Prolegomena to the Study of Yuri

September 2nd, 2012

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Some time ago, I made an off-hand remark about 2011 being the beginning of the “Fourth Age” of Yuri in a post and immediately, some of you wanted to know what I meant by that. I spend a lot of time thinking about Yuri, obviously, and that got me thinking what, in fact, did I mean by that off-hand remark? Well, after pondering it for some time, I realize that it’s not as simple as saying any one date range equals “an era” of Yuri, but that there are definitely trends to be understood in the evolution of Yuri as a genre. Before we can understand what those trends are, or what they mean, we really need to be grounded in where they came from.

In my articles for Hooded Utilitarian, “40 Years of the Same Damn Story Part 1 and Part 2, I discuss some of the common tropes of Yuri, tracing them from their literary roots through to modern examples. Each one of these articles puts a pin in a moment in time, a single work of literature or art, that defined the tropes that grew from those works.

Yuri, the grandchild of Class ‘S’

To my mind, the moment when “Yuri” was born is the moment that Yoshiya Nobuko’s Yaneura no Nishojo was published. This story told a tale about a girl trying to understand the world she inhabited and her place in it. Akiko starts the story as a hesitant young lady, with dreams of grandeur, who finds herself slowly drawn into society precisely because she is isolated.  In the end of the book, no longer unsure, Akiko makes a decision to live her life the way she wants to – the kind of decision that was unheard of when the book was published. (This, despite the fact that the author of the book, Yoshiya herself, had made that same decision already and became successful because of her decision.) The social and political implications of this story are clear; women do not need to have their lives defined for them and two women are perfectly capable of making a life together without men – and of wanting that for themselves.

When we read Yuri now, we start from that perspective and it rarely occurs to us that there was ever a time in which that would be revolutionary thinking. We often find ourselves referring to the early 20th century “S” school of thought, without recognizing that it was not about lesbians in private schools (as the genre of literature it spawned might make one believe,) but a proto-Feminist movement brought about by newly imported ideas of wealth and leisure, and with them, freedom. Women who were part of the”S” movement ran into many of the same dynamics the American feminist movement of the 1970s encountered – some women felt that they simply wanted to have their contributions valued, others that only a  separatist society could ever be fair to women, while others wanted male privilege, or simply the right to have their own gender’s privilege. And, just as with the later American feminist movement, the inclusion of sexuality and gender in the mix caused a split between the straight women, who felt that political equality was more important that social liberalism and women who felt that there was no separation between the two. (See Voices from Japan, Eds. McLelland, Suganuma and Welker and Tales of the Lavender Menace by Karla Jay)

Now, nearly 100 years later, we look back at Akiko’s decision to leave Catholic school and live with Akitsu as a personal decision, one that any woman might make. It’s equally important to recognize that, at the time, it was a political decision. Even more importantly, a woman making a decision to step out of the traditional path assigned to a woman to make a life on her own, is effectively cutting herself off from her family and society. Every personal decision become political, as Carol Hanisch said, when the body politic states that that decision is not a viable alternative. (I have many times explained in conversation that, in Japan, taking a female lover and “being gay” are almost entirely unrelated things. To identify as gay, lesbian or any sexual minority in Japan is to take a political stance, much as the same was true for the members of the Mattachine Society or Daughters of Bilitis in the America of the 1950s. Saying “I am gay” in an apparently homogeneous society is to label one’s self as “other,” and “minority.” This is, in any society, a political act.)

As Hafl and I discussed in our review of Yaneura no Nishojo, this novel set up many of the tropes of what is now known the as Class S genre. These tropes will later be appropriated by male authors, but are arguably most effectively used by women who will write stories for girls and women later in the 20th century.

For those of us interested in Yuri, reading Yaneura no Nishojo gives a distinct impression of being witness to the birth of something great. And so, I start our chronology in 1920, with the publishing of this novel by Yoshiya Nobuko and I honor her as the grandmother of Yuri.

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12 Responses

  1. Wonderful post. I’m looking forward to more!

  2. Cryssoberyl says:

    Nothing that long-time readers of this blog won’t have heard before of course, but always interesting and relevant. I knew that Yoshiya Nobuko would be your starting point, but I’m eager to hear how you choose to delineate the four “eras”, and what qualities you believe characterized them.

  3. @Cryssoberyl – As I thought about it, I think there’s going to be considerably more (or less, depending on how I organize my thoughts) than four. That was a rather off-hand statement and it turns out to be mostly irrelevant to reality. ^_^

  4. This is DEEP reading!

    I could see this some day becoming mandatory reading in “women’s studies” at colleges here in the USA!


    ….still waiting for enough information to understand the term ” ‘S’ class” literature, perhaps I missed it in a previous writing of yours? [pondering and slightly embarrassed at my lack of understanding of your terminology]

    “S” standing for “Sapphist” sounds agreeable in my mind, yet too isolated, too niche, to meet the requirements of what you are covering here at this point… [more pondering, hoping for correction/clarification]

    Delicious Vodka DeBlair,
    Avid student of the history and evolution feminist movement.

  5. @Delicious – Start with I have mentioned it several times before and definitely in my review (linked above) of Yaneura no Nishojo. I also discuss it here: and in random reviews that mention the Taisho period or early 20th centure Japan or America. It’s something you’ll want to be as familiar with as you should be with the Year 24-group (or the Magnificent Forty-Niners, as they are called in Japan :) then look for the books I mention above, Voices from Japan, Eds. McLelland, Suganuma and Welker and Tales of the Lavender Menace by Karla Jay.

  6. redfish says:

    For prospective readers of Yaneura, I would add that “personal is political” is certainly the watchword here. Particularly at the beginning Akiko certainly isn’t capable of thinking about the political aspect of her actions.

    While there are some passages overtly related to the societal issues of the time, the main thrust of the story is through descriptions of everyday thoughts, feelings and situations (at which Yoshiya excels).

    (Pretty much all Yoshiya’s books were lined up on the shelf at Junkudō in Ikebukuro if someone wants them from a brick-and-mortar store. I got Mittsu no Hana but had to mail it home to save weight.)

  7. Does an English translation of Yaneura no Nishojo exist?

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