Otome no Minato (乙女の港), was an ‘S’ relationship novel, published in 1938, written by Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成) and Nakazato Tsuneko (中里 恒子), illustrated by Nakahara Junichi (中原淳一) . Kawabata was a highly respected novelist and, when the book was written, Nakazato was understood to be his assistant. She is now credited as a co-author, as she probably wrote the draft, and he did the revisions. The story was originally serialized in the early 20th century Japanese girls’ magazine Shoujo no Tomo (少女の友).
Calling a novel like this “Yuri” is usually fraught, because just as with noting that some Boston marriages were “lesbian” relationships, despite written and oral evidence that some women were, in fact, lovers; the word “lesbian” wasn’t applied by the people in the relationships. In fact, with ‘S’ relationships, the homosocial aspect was encouraged as a safe, non-sexual way to form emotional bonds. And, indeed, that is not why I call this novel “Yuri.” For those Yuri fans who have joined the community after Strawberry Panic! or even Sakura Trick, you are seeing the use of a body of literary tropes for which you have no context. Why sexually tense piano duets? Why “onee-sama”? These conventions of the genre didn’t develop randomly; they are the product of a literary history. From ‘S’ novels like Yaneura no Nishojo and Otome no Minato, to proto-Yuri manga Sakura Namiki, to Yuri manga Shiroi Heya no Futari, to the Maria-sama ga Miteru novels, we have a continuum of scenes, descriptive language, relationship terminology and metaphor that can be traced. These things define and describe what we now call “Yuri.” So, while I do not call Otome no Minato “Yuri”, when we look back from what we now call Yuri, this novel has unquestionably left it’s mark in our history.
Michiko is a first-year middle-school student in Catholic school in Yokohama, a large port town. She develops an ‘S’ relationship with a second-year high school student, Youko. Youko has a troubled past that makes her the target for some unkindness from the other girls, but is herself a beautiful, smart and accomplished young woman. She and Michiko become close over spring, into summer, in slow, relaxing days walking the harbor town or spending time together on Youko’s father’s farm. A first-year high school student, Katsuko, sets her sights on Michiko and tries, through rather unsubtle means, to separate her from Youko. (This is almost identical to the plot in Sakura Namiki and has many similarities to the plot of Maria-sama ga Miteru: Rosa Canina.)
During summer break, Michiko visits her aunt in the resort town of Karuizawa, where Katsuko is also staying. Katsuko and Michiko spend their time together and Michiko’s feelings for Youko waver, as Katsuko teaches her to ride a bicycle and introduces her to foreigners at church English practice meetings.
Once back at school, Michiko cannot help but feel she has betrayed Youko. She tells the older girl, who forgives her. Fortified, Michiko rejects Katsuko. During the Sport Festival, Katsuko is injured, and it is Youko who comes to her rescue. Katsuko realizes that she cannot win Michiko away from Youko. Youko and Michiko become closer than ever. When Youko eventually graduates, she and Michiko promise to remain in touch and be friends eternally.
***Part 2 of this post was something I’d been working on for a long time. I have invited Fellow Yuri enthusiasts Katherine Hanson of Yuri no Boke and Erin Subramanian of Yurizuki to discuss Otome no Minato with me.