Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

East Asian Languages and Culture: Japanese Language and Comparative Literature


English (en)

Date of Award

Spring 4-22-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Rebecca L Copeland


Look at Me: Japanese Women Writers at the Millennial Turn

This dissertation explores body aesthetics and anxieties through analyses of contemporary fiction by women. Framed in terms of "the male gaze," it analyzes the ways in which women writing today negotiate and reappropriate the subject/object binary upon which the gaze itself rests. The four authors on whom I focus-- Hasegawa Junko, Kanehara Hitomi, Matsumoto Yûko, and Sakurai Ami--deliberately disturb readers with stories of incest, sadomasochism, and eating disorders. Representative texts from their respective oeuvres are categorized and analyzed in terms of the "obscene," the "abject," and the "traumatic" in order to elucidate--and ultimately understand--the ways in which their works suggest an aggression toward the gendered nature of visual culture in Japan today. These writers offer jarring narratives of female protagonists whose bodies are exposed to intense psychological, physical, and sexual harm. Drawing from psychoanalytic as well as cultural theories, I posit that important counter narratives reside in the abjected, obscene, and traumatized bodies of these protagonists. I further contend that these counter narratives are intended to bring awareness to the ways in which women's experiences of their bodies have been dictated by patriarchal and outdated standards that rely too heavily on static constructions of female subjectivity and bodily experience.

The analyzed texts were written between 1990 and 2007, and the protagonists range from teenagers to women in their mid-30s. The late 1980s/early 1990s (the "lost decade") was an important historical juncture that shapes this fiction. Not only were all of the texts published after 1990, but also the protagonists are representative of a "lost generation" that grew up in the aftermath of the economic collapse and pervasive social anxiety that was endemic to the time. In Chapter One, "Apocalypse and Anxiety," I argue that the effects of recession, natural disasters, and widespread violence fostered social breakdown, evident in the texts analyzed later, in which the protagonists seem aimlessly adrift. Furthermore, these protagonists lead "thin" lives, a potent metaphor for the importance of the thin body today as a cornerstone of feminine desirability and one which "feeds" the current epidemic of eating disorders in Japan and elsewhere. In this chapter, in addition to elucidating key historical events that shape the primary texts, I comment on the sociocultural and -historical importance of the thin body, offering possible explanations for its primacy in contemporary Japan.

Chapter Two, "Repurposing Panic," emerges from a particular discourse of "moral panic" that emerged during the 1990s that scholars used to opaquely capture the troubling aura of the times. Enjo kôsai, or compensated dating, a phenomenon in which young women from good homes offered their time to older men in exchange for money or luxury goods, was widely believed to be a sign of moral turpitude. Indeed, the notion that these women willingly sold their bodies flew in the face of essentialist ideologies that presumed passive and sacrosanct female sexuality. The texts examined in this chapter--Sakurai's Innocent World and Kanehara's Snakes and Earrings--are united through protagonists who embrace their sexuality and who use their bodies to manipulate men. Sakurai's protagonist engages in incestuous sex with her brother and father, while Kanehara's seeks out a sadomasochistic relationship with her lover's friend. This chapter holds that both texts push for a "politics of ecstasy" and obscenity in which sexual gratification unfolds according to female desire vis-à-vis obscene sexuality. It also argues that these texts tap into a lineage of Japanese women's texts in which female sexual desire is construed as aberrant and even dangerous. Finally, borrowing from feminist theories of sexuality, this chapter demonstrates that both Sakurai and Kanehara repurpose the panic surrounding women's usages of their own bodies to challenge conventions of sex and sexuality.

Chapter Three, "Writing Size Zero," is similarly framed in terms of moral panic, though of a different nature. At about the same time Japan was experiencing its sex-driven "moral panic," the United States was ensnared in its own version. The problem was not young women selling themselves. Rather, important fashion houses were pushing a new look on their impressionable consumers through the medium of high-powered runway models. "Heroin chic," as the look was called, demanded a cultivated emaciation. I begin here because "heroin chic" solidified the importance of thinness in contemporary constructions of femininity in the United States that bled into Japanese constructions of the same. The protagonists of Matsumoto's The Excessive Overeater: A Day Without Dawn and Hasegawa's Prisoner of Solitude are committed to remaining thin: both women, one twenty and the other thirty-five, have eating disorders, and the texts do not shy from explicit descriptions of bingeing and purging. These texts are important in shedding light on the dangers of the adoration of the thin body today. Both women want to be beautiful and both see thinness as the means. But the texts expose the underside of constant calorie counting, offering protagonists who are miserable and even suicidal. They also demonstrate that femininity today is defined by abjection and reduction, a literal wasting or throwing away. Matsumoto and Hasegawa offer sobering portraits of women caught in vicious cycles of bingeing and purging to tell a story that is often lost amidst the glamour of the thin and beautiful body.

A cornerstone of beauty today is youth. Chapter Four, "The Dark Trauma" delves into two works of fiction that engage the cult of youth. Returning to Hasegawa and Kanehara, the former's short story "The Unfertilized Egg" and the latter's "Hydra," this chapter elucidates the ways in which the inevitability of aging is a traumatic experience for many Japanese women who see their worth in terms of their age. The texts analyzed here are both foregrounded by a sense of displacement that occurs as the protagonists get older and find themselves forced from the visual economy, which relies heavily on youthfulness as visual spectacle. This chapter demonstrates that Japanese society does not have a place for women who are in the process of getting older. They exist between the cult(ure) of shôjo, the ubiquitous model of inexperience and deferment, and the finality of old age. The protagonists in these two works are not able to make the transition from one place to the other and in the process get lost somewhere in the unarticulated void of uncertain futurity.

In the Conclusion, "Discourse of Disappointment," I rearticulate the way obscenity, abjection, and trauma have been used as important diegetic tools to help us understand the ways in which femininity is both constructed publicly and dismantled privately. I also demonstrate that for all of their boundary pushing, these texts are not entirely optimistic in their subversion, as they collapse into derivations of the conventional heterosexual romance, often at the expense of potentially therapeutic female-female relationships; they are "disappointing" in this respect--for us and for the authors. Ultimately, then, these texts are about surviving: they offer case studies of young women managing lives within contradiction and fantasy who may challenge convention but who nevertheless must self-preserve within it.


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