A trove of fiction, all for the love of women

SPARKLING RAIN and Other Fiction From Japan of Women Who Love Women, edited by Barbara Summerhawk and Kimberly Hughes, with introductions by Hitomi Sawabe and Mieko Watanabe. Chicago: New Victoria Publishers, Inc., 2008, 216 pp., $16.95 (paper)

As editor Barbara Summerhawk writes in her introduction to this interesting collection: “In Japan’s notoriously patriarchal culture — combined with pejorative notions of homosexuality that are rooted in more recent Western sources — women who love other women have continued to struggle against overwhelming odds.”

The odds in the West overwhelm equally, to be sure, even though Queen Victoria struck out “lesbianism” from the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 because she refused to believe it possible (certainly an apocryphal story). Nonetheless, the way has not been easy.

One of the reasons is that, all over the world, women who love women stand against that subjugation of females that some males take as practically a birthright. They, along with many other women, resent the denial of sexual autonomy.

When the British politician Henry Labouchere penned his notorious 1885 amendment, which criminalized any form of sexuality between even consenting males, there is no evidence that (whatever his motivations) he intended to spare women, though at the time it was pointed out that, after all, women could not commit buggery with each other. Still, Queen Victoria’s incredulity did not spare them much.

In Japan, homosexuality has never, strictly speaking, been criminalized and is, even now, legal unless it is done where it can be seen, in which case it becomes criminal gross indecency. At the same time it has always carried a social stigma.

The present collection of essays, stories, poems, even manga, about women who love women presents a history of this oppression in Hitomi Sawabe’s overview of lesbian activist history and the literary works it produced. Mieko Watanabe continues this with her review of lesbian literature in Japan.

The earliest example offered is a 1912 poem by Kokichi Otake, an early feminist. Certainly there were before this time women who loved women, but they have left no sure literary trace. (Men, however, have in print wildly surmised about the court ladies in the Heian Period, all of whom were under house arrest, as it were, and the harems of the Tokugawa shoguns, where the women really were locked up together.)

Most of the other selections in this collection are contemporary, beginning from the 1970s. All reveal subtly different attitudes. Writing about Sae Amamiya’s manga “Plica-Chan,” Akiko Mizoguchi makes the point that in life, as in this cartoon series, “we actively make the choice to love someone because she is a woman and not simply because she happens to be one.”

In the stories of Saho Asai, Hakku Shichi, and Nagi Shirosaki, as well as the screenplay by Desiree Lim, ways of thinking about the subject, of writing about it, of living it, are varied and informing. For me, the best of these accounts is by Kajo Nakayama.

Called “Sparkling Rain” (it gives its name to this collection as well), it is about two women who found each other and made a life together. Whether this tendency toward fidelity is really a lesbian quality I do not know. Some people think so. The poet W.H. Auden once said that homosexual men are all Don Giovanni but that homosexual women are forever Tristan and Isolde.

In her memorable story Nakayama shows fidelity continuing right on into the unavoidable horrors of old age, when these now old and tottering lovers still take care of each other. It is a moving account and at the same time an important document.

As the editor has written: “We hope to provide a forum for the voices of lesbian and bisexual women writers in Japan so that the English-speaking world may know them.”

This they have convincingly, memorably, and beautifully done.

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