Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan

February 6th, 2014

passionateDeborah Shamoon’s Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan traces the development of girls’ literature and, eventually, Shoujo manga from the end of the 19th century through the 1970’s, with particular attention to the girls’ magazines of the 1930’s, the Magnificent 49-ers and the birth of Shoujo, Josei and BL manga. Shamoon addresses Yoshiya Nobuko’s writing, but does not talk about “Yuri” as a genre. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the formative years of Yuri and its literary precedents may want to read this book. There is some definite value in here, and I promise to spend time on the good points, but before we get there, there are several major negatives with this text that I want to address, in ascending order of importance.

The first serious problem I encountered with Shamoon’s work is her tendency to dismiss all theories but her own, particularly if she can hold up a shield of a Japanese scholar’s work to support her theories. You might not see this as a problem, unless, like me, you have an issue with absoluteist thought.

At no point in time does Shamoon ever imagine that another interpretation – especially that of the audience which reads the work –  might be as valid as her own. Any suggestion, any filter other than her own is immediately dismissed, something that strikes me as…kind of ridiculous. When I am repeatedly cautioned to stop interpreting what I read through the filters that make up my life experience well, there’s really no polite response for that. Instead of acknowledging that other scholars have other interpretations, she brings them up only to wholly, completely, utterly dismiss them.

Whether I actually agree that girls’ literature revolves around a “culture of sameness” as Shamoon does, I would not here suggest that this is a terrible idea. Tween and teen girls culture is, largely, defined by the pressure to fit in. In that sense, I agree with her, but in the sense that Shamoon proposes her theory to define the illustrative style for early 20th century Japanese girls’ lit, I would say that she’s missing a major factor here. Which brings me to my second point.

It’s not until well past the first half of the book, into the chapter about Takahashi Makoto’s (Sakura Namiki) influence on Shoujo manga, that Shamoon acknowledges the literary and artistic constraint of commercial art. As a friend so succinctly put it, “Commercial art must sell.” Well yes, and Shamoon acknowledges this has an effect on Takahashi’s art. But she completely fails to acknowledge what every commercial artist knows…deadlines are brutal. There is not enough time in the world to get things done, so we create macros, templates, stencils, tones and other shortcuts. Some of the illustrations she chooses to make her “culture of sameness”  point could far more simply be explained as artistic stylings made sensible by deadlines. Anyone who reads manga knows that manga artists often begin with the same face or one of a few body types, then elaborates on instantly identifiable characteristics. Change hair and skin tone slightly and you have a new character (or the same character pretending to be differrent, as Sailor Moon fans all know.)

Which brings me to my third and most important point.

This is what my copy of the book looks like:


What you can’t really see is that I began making notes on these cute little sticky strips, then graduated to the small sticky pads, then the 3″x4″ size, then, in a moment of crisis switched to a 7″ note pad, entire pages of which were filled. I eventually moved back to the small stickies, but *a lot* of them.  And here’s why:

In Shamoon’s chapter on Yoshiya Nobuko’s work, she begins by “cautioning” us to not use the obvious filter of reality and allow Yoshiya’s actual life with an actual female partner to cause us to mistakenly interpret her work as in any way lesbian.  She then follows that eye-roller up with the conclusion that because Yoshiya does not write about a separatist vision of society, or exhort her readers (tween Japanese girls of the 1920s and 30’s,) to adopt a separatist vision of society, her works cannot be seen as feminist.

Let me refer back to my second point – commercial art must sell. Yoshiya was a female writer, living on her writing, in early 20th century Japan. Her work was subject to male editorial supervision and had to be approved by government censors. And even within the restrictions of writing stories that would sell to their target audience, on deadline, that would be approved of by male censors and editors, she wrote a novel in which two women chose to step away from society and make a life together (Yaneura no Nishojo), one in which a woman creates an alternative adoptive family for herself, after redeeming her reputation which has been smeared (Ban-sensei) and told tale after tale of young women growing up, some marrying, some not, but all finding their way into adult life (Hana Monogatari Volume 1, Volume 2.) Creating one’s own family outside the constraints of society is, IMHO, the very essence of feminism…the right for every woman to choose for herself what her love, her family…her life….will be. If we take off the incredibly narrow blinders Shamoon would have us wear, Yoshiya’s work is unremittingly feminist in nature.

I did say that there was value in this book. And there is. Shamoon’s more factual passages, historical discussions of girls’ literature, magazines and manga are exceptionally useful to a student of Yuri or BL. As a result of reading this book, I have recently concluded reading Otome no Minato, by Yasunari Kawabata (for which I have a posted a 2-part special review.) And I’ve added Ban-sensei to my to-read pile, because I can already see some great analogies with manga and anime series you’ll know in what appears to be a very Dickensian tale. So, yes, definitely worth the time it took me to read it. But I would have loved it, had Shammoon not been so intent on refuting all other scholars and insisting that Yoshiya could not be read as feminist (much less lesbian) because none of her books follow Straw Feminist doctrine.


Value as a Chronology – 8

Overall – 6

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17 Responses

  1. liz says:

    I’m happy I didn’t order this book when I was research girls literature in Japanese culture. I’ll stick to Sparkling Rain and use it’s bibliography as a jumping off point.

  2. Cryssoberyl says:

    Sounds like an intensely annoying book, honestly. I think I’d prefer to reread Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan (I hope my HTML comes out right), which I bought and enjoyed years ago now. The price was and continues to be rather ridiculously steep, but I see they’re now offering it as a Kindle rental at least. At any rate, it’s a thorough and informative treatment of the subject.

    • It’s got value, as I said. The book you talk about is more modern (and annoying in its own way, ^_^) but not really equivalent. For sheer historical perspective, this was worth reading.

  3. Thank you for writing about this work. I’ve been awaiting your critique. For me the major value has been the historical information it contains, so much goodness in that content. Popular culture of the interwar years is an area that needs more research and I feel this book, flaws and all, is a contribution to that scholarship.

    • I agree that for historical information, it’s good. If Shamoon confined herself to that, I’d be singing praises. Spending an entire chapter explain why Yoshiya’s work cannot and should not be interpreted as lesbian or feminist was too much for me to “like” it.

  4. I very much appreciate this review. I’ll be getting the book from the library rather than buying it.

  5. liz says:

    Any entire CHAPTER on why Yoshiya’s work isn’t Lesbian or Feminist. geez! I’d read it for the historical notes but skip that chapter to save my sanity so I don’t spend my time yelling at a book.

  6. mhazaru says:

    I’ve seen a lot of recent manga and anime that seem to really push together two female characters, but then doesn’t consolidate on the relationship. Saki is a good example of this. I always feel like the author ‘wants’ to create real pairings in it, but can’t outrightly do so, because it would change the genre, correct? There was also a Saki chapter that mentioned the possibility of same-sex couples having children. That to me was definitely a sign of want she wants to write!

    Anyway, is that effectively the same issue of making sure something sells? Or do the editors have more control over content than the author would like? Or something else?

    I’d like to also add one other idea to the ‘culture of sameness’ in addition to the deadlines theory (which is very true), speaking as an artist. There’s an ‘ideal form’ that eventually evolves from what we draw over and over again. It’s why every male/female body looks the same in a Michelangelo painting, or why a series of characters just differs in hair and nothing else. An artist (or population of artists) find their ideal ‘style’ of something and doesn’t want to let go of it. It’s not based on an individual level either, as you can see entire populations, generations, etc., effectively staying in some sort of similar artistic constraint (art periods essentially).

    It’s like…you finally draw the type of face you’ve always wanted. It’s so aesthetically pleasing to you that it becomes somewhat hard to draw something that deviates from it. If it’s also something that the public as a whole loves as well, then, jackpot.

    • You say: “I always feel like the author ‘wants’ to create real pairings in it, but can’t outrightly do so, because it would change the genre, correct?”

      No, I don’t think that’s so. Commercial art must sell. The more people who can find something to like, the more it sells. Leaving pairing ambiguous is not about genre…it’s about selling to more people. People who do see the leads together will like it, and people who don’t will, as well.

  7. In response to your commentary on Twitter (” It was a frustrating book, so much good info, clothed in angry tatters.”): I agree with your beefs with this book. The historical information presented in this book was great, but the conclusions she drew from them and her approach to people who disagree with her not so much.

    For an example of the “argh” in this book that hasn’t already been mentioned, when this book’s author complained about queer studies scholars focusing most on Yaneura no Nishojo out of Yoshiya Nobuko’s books even though it wasn’t one of her more popular books- and the fact that it wasn’t one of her hits makes it not worthy of looking at when analyzing Yoshiya’s work from a queer perspective?- I was like, “Well of course the queer studies scholars would focus on the queerest book in Yoshiya’s oeuvre. This is like complaining about historical scholars who focus on the African slave trade caring more about Mansfield Park than the more popular books in Jane Austen’s oeuvre.” It isn’t a perfect analogy because Yaneura no Nishojo isn’t the only Yoshiya book relevant to queer studies, but you understand my point.

    That was my long-winded way of saying “Yes, I agree” about this book, just as a good portion of this book felt like a long-winded way of saying “No homo” about early 20th century Japanese girls’ literature.

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