Beyond Kawaii: Studying Japanese Femininities at Cambridge
edited by Brigitte Steger, Angelika Koch and Christopher Tso
(Lit Publisher 2020)
Beyond Kawaii: Studying Japanese Femininities at Cambridge is the third collection of groundbreaking essays written by recent graduates of Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge. Encouraged by the success of our two earlier books, Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy: Studying Japanese Gender at Cambridge, published in 2013, and Cool Japanese Men: Studying New Masculinities at Cambridge, published in December 2017, we are continuing our exploration of gender issues in contemporary Japanese society by focusing on women’s lives and their identities in the twenty-first century.
Find out more about their work from the authors:
Ellen Mann: ‘A Woman’s Happiness is Decided by Her Uterus’
In recent years, alternative healing and pop-spirituality have been in vogue in the US and UK – think Eat Pray Love, horoscopes, luxurious ‘ayurveda’ shower gels. It was literally in Vogue – Vogue Japan – that I learned that these trends were also proliferating in my region of study. Flicking through I noticed a picture of a rose quartz facial massage stone which, the caption read, ‘might confer spiritual (supirichuaru) power’. In my chapter, I use Japanese women’s magazines and blogs to analyse the discourses surrounding New Age body care, specifically practices and products associated with uterus and vaginal health. I argue that although this ‘new spiritual’ media appropriates a feminist rhetoric of self-love and empowerment, it simultaneously reinforces notions of women’s bodies as inherently polluting and reduces a woman’s worth to her reproductive health.
Tianyi Vespera Xie: ‘Haha ni naru’
I cannot recall how many times I have heard the phrase ‘work and family simply cannot be balanced (shigoto to katei wa ryōritsu dekinai)’ in both Japanese and western contexts. It is always said in relation to women, revealing a common-sense assumption that they must prioritise their children once they become mothers. As more women are reluctant to have children, pregnancy and parenting magazines often feature inspiring stories about women who combine motherhood and career successfully. Through a close reading of such magazines, I show the emergence of a new ‘mama identity’ according to which mothers can discover happiness through childrearing while also enjoying a fulfilling career through entrepreneurial forms of work. This discourse also manifests through the body with women encouraged to continue to enjoy fashion but to move beyond the kawaii image of their youth to a more sophisticated kireime (‘pretty’) style that matches their mature adult status as mothers. I suggest that the high standards required of a successful mama in Japan today may ironically be adding to the perceived burden of motherhood and thus contributing to women’s decisions to postpone marriage and childbirth.
Anna Ellis-Rees: ‘Soft, round and squishy’
The pressure to lose weight in Japan is hard to miss. From rows of dieting products in cosmetics stores to the common sight of ‘one size fits all’ clothing in Kyoto’s shopping district, I quickly bought into the image of Japan as a nation where to be thin is to fit in. To my surprise, about a month into my research on the commercialisation of the slim female body in Japanese dieting advertisements, I stumbled upon something unexpected: a music video from a pop idol girl group called Chubbiness. I had discovered Japan’s body positivity movement, led by a number of idol groups who strive to spread messages of self-love and self-acceptance. And yet upon closer inspection, the representations of larger female bodies in this ‘fat positive’ media did not seem so different from the more ‘fat negative’ dieting commercials that I had been investigating. In Soft, Round and Squishy I build on this observation, arguing that both types of media encourage aesthetic competition and judgment amongst women, reinforcing the patriarchal structures around which the slim female norm is built.
Alex Russell: ‘Becoming Mayu’
Ambitious to practise reading Japanese as I arrived at Doshisha University for my year abroad, I purchased a one-yen copy of Kanehara Hitomi’s Trip Trap off the internet, having thoroughly enjoyed her Akutagawa-award-winning Snakes and Earrings.However, the book languished unread on the shelf of my dormitory room, gathering dust. When I finally did start reading it, I was fascinated by the six short stories that comprised the collection, depicting the tribulations of six distinct characters called Mayu as they negotiate the relationships with the men in their lives. The characters are at different life stages; alienated teenagers, unhappy wives, and exhausted mothers, all united in their frustrations at the inequalities they face as women and social expectations that tie them to their male partners domesticity. In my chapter, I explore how Kanehara constructs a central ‘female process’ of transformation guiding them from youth, via marriage, towards motherhood. In doing so, she demonstrates the unfair expectations this places on women in Japan. I argue that Kanehara’s move away from the shocking content of eating disorders, deviant sexualities and graphic violence of her earlier works only strengthens her critical voice, as she turns her eye to the detailed reality of the injustices faced by the Japanese everywoman.
Tianyi Vespera Xie: ‘Ikemen dansō girls’. Walking down the streets of Harajuku in Tokyo and observing the youth fashion styles is always exciting. I am impressed not only by their creativity, but also by what they express about social change. I find myself raising endless questions. Does the popularity of ‘genderless boys’ mean that gender no longer matters in Japan? Why is the Lolita style now more popular in China and the US than in Harajuku? Ikemen dansō, an androgynous or boyish fashion style and subcultural practice in which women cross-dress as men from the ‘2.5 dimension’, gave me particular inspiration to carry out a research project in 2017 when I was studying at Keio University. Drawing on Japanese magazines and websites that provide information for dansō enthusiasts, I analyse discourses surrounding gender performance and identity. I argue that ikemen dansō girls negotiate gender through fashion, linguistic practice and body language. In doing so, they craft an alternative gender identity that opposes and subverts both normative masculinities and femininities, reflecting a desire to escape from gendered social norms and to pursue their own ideals of individuality and self-expression beyond adolescence.
Anna Ellis-Rees: ‘Victim or Monster?’
I have long been an unashamed horror fan, but it was when I came across an in-depth analysis of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) during my second year of university that I began to look at this controversial genre from an academic perspective. I remembered the film for its notoriety and shocking violence, and yet had never considered what this said about contemporary attitudes towards animal rights, the family unit or women. Motivated to look further into horror cinema, I explored perhaps the most famous Japanese horror hit, Ringu (1998), the story of the vengeful ghost of a murdered girl named Sadako. Sadako is memorable not only for her ability to scare but also for the tragic roots of her vengeance. Is she meant to invoke fear, pity or both in the viewer? And what do these multiple layers of horror tell us about women’s roles in Japanese society? These questions inspired my analysis of three horror films and their vengeful female antagonists who were not only monstrous but also victims of abuse. I argue that these films, all made at a time of palpable national anxiety in the 1990s, reflect the discrepancy between how women were perceived as a threat to the post-war nuclear family model during the ‘lost decade’ and the real female experience of public criticism, sexual abuse and domestic violence.
About the editors: Brigitte Steger is a Senior Lecturer in Modern Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge researching daily life. Angelika Koch (PhD Cambridge) is a Research Fellow at the University of Ghent studying sexuality and health discourses in early modern Japan. Christopher Tso is a final-year PhD student at Cambridge exploring male grooming practices in Japanese business culture.