Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Occasional Thoughts on Japanese Women's Writing [That I Got All A's For]

Tadano Makuzu’s political opinions are in many respects very conservative by the definitions and standards of late Tokugawa Japan. Her religious and nationalistic views, which are refreshingly forthright for a woman of her time in their expression, are very tied up in kokugaku ideas. Her criticisms of the ruling class are not aspersions cast on its existence or its basic character but rather expressions of the idea that it does not use—and does not safeguard—its power in the right ways.
Makuzu opposes the perceived frivolity and sybaritism of some parts of the samurai class. She compares them unfavourably with the relatively spartan nobility of the Russian Empire and also critiques their unwillingness to fully engage in the production of public policy regarding such ‘non-Confucian’ topics as the economy.

It is a bit odd to me to see economic intervention discussed as a national, moral, almost spiritual use of the government’s time while the proud Tokugawa tradition of dealing with any and all problems by repressing public speech and putting out what were essentially public service announcements is derided as excessively rationalistic bean-counting. Her discussions of prices and price-gouging, particularly her reluctance to accept scarcity as relevant to determining value, unquestionably frame problems in economic policy as problems in ‘real true Japanese’ morality. It is worth noting that the ‘sins against Heaven’ (as opposed to against Earth) in the prayers of the most ancient Shinto are all examples of bad agricultural or environmental policy. In this context not only does the fundamental traditionalism and non-rationalism of Makuzu’s position become clear, it also helps give us a path to understanding the moral positioning of kokugaku and other such social and intellectual movements of the period. In this analysis Makuzu becomes highly important to understanding the basic psyche of ‘traditionalist’ opposition to the Tokugawa government and its policies.
Makuzu’s discussion of sex in Hitori kangae comes in two parts. One is an analysis of the body in terms of Shinto and other ‘old Japanese’ purity and wholeness standards. This relies upon the fact that the female genitalia are physically less externally prominent than the male genitalia to provide a semi-biological, semi-spiritual explanation for male dominance and some forms of sexual aggression. This differs from the Confucian view mainly in that it does not ascribe to women an inherent inferiority in pubic morality, though it does present us with a theoretical framework for similar ideas about lower female capacity for appropriate fulfillment of public roles. Makuzu’s views on marital and family dynamics are fairly traditional. She also hews dangerously close to Onna daigaku­-style viewpoints on some marital issues, though often on different grounds.
            Later on, however, Makuzu indulges in a brief discussion of several historical facts about women’s roles. She reminds us that the most religiously notable and worshipful Shinto figures tend to be female, as are many of the early legendary rulers of Japan. She mentions the female provenance of the Genji and several other such texts. She also claims to have seen an illustration of a woman performing a surgical dissection in a Dutch book, and ends this passage with a simple question as to why so many opportunities are closed to her when they might not have been in the distant past and might not be in other countries. This passage presents a clean break with the prevailing ideologies of the times and even recapitulates several talking points used in early works of Western feminism.


The poetry of Ema Saiko shows an interesting combination of a clear reluctance of the poet to participate in the general expectations of her society—perhaps even an outright disdain for those expectations—and a powerful yearning for and love of close relationships with specific people around her. Rai San’yo, both of her parents, and her younger sister appear again and again in her writing, always in extremely favourable lights even when at least one of them (Rai) frequently disappoints and upsets her. It is clear that Ema Saiko loved her family and friends very, very deeply and one also gets the impression that she found them more or less sufficient for her worldly companionship. Ema was by no means deliriously happy with her life, and in much of her work she actually recommends that other women not follow her example, but reading ‘Winter’s Night’ and ‘Denying My Sister Sake’ her profound capacity for love of both people and horizons of interaction—when they are people with whom she is comfortable and horizons on which she has some control over her own presence and the nature thereof—shines through very strongly.
            Ema’s reclusive tendencies indicate less misanthropy than an acknowledgement of her unwillingness or inability to perform roles other than the ones that she has chosen for herself or has been performing since she was born. Ema spent her life more or less content with most aspects of her situation and her choices but also aware of the problems that those choices generated for her and sometimes for others. She recovers from every setback and every tragedy but feels them very strongly and writes powerfully about what she feels.
            The poem in which her mother dies, ‘Mother’s Death’, is particularly notable for encompassing nearly every important motif present in the parts of her body of work that deal with her relationships with other people: Concern for her now-widowed father, sadness tempered by an acknowledgement that this is simply how things go and almost everybody loses one or both parents eventually, resolve to deal with her sadness and help her father deal with his The Ema Saiko Way (which involves a lot of reading, as we see from other poems), and so on. This poem and the more lighthearted one about her sister’s inability to hold her liquor together form a pretty powerful counterargument to the occasional accusation that Ema was defined as a writer by her inability to connect with others.
            Ema lived a relatively long life and was able to be with her beloved and even more long-lived father for at least the first two-thirds of it, maybe more. She also had a mother to whom she was apparently quite close and a strong bond with at least one sibling—again, maybe more. She liked books and lying around in her room with fabric patterns. There is nothing in her biography or her work to justify the idea that it was damaging or indicative of damage for her to be this way and one wonders about the general attitude towards women of the time that gives rise to these sorts of claims.


In Matsuri no ba time is deliberately spread out and mutilated so that the experiences of Hayashi Kyouko at fourteen and her ongoing pain and painful reverie at forty-five meld or are forcibly melded together. Medical problems thirty years after the bombing, the experience of the bombing itself, remembrance ceremonies, recollections of military rituals, and mainstream historiographical analysis (which Hayashi sees as woefully misunderstanding the actual experiences of the hibakusha at best) are twined together without conventional distinctions of time and space being drawn or allowed to be drawn. Hayashi thus creates a symbolic system of time and time-expression in which the reader is not accorded the privilege or the excuse of drawing the reality of the bombing down into the past and letting it there molder.
            While time is drawn together it is also burst apart by the fragmented and drifting style in which the book is written. We are not even allowed to consign the entire mass to the waters of Lethe indiscriminately, because some part of it is always going to elude our grasp and come back in the form of a much more immediate and arresting thought. Hayashi wants to first fuse and then explode time and chronology so that the reader’s ability to define and limit the nature of his or her identification with the text, at least through the process of distancing, is restricted if not outright demolished.
            Unable to either draw out the events described in conventional historical metre and this dispose of them or to entirely fuse the contents into a single discrete and hence at least in theory ignorable mass of ideas, the reader is led or outright forced into a profoundly uncomfortable understanding of Hayashi’s points about the ahistorical nature of suffering or, at last, the ongoing and continually painful nature of its historicity. Absolutely stripped of the capacity to be tritely consigned to a past out of mind, the bombing’s characteristic of permanent presence in the minds of the hibakusha becomes a general characteristic of ineluctable haunting in the minds of the readers.


The protagonist of Kusa no fushido, a curiously unerotic exploration of intimacy in the forms of physical touch and quotidian favours (and, sometimes, unkindnesses), finds her clearest definition in her relationship with a slightly younger woman named Kumi and Kumi’s toddler daughter Nana. While Kumi’s role in the life of the protagonist (whom I shall call Yuuko, after the author) is not inherently complicated, at least no more so than any ‘normal’ relationship, it won’t quite fit into the categories traditionally defined as ‘normal’. It is too devoid of eroticism (not only of sexuality but also of the various attendant characteristics) to be called lesbian and too intricately codependent to be considered a conventional friendship. It resembles Yuuko’s relationships with her male friend Suwan and (formerly) her deceased, mentally handicapped younger brother, in that if anything its closest ‘standard’ comparison is to a sibling bond, but even this is horribly inadequate to describe it in many ways.
            First, Suwan and Yuuko’s brother were both placed into the role of a sort of ‘innocent’ or ‘holy fool’, a character of the kind that Dostoyevsky and Faulkner loved, due to their mutually low verbal functioning. Yuuko’s brother’s verbal skills were almost entirely nonexistent throughout his life, and Suwan is a foreigner who speaks absolutely atrocious Japanese that seemingly never improves at all whether he is trying or not. Because of these traits Yuuko perceives Suwan and her brother as ‘safe havens’ of sorts. Kumi is also a safe haven, in that her presence lends Yuuko’s life certain safeguards against danger and sadness—a known quantity as a friend and intimate, whatever in the world she is to Yuuko, a person to confide in or if need be stick by, and so on—that would not otherwise be there. But she is safe to Yuuko in a much less passive, receiving way than Yuuko’s brother was or Suwan is, because her safeness is the safeness of a peer in many more respects. Kumi and Yuuko share several life experiences, such as the untimely loss of close family members and (explicit in Yuuko’s case, heavily implied in Kumi’s) mistreatment by former male romantic partners. Kumi’s verbal acuity and sensitivity are, like Yuuko’s, remarkably high, and their interactions, while often playful, are rarely if ever simple.
            As the story goes on, Yuuko and Kumi’s relationship becomes closer and closer and at the same time more and more bizarre. Nana, Kumi’s daughter, who is two years old at some points in the story’s odd chronology and probably a bit older at others, serves in part as a token or chint to be placed in a central but unagentic role in their relationship—witness their (negligent rather than malicious but still at many points quite severe) abuse of her and occasional treatment of her as a pack or as a pack animal depending on the situation—but she also provides a genuine and important, if questionable, teleological thrust to Yuuko and Kumi’s relationship and to their individual lives overall. ‘Motherhood’, in the sense propagated as a social and moral and cultural ideal in Japan throughout history (Japan’s national motherhood cultus is almost as strong as that of the United States…), does not exist in Kusa no fushido, but mothers do.
‘Motherhood’ does not exist, but mothers do. The story ends with Yuuko brawling with Nana, falling asleep on top of her, and then waking up, picking her up, and cradling her in a sudden burst of ‘love for that heavy body’. She is an awful, awful mother and so is Kumi. But it is as unfit mothers that they exist and have place in the world. This bizarre relationship and this lunging, flailing, barely even baseline-competent motherhood is what they have and where they are together. After all, all Yuuko and Kumi have in the end is each other.

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