2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 87: Bad Girls of Japan: The Subversive Potential of Transgression

Organizer and Chair: Jan Bardsley, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Discussant: Laura Miller, Loyola University, Chicago

Keywords: women, Japan, Meiji, schoolgirls, Abe Sada, ladies’ comics, masochism, Nakamura Usagi, shopping.

Women who defy patriarchies, whether they are interpreted as models of liberation or serious malefactors, provoke intense concern, censure and public debate. What subversive potential exists when out-of-line women become the focus of media attention? Our panel takes up this question by presenting four quite different models of misbehaving women in Japan: degenerate Meiji schoolgirls, the notorious figure of Abe Sada, the readers of ladies’ comics, and shoppers gone wild. In considering the subversive possibilities raised by these Japanese deviants, each presentation attends to the interconnections among women’s agency, gender ideologies, and notions of depravity. By investigating constructions of female deviancy in Japan, this panel also illuminates aspects of normative gender and directs attention to the ways in which media representations of "bad" and "good" women serve society.

This panel aims to engage the audience in a lively, focused, hour-long discussion. To this end, each panelist will limit her presentation to fifteen minutes, concisely making her case for the subversive potential of a particular "bad girl" phenomenon. After making brief remarks on the links among these presentations, discussant Laura Miller will open discussion with the audience on the questions: What are other ways in which women in Japan upset gender hierarchies, resist social norms, or willingly perform stigmatized social roles or behaviors? How do such "bad girls" function simultaneously as cautionary archetypes, juicy fodder for scandal consumption, and inspiration for transformation? Is anxiety over their perceived wickedness actually displaced resentment of female power, economic autonomy or sexual freedom?

Bad Girls from Good Families: The Degenerate Meiji Schoolgirl

Melanie J. Czarnecki, Sophia University

The Meiji schoolgirl, adorned in her maroon (ebicha) hakama and arrow-feather patterned kimono, hair swept back at the sides and fastened with a ribbon moving freely in the breeze, rode to campus on her bicycle—and it was all downhill from there. Unlike today, schoolgirl dress during the Meiji period was a code for class distinction. Only girls from the upper echelons of society were sent to higher schools. As such, the media, tracked the every move of these Meiji starlets fastidiously. They came to achieve something of a sex symbol status, rivaling the geisha. In fact, geisha would don schoolgirl attire in imitation of the new bad girls on the scene.

The daraku jogakusei or "degenerate schoolgirl" was a pejorative label condemning the schoolgirl who without permission kept the company of male acquaintances. Such conduct would ruin the reputation of a chaste girl and tarnish her good family name. Thus, the value put on moral purity made dalliances risky business for lovestruck Meiji students. How did the Meiji schoolgirl negotiate her newly found notoriety? I will consider the depictions of degenerate schoolgirl heroines in late Meiji fiction, as well as some real-life occurrences of schoolgirls who transgressed the boundaries of socially acceptable deportment. Analysis will demonstrate that the liminal space of the girls’ higher school paradoxically provided the necessary framework for schoolgirls to break away from good-wife/wise-mother ideology and carve out alternative existences that resulted in their stigmatization as public moral corruptors (fūzoku kairan sha).

So Bad She’s Good: The Masochist’s Heroine in Postwar Japan, Abe Sada

Christine Marran, University of Minnesota

Abe Sada’s notoriety gave rise to innumerable interpretations of her motive to murder Ishida Kichizo in 1936, making her one of the best-known bad girls in modern Japanese history. This paper is dedicated to only a handful of Sada stories which have been chosen to draw attention to a curious shift in how the Abe Sada Incident has been interpreted from the prewar incident to the postwar. The earliest discussions of Sada treat her as a medical curiosity. She is subjected to various physical and psychological examinations and claimed to be variously ‘immoral but not necrophiliac,’ sadistic and masochistic, and nymphomaniacal. In the postwar, however, Sada emerges as heroine. In manifold texts ranging from pulp magazine serials of the 1950s to film and theatre of the 1970s to novels of the 1990s, Sada was made to embody a counter-hegemonic position. Furthermore, attention is paid to Kichizo as a romantic hero. This bad girl and her lover were made a foil in the postwar for critiquing the cultural and political demands of imperialism and in romanticizing the refusal to follow patriarchal imperatives. This paper discusses the shift in representations of the incident looking at how the postwar portrayals make the murder of a man by his lover much easier to take culturally because the perpetrator is considered to have been driven by love. Kichizo’s death can be imagined as driven by the woman’s intense devotion to her lover; in this way, the male is treated as potent actor rather than victim.

Looking at Ladies’ Comics: Why Do "Bad Girls" Like to Watch?

Gretchen Jones, University of Maryland

A woman, bound with leather, a gag her in mouth, is violently and repeatedly raped by her stepbrother and his buddies. Surely this image would not be intended for a female consumer. Yet in Japan, the notorious genre of graphically pornographic "Ladies’ Comics," which contains many images like the one above, is created for women, by women—and it sells incredibly well. On the surface, Ladies’ Comics stories appear to reinforce the stereotype of Japanese women as subservient, long-suffering, and passive. It might be easy to label the female creators of these texts "bad" in that they seem to promote patriarchal ideas of women by depicting characters taking pleasure in having men inflict pain and humiliation on them. By the same token, female consumers of these texts are "bad girls" for seeking out and apparently enjoying images of women that are far from liberated. In trying to understand images of women, feminists have often analyzed "the gaze." Do these images from Ladies’ Comics merely embody a male gaze and male conception of woman as a sexual object? Or is it possible that these comics, created by women, for women, reveal a female gaze? What are the implications of women looking at and even creating these "bad" pictures? This presentation explores these issues, and concludes that all is not what meets the eye.

Confessions of a Dis-eased Queen: Nakamura Usagi’s Bad Girl Addiction to Shopping

Hiroko Hirakawa, Guilford College

World media in the 1980s were rife with reports of increasing numbers of young Japanese women enjoying the "bubbly" life: delaying marriage and relishing their prolonged youth by indulging in conspicuous consumption. The 1990s ushered in a long recession but did not curtail the never-ending drop in Japan’s birth rate, the ever-rising age at first marriage, and continuing tales of pricey European boutiques being swarmed by young Japanese women. Of course, being a good woman in the history of modern Japan has always meant practicing frugality, saving assiduously, and sacrificing one’s own desires for the sake of the family. Thus, the phenomenon of extravagance on the part of young single women has incited a great deal of social anxiety, moral reprobation, and counter-narratives of heroically thrifty, stoical mothers. Clearly, the big-spending "bad girls" have some explaining to do.

But how does a contemporary single woman rationalize, explain, and/or justify her indulgence in lavish consumption in the midst of the social pressure that renders her a "bad girl?" To explore this question, I look at the works of popular writer Nakamura Usagi, infamously known as the "queen of shopping," and consider how graphically she details her out-of-control shopping addiction as well as her excessive spending at a host club and on plastic surgeries. Nakamura’s candid, humorous, and simultaneously poignant gaze at herself gives us many insights into the ways alleged "bad girls" live the contradictions of a late capitalist society. As Nakamura shows, even profligate shopping has subversive potential.