Giving voice to change

Broken Silence
September 12, 1997

In compiling this fascinating cross-section of material on Japanese feminist theorists, Sandra Buckley, professor of East Asian studies at Griffith University, Australia, has sought to belie the notion "that feminism is neither active nor viable" in Japan. Her attempt to profile Japanese feminism for the western reader brings together biographical introductions, interviews and translated texts from a diverse group of contemporary feminist theorists.

Buckley's chapter-by-chapter translations of excerpts from the writings of these key feminists, so little known outside Japan, is a valuable dimension of this study. In offering no wider historical context to set their views against (apart from a chronology of significant events in the recent history of Japanese women), she deliberately adopts a non-interventionist authorial role and allows her subjects to speak for themselves. This in itself challenges the conventions of Japanese womanhood for whom "the art of silence", as Saito Chiyo describes it, rather than communication, is the norm.

But who are these women who give voice to the issues facing all women in Japan? Buckley is quick to point out that of the ten, only two are academics, Japanese feminist theory having largely developed outside the academic institutional framework.

The others - a lawyer, a poet, the founder of the Japanese Women's Bookstore, journalists and freelance writers - have become known through a range of non-mainstream and informal Japanese publications. They represent, nonetheless, a network and one which is gaining currency in Japan at a time when the norms of postwar economic and social stability, from the company system to family life, are being questioned and eroded.

Since the Meiji period (1868-1912) Japanese women have involved themselves in various reform movements and, in more recent times, have lobbied effectively on local and consumer issues. Their unchallenged role in the domestic sphere has provided a springboard for the voicing of concerns related to the family and the local community. It was not until the early 1970s that a more politically based women's liberation movement evolved, calling for sexual equality in a patriarchal society governed by Confucian values. As is clear from the lengthy list of feminist and related women's organisations in Buckley's book, what began as a small and even elite movement has now grown significantly in both size and influence.

While they are diverse in their backgrounds, there is an inevitable confluence of concerns addressed by the ten writers highlighted in this study. The politics of language, violence towards women, attitudes towards divorce, abortion reform, pornography and the sex trade all come under consideration. Such subjects are of interest to students of Japan as well as of feminism for they reveal the complex layers within a society that is uncommonly prone to stereotyping. One author takes this to its logical conclusion in considering the concept of orientalism ("the East is to the West as woman is to man") in relation to Japan's national identity.

Sachiko Ide, professor of linguistics at the Japan Women's University, has published extensively on the issue of women's language in Japan. Her discussion of the inherent pressures on women to use "appropriate" feminine language in the face of changing female roles and identities presents an intriguing conundrum at the heart of Japanese life. In her interview and the translated extracts from Women's Language, Men's Language, Ide illustrates how women are bound by linguistic convention to adopt a form of polite speech which, on the one hand, represents their lower status and weakness in relation to men while, on the other, serves to reflect their good breeding and refinement.

She accepts that women's language can thus be viewed by some as disempowering while for others it provides the ultimate protection for a "privileged" feminine lifestyle.

While the writers profiled in this volume use the rhetoric of international feminism, they repeatedly point to the distinct concerns of Japanese feminists that are rooted in their own culture and society.

Marie Conte-Helm is reader in Japanese studies, University of Northumbria at Newcastle.

22 booksJgender studiesTHE TIMES 7Jseptember 12J1997 magnum

Broken Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminism

Author - Sandra Buckley
ISBN - 0 520 08513 2 and 08514 0
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £32.00 and £13.95
Pages - 401

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