Aspects of Love in Contemporary Japanese Fiction by Women Writers

By Muta, Orie | Hecate, November 3, 1990 | Go to article overview

Aspects of Love in Contemporary Japanese Fiction by Women Writers


Muta, Orie, Hecate


In this paper I discuss fiction by contemporary Japanese women writers in an attempt to examine some of women's varying perceptions about love and human relationships. I present firstly a brief overview of the preoccupations of feminine literature in the context of historical background, and then discuss contemporary fiction by women writers.

Until the mid-Nineteenth century, love as a subject of poetry and fiction in Japanese literature was mostly physical love.(1) For our interest, it is important to note that, around the Tenth and Eleventh centuries, authors of Japanese prose and poetry were mainly women. The author of the Eleventh century novel, The Tale of Genji, for example, is the court lady Murasaki Shikibu. The world of her characters was polygamous, and promiscuous sexual lives for men and women were the norm. It seems, however, naive to believe, as one contemporary critic does,(2) that there was no jealously between the principal wife and the lower-class concubines of a man, even though they accepted the social system. Ivan Morris points out that a "sense of insecurity and a tendency to worry about each course of action are something that nearly all the women characters in The Tale of Genji have in common".(3) The anxieties that resulted from polygamy have been one of the main motifs dealt with not only by Heian women but also by modern women writers.

The concept of love distinguished from physical passion was introduced to Japan firstly in the Sixteenth century by the Jesuits. Though scientific knowledge and technology from Europe were welcomed, the teaching of the Jesuits was incompatible with the polygamy and promiscuous sexual life of the time.(4) Homosexuality was also commonplace among feudal lords. It was in the late Nineteenth century, with the introduction of Protestantism along with translations of European literature, that the Western concept of love began to spread among intellectuals. Young Meiji intellectuals such as Kitamura Tokoku (1868-94) found a supreme value in platonic love. Their confused state of mind in understanding "sacred love" is reflected in literature as "pure and innocent". This results in their preoccupation with the motif of the first love.(5) They regarded "the state of matrimony", like Kitamura, as "enemy territory" because it was ruled by society.(6)

When we consider the subject of love in literature, particularly that of the Meiji period, we cannot separate it from the political conditions of the time. The Emperor system, which had been established in the 1890s, was reinforced through education to become not only the political system but also a code of moral values. In 1901, Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) at the age of twenty-three published a book of tanka(7), Midaregami (Tangled Hair), in which she glorified sensuality. "Traditional society seemed to be greatly disturbed"(8) by the following; one of her most well known tanka:

Yawahada no atsuki chishio ni furemo mide

sabishikarazu ya michi o toku kimi

(Not even trying to touch the hot blood-tide under

my soft skin, aren't you lonely,

you who teach the way?)(9)

Around the 1910s, Naturalism and Anarchism emerged as a revolt against the established order. While Anarchism was to challenge the political aspects of the established order, Naturalism was to challenge its ethical aspects.(10) In 1910, we find the poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1887-1914) claiming that the pursuit of truth and assertion of individualism by the Naturalists in their early days was now blocked because of the power of the state. Consequently, writers turned their eyes to the vices of the social structure. Therefore "it is no coincidence", writes Takuboku, "that most present day novels, tanka and poems are records of whoring, illicit intercourse and adultery".(11)

While male writers in the Meiji and Taisho periods were preoccupied with the struggles of their heroes to be free from the family system, the cornerstone of the state, female writers questioned the institution of marriage and dealt with problems of married life. …

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