Methods from the Margins: Archives of Women and Gender Histories in 20th-Century “Japan”

AHA Session 89
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbus Circle (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Gail Hershatter, University of California, Santa Cruz
Gail Hershatter, University of California, Santa Cruz

Session Abstract

In recent years, histories of women and gender have intersected with inquiries about the nature of historical archives in productive ways. The intersection has opened up questions about the historical and ethical stakes of writing histories of women and others often rendered invisible or unintelligible in the archives, whether women mystics, enslaved women, or forced laborers. Can analyses of the historical and politicized processes by which archives were created shed light on the experiences of marginalized peoples? How did some women create forms of knowledge that remain both distinct from and incommensurable to those generated by dominant archives? Which methodologies might allow historians to critically assess rather than replicate the biases and violence through which the lives of some women have come to be documented?

This panel addresses such questions by bringing the conversation about women, gender, and archives to twentieth-century “Japan,” a place that was an unstable and contested site of belonging and identity for the subjects of our research. We examine three groups of women—Okinawan shamans, ethnic Korean permanent residents, and wives of coal miners—who are usually treated as belonging to the social, cultural, and political peripheries of Japan, if at all. Rather than emphasize the silencing and erasure of the women’s experiences within archives or attempt to re-insert them in established narratives of Japanese history, we instead find new frameworks by identifying multi-layered contexts that have not yet been considered. Specifically, we ask: How can we study the literal and symbolic “voices” of Okinawan shamans in the 1910s to 1930s that continued to wield power among a female clientele through an archive of police and ethnographic records? How can we disentangle the celebratory and condemnatory modalities that dominate an archive about pro-North Korean women in the 1950s and 1960s? And how do we frame the experiences of a housewife activist like Matsuo Keiko who developed a sense of self as a historical actor and meticulously recorded her opposition to the Mitsui Corporation and the postwar Japanese system?

Together, we engage with the specificities of these various women’s experiences in ways that help undermine binaries that tend to mar histories of marginalized peoples, including local and global, agency and passivity, and center and periphery. For many of the women we study, such binaries collapse in the context of their everyday experiences with state ideology, spiritual healing, colonialist assimilation, economic distress, and political activism. In our papers, we attempt to write the histories of these women on their terms, with their categories, and in their languages, all the while confronting the historical and archival forces that simultaneously oppose and necessitate such an attempt.

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