History – Herstory: Recent Discourses by Japanese Women on Japan – Asia Relations
South-east Asian states have repeatedly asked Japan to play a leading role in the economic and political integration of Asia. However, such demands are almost always accompanied by critical voices warning of a resurgent claim to Japanese hegemony and pointing to Japan’s reluctance to acknowledge its responsibility for its colonial and military past in Asia. Historians of Japan have extensively studied and commented upon the phenomenon of “frozen memory” (Carol Gluck) in Japan’s attitude towards its wartime and postwar history.
As far as the “official”, institutional stance on history is concerned, this is certainly a poignant observation. Yet, since the early nineties, non-state actors have come to play an increasingly active and public role in the Japanese history debate. Japanese NGOs, feminist historians and sociologists belong, among others, to these new political actors who challenge the established narratives and who aim – against all odds – at a rewriting of national history that addresses and recognizes Japan’s responsibilities towards Asian countries and their people. These activities find their theoretical underpinning in some recent paradigm changes in historical research, such as the insistence on women’s agency both in the making and telling of history, or the recognition of oral accounts as historical source material.
My research project concentrates on recent feminist discourses in Japan, particularly those dealing with the issue of the euphemistically called “military comfort women.” Under the three aspects of “gender and nationalism”, “state and sexuality”, and “women and war”, these discourses are analyzed in terms of their contents, their rhetoric as well as their methodological and ideological bases.
The project pursues mainly two goals. Firstly, it will introduce the hitherto little knows efforts of Japanese scholars and activists to increase public awareness of Japan’s colonial and military past in Asia. It will attempt secondly, to answer the questions of whether these new discourses indeed reflect a major paradigm change in the writing of Japanese history, how they can open different ways of communication and cooperation between Asia and Japan, and in which way they may influence constructions of identity among Japanese women.
Modern Women’s Writing and Feminist Literary Criticism in Japan
In recent years, several new studies appeared in anglo-american Japanese studies which analyze modern Japanese women’s writing from a feminist and/or gender perspective. The increasing interest in the subject is more than welcome and has produced some fascinating and inspiring results. A recurrent feature in many of these studies is their reliance on “western” feminist literary theories, while Japanese feminist literary criticism is often neither mentioned nor taken into consideration. The old prejudice that there are no Japanese feminist theories and that Japanese feminism derived from a western “original” seems still very much alive. The numerous texts on modern literature, écriture feminine and feminism written by Saegusa Kazuko (b. 1929), Kōra Rumiko (b. 1932), and Tomioka Taeko (b. 1935) form a powerful and eloquent argument against this view. Their critical writings provide the material for this project on feminist literary criticism in Japan; it is complemented by translations (into German) of a novel by Saegusa which she declared to be “feminist”, and a collection of short stories by Tomioka.