Aestethics of Gender: Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) On Feminity as a Masquerade

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    • Presentation speakers
      • Isabel Seliger, University of Hawaii

    Accounts of the history of feminist theory generally point to the predominance and authority of Western feminist knowledge production during the first and second feminist movements, i.e., the periods from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920’s, and from the 1960’s onward, thus positioning the Euro-American geopolitical region as the origin of feminist theorizing, both in the sense of intellectual content and place of production. My paper aims to productively challenge this understanding of feminist knowledge production by examining the interpenetration of branches of traditional Chinese and Japanese learning with methods and terminologies of Western sciences and scholarship that were introduced to Japan after 1868. More specifically, I will be concerned with the theoretical content of Japanese author Yosano Akiko’s essay “Ubuya monogatari” (産屋物語, Tale from the birthing room, 1909). In her essay, Yosano foregrounds the binary constellation of the sexes and deliberates between feminine identity as an innate and as a constructed state of being, thereby advancing both an essentialist and a constructivist argument. The topic of the performativity of identity, which Yosano termed kyôshoku, is introduced as a mix of sociological and historical phenomena where the concrete, lived acts of women are under consideration. The oldest traceable source text for the term kyôshoku is a treatise by Chinese philosopher Xunzi (ca. 312– 230 BCE), one of the founders of Confucianism. Another text that offers important clues as to the etiology of Yosano’s theoretical argument is the treatise Nüshi zhen (“Admonitions of a Female Scribe”) by the Chinese poet and court official Zhang Hua (232-300 CE), the significance of which lies in its alignment of the theme of female cultivation with the literary genre of didactic texts for women. Yosano Akiko’s elaborations also implicitly refer back to a long history of cross-dressing in traditional Japanese culture, especially in the performing arts which emphasize the concept of theatrical illusion as well as that of the ritual achievement of the feminine figure. Furthermore, Yosano’s deliberations on female identity as performance point to currents in modern Western thought based on women’s entry into public and discursive spaces, as reflected in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and his discussions of women as actresses and masks. I argue that through a synthesis of literary tropes and cultural concepts, Yosano created the first theoretical argument in Japanese aesthetics explicitly concerned with female identity formation and gendered creativity, and in so doing preconceived several major theoretical narratives in Western critical theory such as the concept of writing the body, gender as a performative act, and the deconstruction of cultural master narratives.