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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SEPTEMBER 17, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 37

Daring to be Different
Women who challenged Japan's hypocrisies
By TAN PEK LENG

Japan's first Western-style stage actress, Matsui Sumako, won acclaim for her role as Nora in the Ibsen play, A Doll's House. But she learned that turning her back on respectability and family was not as easy in real life. When the actress took up with Shimamura Hogetsu--scholar, novelist and married man--she was condemned as a home wrecker.

Many people already found her lack of femininity, or onna-rashisa, distressing. They had no difficulty blaming her for the ailing Shimamura's death. Their reasoning: She neglected his medical needs in the pursuit of her own fame. Unable to bear the abuse, Matsui hanged herself two months after her lover died.


Book Cover
Modern Girls, Shining Stars, The Skies of Tokyo:
5 Japanese Women

By Phyllis Birnbaum

At the beginning of the 20th century, Japanese society was not kind to women. But it was especially unforgiving towards those who dared to be different. Only the most courageous tried to live as their spirit took them--and for that, they suffered constant vilification. Some of these defiant ones are celebrated in Phyllis Birnbaum's Modern Girls, Shining Stars, The Skies of Tokyo: 5 Japanese Women (Columbia University Press, New York, 240 pages, $24.95). Despite their triumphs, the five, including Matsui, found that life in pre-war Japan often held "a vale of tears." Non-conformity came at a high price.

The painter Takamura Chieko has been immortalized in her husband's poem Chieko's Sky as simple, childlike and guileless--the supposed essence of being female. Yet, how much of that is the real woman and how much of it a projection of husband Takamura Kotaro's concept of the ideal female?

For all his professed disdain of social convention, poet Kotaro saw nothing amiss when his wife's easel stood idle and her sculptures were left unfinished. She was too exhausted from trying to "whip up meals from cut-rate fish" and finding ways to make ends meet at home. As Kotaro saw it, "she was a woman and therefore had to take charge of the household chores." Yet Chieko was expected to constantly reassure him of his genius. She became mentally ill and later died in an asylum. True to form, Kotaro blamed this on her family's predisposition to madness rather than the stifling of her artistic potential.

Ironically, the painter would probably have been forgotten but for the success of Chieko's Sky. The poem continues to be presented as a wedding gift with the hope that the affection expressed would be similarly manifested in the new partnerships.

The well-born writer Yanagiwara Byakuren was a Nora in real life and she chose a most dramatic way to divorce her husband--by publishing a letter in the Asahi newspaper, denouncing him and their sham of a marriage. This was possible only because Yanagiwara was established as a poet and had influential friends in publishing.

Her frontal "assault on Japan's feudalistic morals and mores" stirred up a storm. Right-wing groups took to the streets to condemn it as moral travesty and death threats followed. But liberals saw an opportunity to educate citizens on the need for social change. Yanagiwara had not expected her letter to elicit so much public reaction. To her, it had merely been a means to end a relationship which had robbed her of her dignity. All the same, it exposed the hypocrisy in a society where "a man could flaunt any number of mistresses but a wife who took a lover was subject to punishment by legal authorities."

But what of Yanagiwara herself? Critics questioned why she made that step of "self-awakening" only after taking a young lover. The denunciation mounted with revelations that she had once hired a woman to service her husband so that she could escape his attentions. That might have been an act of desperation, but was it sufficient excuse for betraying another woman? Such were the dilemmas of liberation.

Actress Takamine Hideko appeared in 400 films (she was a child star) and worked with Japan's most famous movie personalities, including Kurosawa Akira. Despite her success, Takamine's memories of her film career were at best bittersweet. She hated acting, she said; she felt her family had turned her into a money-making machine. On the set, she experienced a sense of liberation, but also a "strange desperation." She felt as manipulated on and off camera.

Perhaps the supreme modern girl, or mo ga, was novelist Uno Chiyo, who "lived beyond the bounds of propriety, married too often, [and] untied the sash of her kimono for too many men." Her indomitable spirit showed through in the stormy love stories she wrote. Many were based on her own experiences. Whatever they might have thought of Uno's lifestyle, women locked into traditional set-ups found in her novels a source of excitement, and perhaps escape from their humdrum routines. She offered a glimpse of alternatives without challenging the old virtues.

By pushing the social boundaries, women such as Matsui and Uno have made possible the emergence of the true mo ga--though the struggle is by no means over. Birnbaum tells their stories with sensitivity and sympathy. As a journalist, however, she refuses to gloss over their faults or silence their critics. The result is an insightful look not only into the lives of the five women but into the society of the time.


This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home

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