Frightening Women: Women's
Agency and the Production of Fear in Twentieth Century Japan
Michael Dylan Foster, Stanford University/Kanagawa University
Fear is a difficult subject to approach: it is abstract, subjective, elusive. Yet its effects are very
real. This panel represents an attempt to explore the production of fear
within the broad context of women's struggle for agency in twentieth
century Japan. Women were
made to feel fearful through their lack of power within the dominant
social structure; inversely it was often the women themselves who inspired
fear as they threatened to overturn this social structure. By treating several literary texts and social phenomena (two
prewar, two postwar), we hope to shed some light on the way women's
agency can be viewed in terms of the fear it produces.
Suzuki will examine how Tanizaki's notorious Naomi, by achieving
economic power and independence, represents a fear of modernity at the end
of the Taisho Period. Averbach
also treats a literary text, exploring the ways Edogawa Rampo's
narrative intertwines differing forms of perception (visual, tactile) to
produce a complex sense of fear—for the female victims on one level,
and for the reader on another. Ariga
will look at mass media responses to feminist activism towards the end of
the Showa Period; in particular he will examine how a seemingly
light-hearted rhetorical tactic (karakau) may actually be inspired by profound anxieties. Finally, Foster will investigate a popular "urban
which the image of a woman with a slit mouth caused widespread fear among
children; the legend also may represent deeper social fears regarding
women's changing role in an economically prosperous Japan.
Paper 1) Michiko Suzuki, University of Tokyo. "Modernity's Monstrous Bildung: Naomi's Education in Chijin no ai"
In Tanizaki Jun'ichiro's Chijin
no ai (1924), the Pygmalion character of Joji unwittingly creates and
brings up a monster, the child-bride Naomi, who enslaves his body and soul.
This cautionary tale is
often read as an expression of fear towards modernity, which is
specifically manifested in the figure of the sexually liberated
"westernized" woman. While fear regarding sexuality and the West is an integral
part of the novel, other equally significant forms of fear with regard to
modernity are often overlooked.
By reading this novel as a parodic bildungsroman which brings to
the fore issues of educating and bringing up women, we can recognize
within dominant discourse a deep-seated anxiety towards schooling women to
"better themselves." Since
the Meiji Period, the government promoted learning for women, while
simultaneously expressing fear of their "development" beyond the
circumscribed place in the ryosai
kenbo (good wife, wise mother) ideal. The ultimate result of Joji's plan to produce an
"admirable," "modern" woman, is that Naomi succeeds in becoming mobile, in terms of
class as well as geography, and obtains economic prowess. In this paper, I will focus on this mobility and financial power
that make Naomi an object of fear; in particular, I will re-examine Naomi
against traditional representations of girls who grow up badly,
specifically, the dokufumono
(poison-women genre) stories of the early Meiji Period, where fears of a
new "modern" society are drawn upon deviant female bodies.
Paper 2) David N. Averbach, University of California, Berkeley. "Blind Fear: Unsightedness and Unsightliness in Edogawa Rampo's Moju"
Edogawa Rampo, Japan's foremost writers of detective novels, has
also produced a great number of non-detective works. These works contain many references to ways of seeing, or in
the case of Moju (Blind Beast,
1931-32), was of not seeing. Moju depicts a blind
sculptor who, masquerading as a traveling masseur, shops among his
clients for suitable bodies to use as models for his art. After gruesomely murdering them by severing their limbs and heads,
he turns these body parts into visual "street art," which he displays
in random, conspicuous places around Tokyo. His ultimate goal—to produce the "world's first tactile
sculpture," whereby these body parts are replicated and assembled into a
crude, visually-grotesque work that is to be appreciated by touch more
than sight—is realized at the end of the work.
The "blind beast," outsmarting the few who discover him, is
never publicly indicted. Yet
although the women he encounters have no reason to link his
"blindness" with his "contemptibility," he nevertheless awakens in
them feelings of usukimiwarui
and bukimi – ambiguous
sensations ranging from the mildly weird to the inexplicably fearful. The novel's dramatic irony, therefore, seeps into the narrative
world, creating a complex portrait of someone who is an once fear-evoking
and (sexually?) irresistible. In
this paper, I will argue that this narrative structure serves not only to
enhance the fear which the beast
evokes in the reader, but to transfer a second type of fear—that of
women's sexual agency—back into the blind
Paper 3) Takashi Lep Ariga, Kanagawa University. "Teasing Societies: Male Rhetorical Strategies in Response to Female Activism"
In the early 1970s, when women's liberation became conspicuous in
Japan, the mass media tended to report on the movement with sarcasm. Again, in the late 80s, when sexual harassment become an
issue of public discourse, it was often treated with ironic touches in
magazines and other popular media. Although
there were, of course, serious discussions of these issues, one noticeable
tendency was to treat them humorously; this teasing
(karakau) represents an
attempt to make women's efforts to achieve equality into nothing more
than amusing stories.
As one feminist activist has noted, this karakau reaction is
stifling; it belittles the entire project, removing it from the realm of
political discourse. By
making light of feminist arguments, the rhetorical tactic of karakau
effectively deprives the women of the possibility of counter-argument,
denying them a public voice. Karakau,
I would assert, is a fear reaction, a response to the deep-seated anxiety
produced by the threat of women's power. Ironically, the very light-heartedness of the response betrays the
extent of this fear; rather than countering with rational discussion, the
tactic attempts to destroy the foundation of the argument itself.
Although this type of rhetorical tactic can be found in numerous situations, this paper will examine the structure and function of teasing within the particular context of the women's movement in Japan. By trying to understand why this specific tactic has been persistently employed in response to female activists, I will briefly explore the way teasing itself represents a reaction to serious fears.
Paper 4) Michael Dylan Foster, Stanford University / Kanagawa University. "'Am I Pretty?' Rumors, Fear and the Legend of Kuchi-sake-onna"
Beginning in 1979, an urban legend known as "kuchi-sake-onna"
(slit-mouthed-women) made its way around Japan with explosive speed. The tale tell of
a young women with a flu mask over her mouth. She approaches a child on the street,
asking "Am I pretty?"
She then removes the mask to reveal a mouth slit open from ear to
ear, and asks, "Even like this, am I pretty?"
This so-called "rumor-tale" (uwasa-banashi),
was transmitted not only on a local level by word of mouth, but on a nationwide scale through the mass media; within six months versions had
reached almost every corner of the country.
Although folklorists have noted "traditional" antecedents for kuchi-sake-onna, the remarkable speed with which the legend was transmitted raises intriguing questions about the very nature of "folklore" and its interplay with popular culture and mass media. This paper will touch on these issues, but focus primarily on the fear represented by kuchi-sake-onna. On one level there is the fear experienced by children who believed in the existence of the woman and were frightened to walk home from school alone. On another level is the fear which created the legend and energized its rapid transmission. How does the image of a woman with a (masked) slit mouth reflect the profound anxieties felt by women in the high economic growth period? Inversely, how does the same image reflect fears of women as they strove for more socio-political power, "unmasking" themselves in a society which valued them only as "pretty" faces?
Discussant: Gretchen I. Jones, University of Maryland