2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 51: Narratives of Passage in Prewar Japan: Heroes, Fantasy, and Ambition in Male Adolescence

Organizer and Chair: Jason G. Karlin, University of Tokyo

Discussant: Hiromi Mizuno, University of Minnesota

Keywords: Japan, history, gender, childhood, nationalism.

Despite recent work on gender in modern Japan, questions concerning the conflict-ridden process of development, including the paths of gender development and identification, have remained relatively unproblematized, especially for masculinities. Rather than viewing this developmental process as arising prima facie from the socialization of sex roles or the subjection of bodies, greater work remains in order to understand the active construction of gender identity and gender relations within modern Japan. This panel takes an historical perspective in examining how the gender regime of male adolescence was shaped by the intersections of nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism in the prewar period.

The transition from boyhood to manhood is a dynamic process marked by conflicts and compromises as part of an active process of gender negotiation that challenges monolithic notions of the ideological and discursive construction of gender. The presenters on this panel all seek to understand the multiple and complex narratives of passage to adulthood that informed the active process of gender development. The mass media, including magazines and novels, propagated gender norms and social expectations for boys through mediated and stereotypical images of manhood that shaped the transition to adulthood. However—as the papers here reveal—the heroes, fantasies, and ambitions that inspired masculine identification both confirmed and contested state ideological goals. Moreover, this panel will demonstrate the multitudinous ways in which the narratives of passage in prewar Japan were inextricably linked to other social structures, institutions, and identities.

"Dynamite Don!" Radical Students, Patriotic Youth, and Science Fiction Novels in the Meiji Era

Xavier Bensky, University of Chicago

When dynamite first made its appearance in Japan, it was strongly identified as a revolutionary, anti-government symbol. Its uses by the Phenians and the Russian Nihilists, for example, were sensationalized in the Japanese partisan press during the height of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement in the 1880s. This presumed capability of dynamite to force political change had a particular appeal to the rough and violence-prone student activists called sshi who deeply resented the Meiji state and its policies, as is testified by their popular enka song "Dynamite don!"

However, with the Rescript on Education (kyiku chokugo) and the rise of nationalism in the 1890s as Japan headed towards the Sino-Japanese War, there appeared a new vision of the patriotic youth (shnen or seinen) obedient to the state. Concurrently, the symbolism of dynamite was no longer wielded by isolated revolutionaries but rather by the partisans of the "wealthy nation, strong army" policy, as the specter of terrorist bombings gave way to detonations in land excavation projects and ammunition for cannons, sea mines and torpedoes. The heroes of Oshikawa Shunr’s widely-read science-fiction novels, such as Hideo and Yanagawa in "‘The Undersea Warship" (1900)—at the helm of fantastic weapons that defeat invading colonialists and free oppressed Asian nations—epitomized this new role in the popular imagination.

By tracing the twin trajectories of male adolescent subjectivity and the symbolism of dynamite in the Meiji period, I hope to reveal new insights into the genesis of Japanese science fiction literature.

"Making Heroes from Heroes": Nationalism, Masculinity, and Misogyny in Meiji Japan

Jason G. Karlin, University of Tokyo

In Meiji Japan, numerous intellectuals and middle-class reformers influenced by the ideas of Thomas Carlyle promoted the worship of heroes (eiyron) as essential for the initiation of boys into men. In particular, Yamaji Aizan and Fukumoto Nichinan wrote of the importance of heroes to the mission of modernizing Japan. From historical biographies that extolled "great men" from Japanese history as exemplars of the liberal belief in human agency to the fictional heroes of "adventure novels" (bken shosetsu), hero myths emphasized the nation as the medium of individuation for replacing dependency on the maternal with self-direction and purpose in male adolescence. As the hero archetype of late Meiji Japan evolved, heroism was no longer tied to service to the state alone, but also glorified righteous resistance in defiance of state authority.

Moreover, these narratives encoded norms of masculinity that reinforced gender differences by constructing femininity as inscrutable, deceptive, and dangerous. Rather than erasing women altogether, adventure novels often depict women as transitive figures who are capable of transforming themselves into dangerous creatures. Unlike Western adventure fiction, Japanese hero narratives often function as cautionary tales against the lures of romantic love. If not deceptive, then women are often victims activating male subjectivity. The punishment of women becomes the enabling condition for male heroism as they are often represented as needing protection and rescue. In this way, the male adolescent’s subjectivity is founded not only on escaping female dependence, but on the punishment of women.

Narratives of Struggle and Success: Superior Students, Entrance Examinations, and the Taisho Mass Media

Mark Alan Jones, Central Connecticut State University

A new image of the child as ytsei (superior student) emerged in Taisho Japan and, with. it, a new rite of passage—the entrance examination to secondary education. Guided by the prewar incarnation of the kyiku mama (education mother) the ytsei was the elementary-school student who dedicated his life to educational achievement. Different than the Meiji era’s "‘little citizen" (shkokumin), the ytsei was a vision of the child born not of nationalism but of social aspiration. Social-climbing urban families now saw the child’s attaining top grades and passing the newly-instituted entrance examination as the surest means to social ascent.

Stories of the ytsei’s struggles and successes filled newspapers and magazines. Inspiring accounts of successful examination preparation were placed alongside chronicles of students who died from overstudy. These narratives publicized the ideal of the ytsei and also shaped its meaning. Through these stories, the Taisho mass media declared the entrance examination an unfeeling yet meritocratic means to sort talent. At the same time, they promised families that, through priming and pluck, "any child can become a superior student" and pass the entrance examination. With such a promise, the mass media conjured images of a dynamic society where those who worked hardest were the likeliest to realize upward mobility. The mass media became, in the process, a choreographer of the urban imagination and a force that ultimately redefined not only childhood but also the meaning of the term "middle class," now no longer depicted as the province of the few but as a possibility for the many.

The Martial, the Male, and the Media: Representing War in Japanese Children’s Magazines, 1937–1945

Owen Griffiths, Mount Allison University

Historically, war has been a male pursuit. Men have initiated and prosecuted wars, while other men (historians, writers) have represented them to generations of readers. These experiences and stories continue to define us in terms of nationality, ethnicity, religion, and gender. The nexus of war, nation, and gender is especially complex but there is no doubt that representations of war profoundly influence gender role construction. They serve as latent sources of masculinity in rare moments of peace when various media remind us of the heroic and/or wasteful struggles of the past. In times of actual war, however, these representations are manifested with renewed ferocity in the name of heroism and national crisis.

This interaction of latent and manifest masculinity is the general subject of my paper. Focusing on Japan from 1937 to 1945, I analyze the process by which preexisting, latent representations of martial masculinity were transformed into overt, manifest images of men at war. Specifically, I examine the print media’s role in this process by analyzing how war and martial masculinity were represented to boys through the magazines they consumed by choice.

My purpose is to shift the focus of gender construction away from home, school, and state and toward the print media during its "golden age" in the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, focusing on children’s magazines allows me to analyze the world of children’s entertainment, a relatively unexamined realm of Japanese society but one that is central to understanding the relationship between war, gender role construction, and national discourse.