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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Strangers on Commuter Trains: Female Students and the Salaryman Who Watched Them in Late Meiji Literature

October 21, 1999

Alisa Freedman, University of Chicago

There were several transformations in early twentieth century Tokyourban space and in the lives of its inhabitants.  Many social andspatial movements converged on the train.  New groups, such as femalestudents (jogakusei) and businessmen (sarariman), arose fromand often epitomized ideological, educational, and economic changes ofthis time and commuted together from homes in the suburbs to work and schoolin the center of Tokyo.  Electric trains were quote;massquote; transportation,and genders and classes mixed in passenger cars.  Such vehicles weresites of urban behaviors and seductions and could be viewed as synecdochefor the rapidly modernizing city itself.  Moreover, the often exaggeratedsexuality, mobility, and autonomy of  modern women could be seen asanalogous to the allure, energy, and fear of train travel.  Trainswere spaces for watching and for being watched, and female passengers wereoften the objects of the gaze.

Modern women and mass transportation often appeared together in lateMeiji fiction, journalism, and visual media, such as comics and advertisements,and it is important to investigate them together to better understand theadvances and contradictions of Japanese modernity. In this presentation,I focus my analysis upon Tayama Katai’s 1907 short story Shojo byo,a tale of how a salaryman’s obsessive gawking at schoolgirls during hisdaily commutes causes him to fall to his gory death on the train tracks.´ The man carefully observes women’s physical appearances, hair styles,and clothing, and, subsequently, the fashions and customs of female studentsare colorfully portrayed.  Moreover, I will examine the figure ofthe Meiji female student in her historical context and look at her notonly as the passive object of the gaze but also as actively (mis)behavingon trains.