Historicizing Feminist Discourse and Debate in Japan, from the 1950s to the Present

AHA Session 132
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Grand Ballroom Salon B (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Sally Ann Hastings, Purdue University
Vera Mackie, University of Wollongong

Session Abstract

Japan’s modernization project in the last decades of the nineteenth century entailed, among other things, a reconsideration of the status and roles of women. Like other aspects of modernization, this discussion encompassed engagement with “modern” European and American ideas and, at times, grappling with their lack of accord with Japanese tradition. While in the 1930s Japan’s expanding imperial project and war efforts suppressed what had become a vibrant feminist discourse, after the war this discourse was quickly revived and continued to develop, reflecting postwar changes in women’s status. The most significant and immediate changes stemmed from the de jure equal rights granted in the postwar Japanese Constitution, which broadly prohibits discrimination based on sex. The new Constitution specifically names rights sought by some feminists in Japan for decades: equality within family, educational, and political spheres. The continuing lack of de facto equality within both the private realm and public arena, however, has motivated on-going feminist discourse and activism from the early postwar years to the present day. As in the past, this new discourse has often involved and drawn inspiration from feminist discourse from abroad but has been firmly anchored in local socio-political conditions and in the lived experiences of women in Japan.

It is in this context that the papers in this panel take up various aspects of feminist discourse from the postwar decades through the present. Julia Bullock’s paper explores the reception of Simone de Beauvoir’s life and works by Japanese women in the 1950s and 1960s. She will argue that while many women were inspired by Beauvoir, their understanding of her theories was heavily inflected by the backlash against women’s new role and status in postwar Japanese society. Desire for the liberated and independent lifestyle modeled by Beauvoir had to be weighed against anticipated resistance by more conservative sectors of society, leading to a critical and selective approach to evaluation of her work. James Welker’s paper examines the production, reception, and influence of translated second wave feminist writing from the United States within and beyond the ûman ribu (women’s liberation) movement in 1970s Japan. Drawing attention to a similar selectivity, Welker gives specific consideration to decisions made by translators, including their choice of texts to translate, as well as their framing, annotations, and omissions. Finally, Ayako Kano’s paper historicizes the controversy over Japanese gender policy from the 1990s to the present by examining the language of the policy and the process of its formulation, the proponents and arguments of the conservative backlash, and the range of consequent developments, including the feminist “fight back,” and government “backpedaling.”

The panel will be chaired by Sally Hastings and Vera Mackie will serve as respondent.

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