Empire and Japanese Literature


A review of Fragmenting History: Prostitutes, Hostesses, and Actresses at the Edge of Empire, by Nobuko Ishitake-Okumiya Yamasaki.

As broadly applicable as they are highly teachable, the ideas in Nobuko Yamasaki’s Fragmenting History: Prostitutes, Hostesses, and Actresses at the Edge of Empire unsettle both the exclusive construction of Japanese literature as well as the linear writing of Japanese history. Yamasaki’s dissertation examines gendered, racialized, and classed bodies as sites of knowledge production, challenging the assumed figure of the writer as a male Japanese colonizer. To do so, she focuses on a variety of cultural products: those by victims of atomic bombings, those that put into (figurative) conversation women who share personal and political histories of marginalization, and those that show how individuals can—or must—change their representations during and after times of war. In an ambitious and interdisciplinary work that includes numerous figures that facilitate understanding for those unfamiliar with the texts and writers being discussed, Yamasaki troubles the idea of a Japanese national literature (kokubungaku) and gives voice to those who enable “narratives of Empire to be articulated from within” (p. 6).

Chapter 1 addresses issues of atomic bombings, nuclear power, and nation-state formation in wartime and postwar Japan, focusing on the autobiographical short story “Yellow Sand” (1977) by Hayashi Kyôko (b. 1930), a writer who herself experienced the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. The story describes a female narrator’s recollection of her experiences in Shanghai (where Hayashi also spent time), particularly her memory of the figure of Okiyo-san, a Japanese prostitute. In her analysis of “Yellow Sand,” Yamasaki develops Étienne Balibar’s discussion of race and otherness in nation formation by theorizing the intersection of race with class, gender, and sexuality. Yamasaki’s emphasis on gender and sexuality, particularly as they construct the character of Okiyo-san—who has sexual intercourse with racialized Chinese bodies and social intercourse with other Russian prostitutes—reveals the necessity of the racial (authentically and falsely Japanese) and gender (the empire’s use of female subjects to service male subjects) hierarchies for the formation of the Japanese empire and nation. Okiyo-san’s body, in other words, “provides a rationale against which a coherent fiction of ideal Japanese national race necessarily depends” (p. 22). These practices of hierarchization and exclusion persist for victims of the atomic bombings in Japan, particularly vis-à-vis gendered and racialized subjects.

Separated into two sections, Chapter 2 examines works by female writers Lee Yang-ji (1955–92) and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–82). The first section analyzes Lee’s novella Kazukime (1983), which describes a young woman from the Zainichi community—the diaspora of Korean individuals and families who settled in Japan under imperialism and who continue to face political and social discrimination on the basis of their racial identities in the present day—asking doctors to remove her uterus. The analysis engages three theoretical ideas: Raymond Williams’s “the residual,” Judith Butler’s “passionate complicity with the law in subject formation,” and Gayle Rubin’s “political economy of sex” (p. 36). In evoking the conflicts of colonizer/colonized, Japan/Korea, and male/female across time and space in the protagonist’s quest for a hysterectomy, Yamasaki illustrates how, for the Zainichi community, “Korean identity is a dialectical process to experience, to negate, and for which to fight” (p. 32)—one that is particularly crucial for women who can, are forced to, or are denied the right to reproduce. The second section analyzes Cha’s Dictée (1982) and the figure of Cha’s mother, Hyung Soon Huo, in the work. Having been born in Korea and migrated to the United States, Cha describes the significance of language in the (re)production of imperial subjectivity and how her mother, who taught in a Japanese elementary school for Korean students in Manchukuo, created spaces that enabled, linguistically, the rupture of imperial narratives (p. 62). Just as Korean identity serves as a battleground for Lee, the Korean language—and the imperial education system that sought to suppress it—becomes a battleground for Cha in resisting colonialism and militarism.

Through its discussion of writer Nakajima Atsushi (1909–42), Chapter 3 explores the different intentions of one who both participates in and critiques imperialism throughout his life. Noting how Nakajima is a canonical writer in Japanese literature whose works are included in Japanese textbooks, Yamasaki reads his often overlooked “Landscape with a Patrolman: A Sketch from 1923” (1929) alongside his more popular works such as Sangetsuki (1942). The short story is narrated by Cho Kyoyŏng, who works for the Governor-General of Korea in Seoul and thus helps to maintain “an ironic structure in which a Korean arrests another Korean, in order to protect the dignity of the Japanese imperial body” (p. 86). Based on his own experiences in the Japanese colonies (having lived in Korea from 1920 to 1926) (p. 72), Nakajima depicts in the story the everyday lives of colonial and imperial subjects with a conflicted—if not sympathetic—tone. Yamasaki also analyzes Nakajima’s personal documents, describing how he resigns from his governmental post in Palau in the South Pacific, ostensibly for health reasons but potentially for ideological reasons as a critique of Japanese imperialism. The chapter thus opens up possibilities for a “canonical” writer also to stand against the empire.

Shifting to the field of film studies, Chapter 4 analyzes both the films and the person of Ri Kôran (1920–2014), an actress and singer who made her career in China, Japan, and the United States. By focusing her analysis on the film Suzhou Nights (1941) while considering several other cultural products, Yamasaki describes how the figure of Ri Kôran enables the production of “the paradigmatical cultural fruit of its time” (p. 117)—texts that espouse the Japanese imperial ideology of East Asian nations living and working together in harmony for the benefit of the Emperor. In Suzhou Nights, Ri Kôran plays a Chinese woman in Manchukuo who falls in love with a Japanese man and thus comes to support the Japanese empire. Using Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower, Yamasaki illustrates how the film endorses the management of subjects through a depiction of love and acceptance that nonetheless forecloses interracial marriage and reproduction. In short, while Suzhou Nights (and Ri Kôran as the actress portraying its heroine) celebrates an emotional union between Japan and Manchukuo, racial and gender hierarchies prohibit an institutional or sexual union—despite the empire’s use of racialized female bodies as comfort women for soldiers, a topic which later becomes the “life work” for Ri Kôran as an activist.

The dissertation concludes with the author’s English translation of a speech made in Japanese by Ri Kôran on the issue of comfort women, followed by a timeline of Japanese imperialism adapted from James L. Huffman’s Japan and Imperialism and augmented by Yamasaki.

Yamasaki’s dissertation takes seriously the weight of the lives of individual subjects across racial and gender lines. Such scholarship is not only welcome but also critical, given the current sociopolitical climates in Japan as well as the United States. To have it be so accessible to a wide range of readers—from specialists to generalists, from researchers to students—is also a practice more humanities scholars can aim to emulate.

Satoko Kakihara
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
California State University, Fullerton

Primary Sources
Hayashi Kyôko, “Yellow Sand”
Lee Yang-ji, Kazukime
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée
Nakajima Atsushi, “Landscape with a Patrolman: A Sketch from 1923”
Suzhou Nights. Dir. Nomura Hiromasa. Performed by Ri Kôran, Sano Shûji. 1941.

Dissertation Information
University of Washington. 2014. 210 pp. Primary Advisor: Edward T. Mack.

Image: Photograph by Author.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like