Talking about the modern Japanese woman


Meeting last Monday, Barbara Hamill Sato is not sure how many women won seats in the previous day’s general election, but suspects it may be the most ever.

“Feminists in Japan are encouraging women to run for public office as part of the fight for empowerment. Also they’ve called into question the media’s reluctance to position women in leadership roles in the private sector. Still, in spite of the rapid societal changes I can’t help but wonder to what extent women’s main concerns are still rooted in the happenings of every day.”

An American living in Japan for well over 20 years, Barbara has always been interested in the position of her Japanese sisters and their impact on society. Other academics have approached the subject from differing points of view. “I chose the media in general, Japanese women’s magazines in particular.”

Raised in Vermont, Barbara was always interested in Japan (“I loved haiku”) and religion, closely followed by history. “After studying at the University of Vermont, I did a Ph.D. at Columbia, majoring in Japanese history and with a minor in modern Chinese history. I began looking at the place of Japanese women in Japanese society for my dissertation.”

When she first came here in 1978, she thought maybe she’d stay a couple of years. Studying at Tokyo University, she was swimming one day in the campus pool when she struck up a conversation with another student. “My Japanese was very poor, and when he said he was studying ‘chutetsu,’ I thought he meant something to do with Chinese railways.” Chutetsu, she soon learned, is an abbreviation of the Japanese for Chinese philosophy.

After marrying in 1983, the couple lived in Asakusa. “My husband’s family are all ‘shitamachi’ (‘downtown’) people.” But when it came to schooling their son, the family moved to Fuchu. “It’s greener, and has pockets of great loveliness.”

She began her academic teaching career as an adjunct at Seikei University in Kichijoji-Kitamachi after her professor at Tokyo University suggested she teach a course there in Japanese history. This became two courses, and so seven years passed.

“When I was asked to teach a course at Temple that provided some security, it was too good a chance to miss. Japanese colleagues called me to say, ‘So glad you’ve got real job at last!’ I taught there for three years, until Seikei — for whom I was still working — offered me a full-time post. That was in 1994.”

Having decided to extend her dissertation, “The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media and Women in Interwar Japan” took her five years. Rather than a feminist treatise, the book contributes to women’s studies. “I was surprised and pleased by the range of response from around the world.”

At a talk Barbara will give on Sept. 25 at Good Day Books in Ebisu, central Tokyo, she will describe the thrust of “The New Japanese Woman” and answer questions relating to the book’s content and Japanese women’s issues.

“The New Japanese Woman” is concerned with “social modernism,” which is what consumerism was called between the world wars. Identifying with everyday life, this new mass culture revolutionized the status of women because it upset the order of things within the family, the site of the operation of the civil code, “ryosai kenbo.”

“From the very start, mass market women’s magazines were used as instruments of consumer capitalism. The media became both a vehicle for spreading promoting a desire for new things and the new lifestyle they embodied, and also the assertion of new political and social rights for Japanese women.”

The birth of Japan’s modern woman, the “moga,” represented the possibilities of what women at large could become. “She symbolized consumption, a phenomenon first identified with women after World War I. Mass women’s magazines created a new notion of culture — mass culture. This challenged the intellectual bluestocking notion of a pure, high culture. Instead, it offered women an identity unlimited by class — a shared consciousness and public forum.”

The image of the working woman was a new social construct. By achieving power through women’s magazines, she became a symbol of modern life and the role model for autonomy. This she achieved in part by self-cultivation (“shuyo”). Even for women without jobs, new opportunities came within their grasp. Such changes had a ripple or multiplying effect through media and magazines.

Now the ripple is tidal. “Even eight years ago at a reunion seminar, most women graduates said they wanted to be like their mothers. But at a recent similar event, out of the 25 women attending, only one was married.”

As is true in other countries, the young women she comes in contact with at Seikei seem to negotiate between different voices and envision different lifestyles for themselves. “They’re not losing their interest in material things but believe it more important to be mentally satisfied, and that no longer hinges on being married. Nor are they frightened at the prospect of changing jobs if a situation is not satisfying.”

Barbara is assisting on a project at Ochanomizu University that grew out of a international symposium in 2004 at Tokyo’s Women’s Plaza. “We’re looking at the modern girl in a number of countries . . . with each academic participant undertaking a particular area of study.” Japan is looking at “colonial impact on women” — an interesting choice, she thinks.

“For my next book, however, I’ll be looking at Japanese women working in factories and other lower-income jobs. And yes, I have started writing.”