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A woman’s world

by David Burleigh

PASSIONATE FRIENDSHIP: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan, by Deborah Shamoon. Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 2012, 181 pp., $27.00 (paperback)

The subject of this book is one that is baffling to outsiders, but visible on the streets of Tokyo, especially the more fashionable parts, and in fiction, dress and culture for young women. It began in the 19th century, as Deborah Shamoon very carefully explains.

The shojo are the focus of her attention. She says the word can best be rendered in English as “girls,” ranging from “the modern girls (moga) of the 1920s to the gyaru (gals) of the 1990s.” But the roots of their culture are found in social changes of the Meiji Era, when Japan embraced modernity and opened up to new ideas. One of these ideas, which came through literature in part, was the concept of ren’ai, or spiritual (romantic) love, which displaced the iro or sexual attraction (lust) of the Edo Period.

Together with this came new opportunities for education, delaying marriage among girls of the richer classes. How these girls were viewed is shown in the novels of the time — themselves a new, experimental genre. The author carefully analyzes and deconstructs these stories, to reveal the ambivalent ways in which young women were perceived. Described predominantly by male writers, they appeared as both newly fascinating objects of desire, and a terrible threat to the social fabric, depending on the writer’s point of view.

Leading the change were missionary schools for girls, which provided their students not only with knowledge and ideas, but also with uniforms, and the seclusion in which to develop a culture of their own. This world became an eroticized site of longing, and alarm, for male outsiders, who feared the social consequences of this arrangement. While the “schoolgirl remained the dominant image of provocative femininity” throughout the Meiji Period, it wasn’t until the new century that “a distinct and separate girls’ culture (shojo bunka)” began to appear.

Prewar magazines for girls, then, “are marked by the prevalence of passionate friendships and idealized ren’ai relationships between girls that redirected girls’ sexual desire away from boys.” Thus the originally Western or Christian idea of spiritual love has been appropriated for a different purpose, from which a distinctive culture gradually emerges. Its symbolism included the white lily, adopted at first from its association with the Virgin Mary (and still around as the name of a well-known girls’ school).

All this is not, Shamoon is at pains to point out, to be understood in terms of lesbian identity, as queer theory might read it today. Rather, it was a fluid and idealistic homosocial world in which sexual acts, even if they did occur, did not define the individual, as they might be thought to do so now, especially in the West. But even in secondary schools for girls in Western countries, the attachment of some girls to each other, or their intense devotion to their teachers, was often regarded as a part of the culture of the institution and, one might add, a passing phase.

In Japan, however, it has included such offshoots as the Takarazuka theater, in which only females may perform. The Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata also published a popular romantic fiction, “Otome no minato” (The Girls’ Harbor), about a girls’ mission school in Yokohama, which became an instant classic, even if it was ghost-written. The romantic intensity of the tale does not lend itself easily to a feminist interpretation, to the bewilderment of critics, as Shamoon helps us to understand. She also leads us through some of the visual representations of this culture.

One regular motif among the illustrations was of two girls together, one in Western clothes and the other in a kimono. But notable too was the appearance of boys, who also went on to become part of “the imaginary neutral gender idealized in girls’ culture,” still visible in contemporary manga, where the boys often fall in love with each other. The thrust of the book concerns the distinctive nature of the culture, and it helps to explain many baffling things, such as the predilection of young women for stories of male homosexual attachment.

Pictures of girls in this distinctive culture often show them goggle-eyed with tiny mouths, such as we often see today in comics and anime.

The tone was particularly set by the 1970s classic, “The Rose of Versailles.” But this “postwar phenomenon” has its origins in what went before, and Shamoon’s detailed exegesis illuminates its meaning. Even the novels of Banana Yoshimoto form a part of this exclusive world in which gender has been apparently transcended.

High literary style has now given way to picture narratives, in which “the prevalence of homoeroticism and the densely layered, decorative art, both attract girls and puzzle outsiders.” Shamoon does much to enlighten the reader in this well researched and clearly written study. Nor is it something totally unknown elsewhere: In a Christmas pantomime both Cinderella and Prince Charming are traditionally roles for women.