pressure is increasing, and so they probably have to change their ways in a few years' time, I think. Hopefully, if they change their ways to make themselves more women-friendly, then things might change in a good way.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned that literature can help shape public opinion. What do you see happening today in modern Japanese literature?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Yes, I think so. These days a few Japanese women writers are really expressive of their feelings about feminism. Even though they are still minorities, some audiences really love that sort of expressive voice. So I think, yes, Japanese society may change gradually.

DEVIN STEWART: Who are some of the writers you would recommend us checking out?

NATSUMI IKOMA: My current favorite is Kawakami Mieko. She is writing about women's bodies and how women's writing tradition is carrying on. For instance, from the Meiji period there is a very famous woman writer, Higuchi Ichiyō. Kawakami Mieko is trying to imitate her style and also her theme as well. Higuchi Ichiyō had been writing about prostitutes and how their lives are so devastating. Kawakami Mieko, even though she writes 200 years later, still is tackling the same issue about how society controls women's bodies and how women suffer from poverty and how society doesn't understand the devastation, stuff like that. So I think she is really a great writer in current literary society in Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: Natsumi, this has been a great conversation. Are there any final words that you would offer in terms of what people could look at when they are trying to understand the changes taking place in Japanese society?

NATSUMI IKOMA: Right. I would like to stress that when you say "Japanese literature," what is brought into the light is mainly male writers—for instance, Murakami Haruki or Natsume Sōseki, all those famous male writers. But there are lots of good female writers as well, and they are writing very interesting topics on women and women's bodies. So if you are interested in Japanese society and Japanese culture, I really recommend you to look at the women's writing and try to understand Japanese culture from a slightly different perspective than what is popular. That's my advice.

DEVIN STEWART: That's great advice, Natsumi. Thank you so much for your time today.

NATSUMI IKOMA: My pleasure. Thank you very much for calling.

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