THE NEW JAPANESE WOMAN: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan, by Barbara Sato. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003, 241 pp., $19.95 (paper).

Barbara Sato’s excellent analysis of changes in gender discourse and women’s identity in the 1920s recasts the landscape of 20th-century women’s liberation and feminism in Japan. She traces the antecedents of post-World War II developments in women’s roles, rights and achievements to make a compelling case that the important changes stirred by the “moga” (modern girl) phenomenon of the ’20s have been underestimated.

This was an era subversive to patriarchal values as some women challenged conventions and constraints in ways that inspired others to imagine and aspire to a different world for women. Sato argues that consumerism and the mass media empowered women and awakened them to options and alternatives that helped them begin to redefine themselves. She points out how elite women and intellectuals of the time largely missed the importance of these awakening urban cultural transformations that they mostly frowned upon as frivolous and superficial.

Women were torn between what was expected of them and what they aspired to. This was a transition era marked by pronounced continuities undermined by new ways of living, working and loving. The tension between patriarchal legacies and modern pursuits was part of the everyday lives of everyday women.

Media images of modern women were largely negative, and intellectuals of the day generally shared such contemptuous and dismissive views. They were disappointed by the hedonism of consumerism, sniffing at the obsession with new fashions, makeup and an unreflective emulation of Western trends. Intellectuals felt betrayed that the reality of the modern among the masses was not what they wanted it to be. It was all far too plebeian for their tastes and vexingly uninfluenced by their views. Sato asserts that the biases of these educated contemporaries led them to overlook the power of consumerism to unshackle and empower women. Their blinkered views continue to resonate, but here have been convincingly challenged.

This vivid and wide-ranging social, cultural, intellectual and ideological history of interwar Japan in the 20th century brings to life the ferment in gender relations driven by the nexus of urbanization, the growing middle class and consumerism. The “modern” girl, the working woman and the housewife became the icons of an emerging urban femininity, sisters in subversion whose lives and dreams redefined the feminine and thereby sowed anxiety.

Consumerism drew women into different worlds and forced them to shed “proper” ways of acting and thinking. Buying was a form of self-indulgence and fulfillment, but also accorded women an active role in making countless decisions, “weighing the positive and negative consequences of the everyday.” Consumerism was a form of mass culture in which women played a leading role.

Mass-market women’s magazines played a significant role in promoting a consumer culture, and were themselves items of mass consumption. Sato takes issue with those who have argued that such magazines merely reinforced existing stereotypes and patriarchal values. She points out that if that had been all they did then they would have had little appeal. The success of these magazines lay in opening new vistas, inciting new desires and helping women negotiate and establish new female identities. Patriarchal values were evident in these publications, but what is surprising is that they were so avidly questioned and found wanting in so much of the magazines’ content.

Just as globalization today is often criticized as Americanization, intellectuals of the day condemned consumerism as a form of Western cultural imperialism. Sato argues that this simplistic analysis overlooks the important influence of changing lifestyles on patterns of thought. She writes: “The new consumer culture was linked with the social and cultural redefinition of women and the construction of a new gendered subject of modernity in complex ways. It involved a tension between ways that women were seen and represented as icons of the new consumerism, and it centered on ways that women sought to appropriate the new consumer culture for their own ends.”

Feminists may have hoped for a deeper engagement with modernity, but the real impact of women participating in a mass consumer culture went well beyond promiscuity, short hairstyles and their supposedly decadent ways.

Women’s magazines both reinforced and undermined gender constructs, reflecting the contradictory experiences and impulses that often animated women’s lives. Sato suggests that “it was not until the 1920s that women and consumption defined each other through the dominance of women’s magazines over the mass cultural landscape.” In her view, “The varied and sometimes competing representations that filled the pages of women’s magazines served as models for all women and played a role in the construction of a new concept of gender.”

She argues for a more complex reading of the media, arguing that women participated actively as contributors to magazines targeting them. Their letters and contributions “could give voice to the problematic relationship between their dreams and the realities of their roles. If most confessional articles addressed the mundane, this was, in fact, what formed the core of women’s everyday space. The struggle evident in these articles suggest that self-fulfillment had become an ideal for women but was still very hard to attain.” Even so, in encouraging an independence of spirit, many contributors proved subversive to the established order as they, “no longer situated women within a sphere where their job was to educate and provide cultural refinement.”

Women began to challenge social conventions through more assertive sexuality, seeking love marriages instead of arranged marriages, and finding professional work as a form of self-cultivation. Self-cultivation may have been conceived as preparation for marriage, but it also accommodated individual expression and sanctioned women’s encounters in the masculine work space. It was part of the overall process of raising expectations that also witnessed women expressing desires for matrimony based on romance and love rather than on practical parental arrangements where women’s desires were subordinated to patriarchal dictates.

In the workplace, subject to unwanted advances and media-inspired sexual fantasies, women came to realize that they were desired more for their decorative presence than utilitarian purposes. And yet the experience of work involved shedding shackles that relegated women to the home.

Sato writes, “Holding a job was a way to learn about the real world, but it also, and more importantly, offered the chance to make women better people who were better situated for a happy married life.”

In general, these women of the ’20s were not radicals and expressed ambivalence about the changes they were experiencing and initiating. In this transition era, it is not surprising that “the exaltation of patience and self-abnegation cloaked in the rhetoric of Confucian values continued to appear alongside new ideas permeating the lifestyle of middle-class women.”

Urban women may have been eager to forge new identities and taste forbidden fruit, but Sato convincingly concludes that “had there been an organized woman’s movement they probably would not have joined it.’

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