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The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan.

The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan. By Barbara Sato (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003. xiv plus 241 pp.).

This carefully researched monograph should become a heavily marked volume in the library of every English-reading scholar of Japanese women. Sato's narrative discussion of the daily lives of urban middle-class women during the twenties clearly situates ordinary young, working women and housewives within the modern milieu of Japan's rapidly rising consumer culture. Taking as her themes the seductive modern girl, the educated housewife, and the middle-class professional worker, Sato presents the multifaceted lives of nameless women in urban Japan. Even more importantly, Sato has given us a treasure-trove of references to and beautifully translated quotations from the myriad mass women's magazines that were read by literate urban and rural women.

In her preface Sato describes her subjects as "the bobbed-haired, short-skirted modern girl (modan garu); the self-motivated housewife (shufu); and the rational, extroverted professional working woman (shokugyo fujin), each of whom offered Japanese women new identities in the 1920s," (p. 7) These, then, form the three primary chapters in the book. In addition, Chapter 1 provides discussion of the cultural and intellectual precedents that created the "new woman" of an earlier era whose identity contrasts so dramatically with the women in the chapters to follow. Also, at this point, well-known writers and critics, such as the founder of the Bluestocking Society, Hiratsuka Raicho, the socialist-activist, Yamakawa Kikue, the poet and critic, Yosano Akiko and the male social critic, Hirabayashi Hatsunosuke are introduced. These and other intellectuals will return throughout the book to comment, even to rant and rave, about the character, morals, and aspirations of the three categories of nameless women.

The modern girl represented a free spirit, or a mindless young girl addicted to fashion and sex, depending on one's point of view. She was probably a construction of the critics and the novelists, for she appeared in different guises through texts, photos, drawings, and cartoons and so became a composite difficult to find in real time and place. Sato comments that intellectuals criticized the modern girl because "the freedom her image exuded did not result from a calculated effort to improve her lot or to join in social movements." (p. 53) She was described by terms such as "decadent, hedonistic, and superficial" in a 1928 short story by Kataoka Teppei in which a young typist dates three "modern boys" at the same time. (p. 65) What could be more titillating and more dangerous? Sato's point in her long discussion of this significant twenties phenomenon is that the consumer culture, mass media (including radio and movies), and urban conditions were changing the direction of many young women's lives and that this development was frightening to both the State and the intellectuals who believed they should have control over women's lives.

"Housewives as Reading Women" contained for me the most original research and analysis. Here is where Sato is at her best and most exciting as she delineates the effect of a variety of mass women's magazines on the thinking of educated housewives. Her characterizations of the literate housewives, the journalists who wrote for the magazines, and, most significantly, the confessional articles written by ordinary female readers breaks new ground in our understanding of twenties Japanese women. Most revealing are the detailed translations and commentary on the confessional writings in which ordinary housewives (and professional middle-class working women) pour out their concerns about life, love, marriage and family obligations. As Sato reasons, "By providing a forum for women to confront their anxieties and to learn about other women's problems, mass women's magazines registered a different set of attitudes toward love, marriage, divorce, and work that gave women the courage to contemplate change." (p. 91)

Sato's final collection of women are the middle-class professional workers, mostly under twenty-five, and working as teachers, typists, office workers, sales clerks, telephone operators, bus conductors, and as shopgirls and elevator operators for the new department stores. These young girls usually left their jobs at marriage to be subsumed under the new category of "reading housewives." Sato uses surveys, some statistics, and, once again, the mass media to tease out the characteristics of this educated new middle class of female workers, not to be confused with factory workers or domestics. The most original contribution in this chapter is the discussion of "self-cultivation" (shuyo) that evoked "connotations of 'character building,' 'moral training,' and 'spiritual and cultural growth.'" (p. 134). In this discussion Sato turns to magazine articles written during the last half of the twenties and 1930 and 1931 as she describes the exodus from the countryside to the city, and the new desire to succeed as workers, to contribute to one's financial well being, and to entertain alternative possibilities concerning love and marriage.

It is in her very short final chapter that Sato looks ahead to the militarist 30s. I had expected more on this contrasting period because of the subtitle of the book, "Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan," and so was disappointed that the thirties was slighted. Had the book been titled differently I would not have missed this element, for the detailed discussion of the twenties is so rich.

Additional outstanding features of this book are the many reproduced photographs, cartoons, advertisements, drawings, and the several glossy color illustrations; the extensive bibliography and the detailed footnotes; and the comparative references to European and American studies of consumerism and other parallel topics in the same time frame. My only criticism relates to the interweaving of quotes from different time periods without adequate dating within the text. I found myself checking all of the footnotes so that I could see the line of development of arguments and also so that I didn't interpret the material inaccurately. (Jumps within paragraphs from say, 1919 to 1928, for example, need to be clarified within the text.) Sometimes even checking footnotes was difficult because references to collections did not always include the date of the original article.

Helen Hopper

University of Pittsburgh
COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal of Social History
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Author:Hopper, Helen
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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