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International Symposium “The Woman in the Story: Female Protagonism in Japanese Narratives”

“The Woman in the Story: Female Protagonism in Japanese Narratives”

A symposium titled “The Woman in the Story: Female Protagonism in Japanese Narratives” took place at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for the three-day period of March 13 to 15, 2019. The event was held as part of the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities and was co-sponsored by UCLA and Waseda University’s Global Japanese Studies Model Unit of the Top Global University Project.

Associate Professor Laffin gives a lecture with the aim of the symposium

On the first day of the symposium, March 13, three of the event’s organizers gave presentations. The presentation by Christina Laffin (Associate Professor, University of British Columbia) served as the symposium’s keynote lecture. In her presentation, Laffin demonstrated with statistical data how, in the area of Japanese literary studies, female authors have long been neglected but that this trend has been changing in recent years; nevertheless the majority of tenured professors at US universities are still white males, representing a lack of diversity in terms of race and gender. She then posed questions to those involved in research in the areas of Japanese history, art history, and religious studies—as well as Japanese literature—about what these states of affairs indicate and about what researchers can do to bring about change. Next, Torquil Duthie (Associate Professor, UCLA) and Amy Stanley (Associate Professor, Northwestern University) articulated a more concrete approach to the theme of the symposium—the “woman in the story.” In his presentation, Duthie recalled the period from the late sixth century to the latter half of the eighth century, a period when there was a relatively large number of women rulers in Japan, notably including female emperors. Duthie thus presented the events of this period as an alternative historical narrative in which the protagonists were women and explained the significance of this narrative. Stanley described records from the 19th-century “Rinsenji Documents” concerning the daughter Tsuneno of the family who ran the Rinsenji shrine in Echigo Province. Among those records are descriptions stating that Tsuneno experienced sexual assault, which Stanley considered in the context of the issue of doubt directed toward the credibility of testimony by victimized women, as now discussed more than ever against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement.

The first presentation, by Otilia Milutin (Assistant Professor, Middlebury College), on the second day of the symposium, the 14th, continued in a similar vein as the previous day’s talks. Milutin offered textual analyses of descriptions of scenes of sexual assault in The Tale of Genji and the later works of Yoru no Nezame and Torikaebaya Monogatari and examined how differences in the genders of the protagonists of each work in turn gave rise to differences among the three texts. Takeshi Watanabe (Assistant Professor, Wesleyan University) focused on shamanistic characteristics in the story of Eiga Monogatari and argued that this text was an example of kana literature (works written in Japanese syllabary script that at the time were associated with female authors, as opposed to works written in classical Chinese and associated with male authors) that recorded a collective history. Rajyashree Pandey (Reader, Goldsmiths’ College, University of London) gave a presentation on issues of gender and agency as they relate to understanding the “feminine” in medieval Japanese literature and Buddhist scripture. Next, Gaye Rowley (Professor, Faculty of Law, Waseda University) considered who constituted the readership of Matsukage Nikki—reputed to be one of the most important pieces of literature by a female author among early modern Japanese literature—as well as the relationship between that question and the literary style and register that the work’s author, Ōgimachi Machiko, employed. Gergana Ivanova (Associate Professor, University of Cincinnati) focused on depictions of women of the Heian era, such as Murasaki Shikibu and Ono-no-Komachi, in Fūfu Narabi no Oka, a supplementary volume to Daitō Keigo, and other works of 18th-century erotica, providing analyses of the descriptions of these women within such texts. Joshua Mostow (Professor, British Columbia University) discussed jokunsho readers used in the education of women in early modern Japan and considered the influence these texts had on the women who constituted their readership at the time. The last presenter of the day was Yurika Wakamatsu (Assistant Professor, Occidental College), who noted that the 1907 annotated painting Baisōkajinzu by Okuhara Keiko is a work that challenges dichotomies such as men as the audience versus women as things to be viewed, heterosexuality versus homosocial relationships, and subject versus object.

On the final day of the symposium, the 15th, Rebecca Copeland (Professor, Washington University in St. Louis) began a presentation on Chiyo Uno. The topic of Copeland’s talk was Uno’s short story “This Powder Box.” Copeland discussed the story’s narrator as a character depicted such as to legitimize Uno’s own life as a single woman. Sharalyn Orbaugh (Professor, University of British Columbia) used her presentation to consider how to understand the passiveness of women in Japanese society in relation to concepts such as a “protagonist” and “protagonism,” using the life of the historical figure Shizuko Nogi as an example. Julia Bullock (Associate Professor, Emory University) gave a presentation in which she explored the significance from a feminist perspective of the short story “Gyakukōsen” by Kunie Iwahashi and the novel Banka by Yasuko Harada—works that currently are not nearly as well-known as Shintaro Ishihara’s novel Season of the Sun but that were described as representing the female manifestation of the taiyōzoku rebellious youth subculture featured in Ishihara’s novel and were the topic of much discussion when they were first published. Julia Clark (PhD Candidate, UCLA) spoke about the literature of zainichi Koreans and, in particular, the female writer Chong Chu-wol. Clark focused on the area in Osaka called Ikaino that appears in Chong’s works and discussed the issues of gender, class, and ethnicity that the author’s texts pose. Hitomi Yoshio (Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University) focused on the community among women found in Mieko Kawakami’s short story “Dreams of Love, etc.” and short fiction collection Wisteria and Three Women and considered how such communities are depicted as things that are fantastic, temporary, or of the past. Grace En-Yi Ting (Post-Doctoral Fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Waseda University) drew attention to how the special “Women Edition” of the literary journal Waseda Bungaku, published in 2017, included the voices of women of nationalities other than Japanese and discussed the possibilities for feminist developments in Japanese studies. The final speaker, Kazue Harada (Assistant Professor, Miami University [Oxford, Ohio]) tackled Sayaka Murata’s novel Shōmetsu Sekai, interpreting the text as asking pointed questions about the realities of Japan’s heterosexist familial and political systems.

The symposium was extremely productive: Each speaker who appeared during the event after Laffin’s first presentation on day one seemed to be speaking in dialog with that initial presentation. In the discussions that took place between the presentation sessions, each presenter was, of course, asked many specific questions relevant to each of their individual presentations. However, it was impressive how a lively debate developed based on a shared consciousness of the issue of what to pay attention to while proceeding with various research about Japan in an age in which key words such as “women,” “gender,” and “feminism” abound in various media—the Internet, television, newspapers, and so forth—and yet in which the world is still steeped in numerous problems.

Graduate Students’ session

On the morning of the 13th, prior the symposium proper, graduate students from Waseda University, UCLA, and institutions around the world—including elsewhere in the US, the Philippines, Vietnam, Germany, Israel, and Canada—assembled for a roundtable titled “Woman in the Field.” The participants, whose total number was around 30, split up into groups of four or five and discussed their attitudes toward, and thinking about, their studies and the problems they face daily as postgraduates aspiring to conduct research. After the talks in each group, there was an overall discussion at the roundtable about various issues, including those relating to the general theme of the symposium, gender, as well as those of race, regional inequality, and globalization. A variety of views were expressed regarding these issues, and the roundtable turned out to be a truly meaningful time shared among the participants.

The symposium dealt with the topic of Japanese studies. Nevertheless, it was a tremendously precious opportunity for researchers and students with diverse backgrounds in terms of specific fields of study, gender, nationality, country of residence, age, and views to receive considerable intellectual stimulation from one another.

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