Episode 93 – Dr. Rebecca Copeland (Washington Univ.)

Originally published on February 12, 2019
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Rebecca Copeland, Professor of Japanese Language and Literature, and Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Copeland is the co-editor, recently, of Diva Nation: Female Icons from Japanese Cultural History, published by University of California Press in 2018. Dr. Copeland, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Rebecca Copeland: Well, thank you for including me.

TG: You recently co-edited this book Diva Nation, looking at women in Japanese pop culture. So could you tell us a little bit about the book, and identify for us some of these “divas” that you’re talking about?

RC: Yes, so I think we should start out with the idea of “diva” because usually when I say: “We’re writing about divas,” everybody thinks that we’re going to be writing about opera stars and primadonnas, and there are plenty of those available to write about in Japanese culture. Or they think that we’re writing about reality TV stars who have bad attitudes (laughter), and I guess there’s plenty of those too. But really, what we [co-editor Laura Miller and I] were interested in is the sort of unruly or insistent woman, or even female-identified individuals, so they’re not all biologically female in the book. We’re interested in these unruly women who populate Japanese history and myth, and who disrupted or unsettled social morals, whether they did it intentionally or not. And so, because of that, they’re celebrated or else despised.

These are characters who slipped up into our lives. We didn’t actually decide we were going to write a book about divas. We just started to notice (Laura and I) that we were very interested in these unruly women and so, we decided to find a way to bring our ideas together in a book. We found others (like-minded scholars) who had also been really entranced by a variety of different women throughout Japanese cultural history. So, they’re not all popular culture. We began with Izanami (Izanami the goddess, the original goddess of Japan), and then we continue with Queen Himiko (mythical queen of Japan) and Ame no Uzume, and these kinds of figures throughout Japanese history. And then we jump into the modern time with people like Yoko Ono and other writers and so forth.

TG: So it’s an incredibly broad span.

RC: Yes, it’s very broad.

TG: (Laughter) All the way up to Misora Hibari, even, in the postwar period.

RC: That’s right. And so, we didn’t even try to be comprehensive or really chronological in that respect, so there’s a lot of room for other people to add their favourite diva. We were thinking it would be fun to have some kind of a webpage or some way that people could continue to contribute. But what interested me about many of these divas is that even if you have somebody from the deep past like Ame no Uzume, she continues to pop up throughout Japanese history. And according to the person who wrote her chapter, Tomoko Aoyama, she could probably be considered the the forerunner to Rokudenashiko, the infamous vagina artist who’s been getting arrested here and there in Japan. (Laughter)

TG: Your own chapter in the book looks at Izanami, and you call it “Angry Divas Talking Back.” Could you tell us how Izanami is talking back?

RC: Well, I don’t know that she really does in the Kojiki, and that’s what I think motivated Kirino Natsuo (the author) to retell Izanami’s story, and re-imagine it as: What happened to Izanami after she went to Yomi and is then forgotten? Wasn’t she angry? Izanagi didn’t get stuck down there. He got to run around and spew out all these beautiful gods, and so forth. And so, Kirino really imagines Izanami as the forerunner to women who have been unfairly treated, or sidelined, or dispensed with because of their female nature.

TG: And the story we get in the Kojiki is that Izanami gives birth to the god of fire who burns her to death, and she goes to the afterworld. Izanagi chases after her, but then sees her rotting flesh, is this correct?

RC: (Laughter) That’s right. She gives a prohibition: “Don’t look,” and so of course, the first thing Izanagi does is he breaks the vow and he looks, and then she is mortified and humiliated. She then chases him, he throws a rock that seals her in her place, and keeps her forever identified with impurity, defilement and death. (Laughter) It’s enough to make anybody angry.

TG: At one point, she’s throwing peaches at him?

RC: Yes, so you have the early version of the mountain witch, the yamanba who eats men. So she sends these old crones after Izanagi, and he picks up something and throws it at them, and it turns into peaches. And so, they stop and eat it long enough that he’s able to get away. (Laughter)

TG: In your other writing, you’ve looked especially at women during the Meiji period, and especially female writers. So, could you talk a little bit about the impacts of the Restoration on women as both writers and as historical actors?

RC: Well, before really getting to the heart of that question, I’d like to take a few moments to back up a little bit and provide some context to the way that women began to find access to print in the early Meiji period. So, the Meiji Restoration saw a shift in national paradigms that allowed sectors of society that had earlier been shunted to the side to step forward. And women as a new category of people were one of these sectors that suddenly found themselves confronting new opportunities, and becoming the focus of intense scrutiny.

At the time, there was the popular adage: “You can judge the level of a country’s civilization by the way it treats its women.” This adage emerged out of Western colonialist aspirations, but Japanese male diplomats and politicians were hyper-conscious of the way Japan appeared to the Western eyes. As they looked around the country and saw practices such as concubinage and the brothel system, they determined that Japan could not be counted among the ranks of the civilized. So, what were they going to do? Well, reform-minded individuals sought to reform clothing regulations: “We’ll change the way women look. We’ll change dress, we’ll change diet, we’ll change hairstyles, and so forth.” But others began to think more about the internal changes that were necessary, spiritual changes, and this was when focus began to be placed more and more on education.

To have a civilized nation, it was deemed important to have an educated population, and that meant that women too had to have greater access to education. I think it’s important to point out that this doesn’t mean that women were not educated prior to the Meiji period, far from the fact. Women had received, generally, a much higher education than in other countries, but the Meiji reformers wanted women to have even greater access, and they wanted to create more parity, I guess, in access to education.

So in the early part of the Meiji, there were numerous schools beginning to open intent on educating women. One problem, though, that a number of Meiji male reformers encountered was not lack of access for women or lack of schooling, but the widespread bias against women seeking a higher education. So in 1885, several male intellectuals came together to launch a new journal, a magazine called The Women’s Education Journal, or in Japanese Jogaku Zasshi. The purpose of this journal was twofold: on the one hand, the editors meant to encourage women in their search for knowledge and self-improvement, but on the other hand, another key goal of the journal was to discourage men from continuing outdated notions of denigrating women. One famous concept at that time was danson johi or “revere men, despise women.”

The Women’s Education Journal was the first mass circulated journal to address women and women’s concerns. Over its more than 20 year history, the journal provided a platform for women to share their ideas, their concerns, their aspirations. Most of the women who would become highly regarded writers during this period got their start in the pages of The Women’s Education Journal, and even those who never published in the journal itself were influenced by it. So, writers like the beloved Higuchi Ichiyō would have read articles in this journal and was familiar with other women who wrote for the journal, but the journal was not a literary publication per se.

In the beginning, it had been intended to rouse women’s spirits by presenting them with models of other important women to follow such as biographies of Flora MacDonald, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, and so forth from the West. And closer to home, there were biographies of Murasaki Shikibu (the Heian era writer) and also Lady Ise of the Heian period (the poet), in addition to the Empress Jingū (one of the very early empresses of Japan). So in addition to sharing with women these role models that they might seek inspiration from, the editors also included literature. In the beginning, the literature was written by men, and the editors began to feel that writing by men was not always appropriate because male writers tended to focus too much on setting their stories in the brothels. That just wasn’t appropriate for the readership that this journal had in mind, so they began to clamour for more and more original works written by contemporary women.

Two years after the journal had launched, the main editor of the journal said: “We need women to write about women’s issues. Men had viewed women as slaves for the last thousand years, so it’s not likely that they’re going to undergo a transformation anytime soon, and start writing for women’s rights. No, that has to come from women themselves.” So, women now were tasked with writing a kind of literature that would be uplifting, and also speak to the emotional heart of Japan.

It’s interesting that, at the same time, Meiji women were being tasked with creating a warm, wholesome home for their husband and children, and they were expected to write stories that were similar, stories that would be uplifting and sweet that didn’t challenge the readers too much or dip into licentious topics. It was also believed that writing was something that women could do and contribute to the nation without ever needing to leave the home, or even step beyond her role as wife and mother. One of the editors said, for example: “She can keep a brush and inkstone in a corner of the kitchen or in the bedroom, and when she has a free moment, transfer her thoughts to paper.” So clearly, for them, the idea of women’s writing was not really to be equal to that of men, but was to speak to a very limited experience that only women would share but that men could vicariously appreciate because it would offer men access to something they might not normally have access to, which is a woman’s private moments. So writing for women was never supposed to be an occupation. It was really meant to be an elegant diversion, and one that would contribute to the moral message of the nation.

I think it’s important to point out that writers at this time, women writers, were referred to as Keishū Sakka, which could translate as “lady writers.” Keishū denotes a talented woman tucked away in the inner sanctum of a palace, someone who doesn’t engage in the rough-and-tumble of everyday world, somebody who’s privileged and pure. So indeed, most of the women writers at this period were from privileged backgrounds, and they either had access to elite educations or they came from well-heeled families or from families that had aspirations to status. In that sense, they really were “lady writers.” But regardless of what the editors wanted from these “lady writers,” these writers didn’t always fall in line. They wrote what they felt compelled to write just as their male counterparts were being challenged and encouraged to write the “Truth” with a capital T, the “Truth” of the human condition. So, women wanted to do the same even when that truth wasn’t particularly pretty.

TG: And you mentioned Bluestocking journal and this Jogaku Zasshi journal as new venues where women could express themselves politically. And when we talk about the 1880s and other earlier forms of women’s political agency, one of the things that often comes up is these female speakers in the Popular Rights Movement (Kishida Toshiko or Kageyama Hideko). Can we talk about them in the same conversation as these writers? Is this another form of political expression? Or how do we compare them to women writing literature during the Meiji period?

RC: A number of women who began to write at this time had entered the literary arena from the public stage. They made a name for themselves on the lecture circuits, but once women were banned from public speaking, these women then turned to print as a way of expressing their opinions and getting their message across. So you have writers like Kishida Toshiko or Shimizu Shikin, who use fiction to spell out the inequities in the family, and they do so in a bold and forthright way.

Other women began to also take advantage of the platform that they were provided by writing about their frustrations with the inequity in the family system. So, they wrote about rape, they wrote about disgusting, evil male suitors who took advantage of their innocence, or they wrote about the horrors of the brothels. Often, they wrote about experiences they hadn’t really had, but were familiar with, and we’re using these experiences as a way to critique contemporary Meiji society, but they weren’t celebrated for this kind of writing. Rather, it seems that women at this time were faced with an impossible situation: they were told to write about what they know and seeing the sorrows of the dispossessed and so forth, but when they took their task too seriously or wrote too realistically, they were castigated for overstepping their bounds. Of course, they had to be mindful of those bounds because they had to please their critics, and they had to please their editors because these were the people who were policing their access to print.

Women at this time didn’t have control or independence that would have allowed them to publish unfettered. I think later with the Seitō journal, the Bluestocking journal, you had a female editor and female editorial staff. And so, there was opportunity for women to publish without as much restriction, to an extent, at that point.

TG: And in addition to researching the Meiji period, I understand you’ve also been teaching a lot about women writers during the Meiji period. So, could you tell us about some of your classroom teaching, and introduce to us some of these women writers that you talk about in your classroom?

RC: I think that if I tell students: “Okay, we’re going to have a class on women writers of 19th century Japan,” most of them are like: “Oh, I’m not going to take that class.” (Laughter) And maybe they end up in my classroom because they have to? I’m not sure, but once they get there, they realize that these writers are so diverse. They have different approaches to different experiences in their life, but what’s most important, I think, is that some of the issues that they deal with in the late 19th century are issues that my students are still dealing with in the early 21st century.

One of the writers that I could illustrate with this is Miyake Kaho. Miyake was her married name, and Kaho was her pen name. Her real name was Tanabe Tatsuko, and she’s credited as the first writer in the Meiji period. I don’t know that that’s necessarily an accurate claim, but that’s the way she’s positioned in Japanese literature. So she first published in 1888, and her first work was published as a single volume (as a book). It’s called The Warbler in the Grove, or Yabu no Uguisu, and it’s set around the 1880s with the Deer Cry Pavilion, the great dance hall that was created by Meiji politicians to entertain Western dignitaries (so the Rokumeikan Pavilion).

It opens onto a New Year’s Eve ball and a dance, and the characters are young men and women who are sizing each other up. So it seems very topical to a college student, I think, and it progresses through the story with young girl students then meeting up in their dormitory, and talking about boys and eating food. So even though it’s set in the late 19th century, it still seems like a college experience, but they’re dealing with so many significant issues like nation-building, so they’re not just dancing for fun. They’re dancing for the nation, and the story allows me a lot of opportunities to talk about the different points of discussion that were taking place in the Meiji period like Westernization. Should we Westernize? What should women be dedicating their lives to? Should marriage be their end goal? And isn’t marriage important? And all of these weighty topics that these young women talk about. I think my students really are charmed by the presentation in her story.

But then we go from there to a story by Shimizu Shikin, another contemporary of Miyake Kaho who’s writing about divorcing her husband and how difficult this is for her, and yet, how she feels herself to be this new independent woman who must stand up for her own principles and not allow herself to get sucked into this unhappy marriage with a man who is unfaithful to her. The stories bounce around between all these various issues that tend to gravitate around a female space.

TG: That’s a great story about the Rokumeikan and the dance halls, and it really does set it in the 1880s when there was this big debate over Westernization. I was thinking, as a historian, I would like to use that as a primary source to get a sense of how people at the time were reacting to this. And especially from the women who are participating in these dances, for example, how they’re reacting to this. But it does raise this question of how much should we be using contemporary cultural production as historical artifact? Should we view it from a literary perspective or could we use it as historical artifact? I’m curious how you use this in your classroom.

RC: Well, I would like to point out the different literary aspects of the work. Language is a huge issue in Miyake Kaho’s work because she’s writing at a time when language was going under a lot of transition from more classical to a more modern idiom. But it’s hard to get at that in translation for students, so I think using it to point out the different points of discussion that were popular in the Meiji period is one way of approaching the story. And I like giving students a lot of social context and historical background because I think it helps them see the story in a richer tapestry than just looking at the dialogue between the characters.

Once they understand when Miyake Kaho is writing this story, there was a lot of discussion about how one should live: Should we live in a Western house? Should women wear Western clothes? Should men and women be in such close proximity as they are in a dance hall? Or is that immoral? I think her story allows us to see Meiji history in a maybe brighter, more entertaining way, really, (for me at least) than just reading a history book. (Laughter)

TG: This brings to mind a debate I’ve been having with several of my colleagues here. When we’re looking for female agency in the Meiji period, one of the places we often look is literature, cultural production. And when we get into, say, the Taishō period, then we get women actresses, female singers. Can we talk about their participation in that as agency as well? I mean, it might not be a monographic production but for example, an actress in a film…is that also a way for women to assert agency even if the script is written by a man, or the movie is directed by a man?

RC: I think there’s always room for interpretation, and there were plenty of late Meiji women on stage who usurped the point of attention. I’m thinking of Matsui Sumako who was a really famous actress, and I think people went to see her in productions and so I think that in that sense, she was allowed a certain amount of agency. I think for the Meiji women that I’m dealing with, they were constrained to write in a ladylike way. This Miyake Kaho that I’ve described writes about girls in their dormitory, but there’s one scene where she describes one of her characters listening in on male servants talking, and they describe an illicit event or an illicit affair. Miyake Kaho’s critics really came down hard on her saying: “You couldn’t have written that because you’re a good girl. You’re from a good family, and you could not have had access to this kind of language. On the other hand, if you did write it, then oh, shame on you.”

Women were held to these standards by men who were in charge of publication. They had to appeal to male editors and so, yes they had agency and yes, they were able to exercise some self-expression, but all within the borders of what was acceptable for women’s writing. I guess that’s true for any writer but certainly for women’s writing, it was much more sexualized.

When I teach my Meiji women writers class, we talk a lot about the girl student (the jogakusei) because many girls were now having access to education, which also brought them out into a public space. There’s a linking between women who write and also the jogakusei because of the importance of education to writing, but the jogakusei was also being sexualized. And the Meiji woman writer who allowed herself to be presented in public, whether she was there in person or in print, was still susceptible to being portrayed as less than chaste, I think. And so, what really appeals to me and what really fascinates me about Meiji women writers is so many of them risk so much just to write a story. (Laughter)

I think my students don’t appreciate that as much as they could, so I have one exercise that I give them in the class. We talk about the jogakusei, and they read an essay by Mariko Inoue on the emergence of the jogakusei image. And they look at the jogakusei riding her bicycle and wearing her hakama and having her pompadour hairdo, and so forth. And then I show them a photograph that looks like a jogakusei (a girl student), and I tell them: “Now, write the backstory for this photograph.” They all write about how this woman is on her way to her book club or something, they create this wonderful life for her, and then I tell them: “This is a prostitute. This is a photograph of a prostitute who’s being dressed as a girl student.”

And so, this sort of image of the bright, intelligent, aggressive young woman was highly sexualized in the Meiji period, and I suppose it still is if you consider the fetishization of girl students still in Japan. But I think that was one way of controlling female voice, of female agency in the Meiji period, forcing women to deal with this “danger” to their reputation.

TG: We were talking before about the importance of using contemporary text as historical documents, and for this reason, it’s really important that we have these translations of works by female writers and copies of speeches for example. You’ve also done a lot of translation, particularly of Kirino Natsuo, but do you get the sense that translation is becoming less important in the field? Or is there a decreasing emphasis on translation?

RC: You know, it’s interesting. I know that when I was coming up, translation was denigrated, and it was really just “copying.” You were really not being original, and it’s easy, you’re just transferring words from one language to another, blah blah blah. But there is now a renewed interest (or new interest) in translation as a new category of literary theory or literary production and so, at least at my university, we have a Certificate in Translation Studies. It’s a comparative literature certificate, so translation is being rewarded and considered as a high level of academic achievement. It’s not to say that you’re going to get tenure if all you do is translate, so there’s still the sense that Translation Studies is not necessarily translation itself, but the study of translation. So I think the study of translation has become more venerated and acknowledged, whereas translation itself is still perhaps not worthy enough to get you tenure.

TG: I mean coming at it from a historian, it seems frustrating sometimes that there isn’t more of this stuff available in English that I could bring into my classroom for example. Even some of the work that introduces new authors will talk about the author, but then we don’t get a whole translation of the text in question. And so, it could be frustrating to get really excited about this new author that I hadn’t heard of before, and I want to bring them into my classroom, but then we don’t have a full text that we can introduce and have the students read.

RC: Oh, I share your frustration because already, when you’re teaching (particularly literature and perhaps historical text as well) in translation, students are already feeling cheated in some respects. You have to be careful. I think it’s unfair to a student to say: “Oh well, if you read this in the original, it would be clear” or “If you read it in the original, you would understand the way the characters are acting,” and so forth and so on. That’s not fair to the student. You have to only deal with the translation, with the text that you have, and treat it as the original text in some sense. So when you’re dealing with an excerpt, it’s hard because that’s all the student will ever know about this particular text unless more is translated or unless they learn to read it themselves. There are quite a number of literary works that appear only as excerpts, and they’re wonderful, but it’s only a slice of the story. And so, if all you have is an excerpt, then you have to deal with the excerpt, I think, as a complete text.

TG: And you yourself have translated two works by Kirino Natsuo: The Goddess Chronicle and Grotesque. Could you tell us a little bit about Kirino as an author, and a little about these texts as well?

RC: Oh she’s a wonderful author, and she is another kind of author who is very prolific, and she moves quickly from one idea to another, so she doesn’t linger on a particular genre. I became interested in her because of her work in mystery fiction, and she wrote some really fun detective stories featuring these women who were almost immoral in some senses. So, they were kind of hardboiled detective women, and I really loved that. And then she began to work in different, not really genres, but she began to stretch detective fiction. She didn’t like detective fiction because it was too confining, it was formulaic, and you always have to be setting down clues and solving mysteries, and so forth. And so, she prefers the mystery. She prefers presenting the mystery more than unravelling it, I think.

Grotesque is a novel that presents the problem in Japanese society of women being valued for their beauty rather than their intellect. So that’s one aspect of Grotesque, but it’s very deep and it’s very dark, and it takes you on this journey through a side of not just Japan but of human nature that you might not want to be on. It’s a difficult read, and it’s very provocative. People either love it or hate it, but I think for the most part, people love it. So in a way, in Grotesque, Kirino is digging down past the myth of Japanese society as being this homogeneous, safe place where it’s all economically stable, and everybody is working toward the same goal and we’re all one big happy family. So, she’s digging down into that and uncovering the fact that we’re in a dog-eat-dog world, sort of “survival of the fittest” kind of madness.

In The Goddess Chronicle, she goes even further to dig into the myth of Japanese foundation, or Japanese creation by digging into this early history or mythical history the Kojiki, and uncovering the fact that probably, the Kojiki is written by those in power. The stories that are being presented as “god-given” or “nature-given” are themselves corrupt and manipulated by politics. Even though she’s writing about this mythical space in an earlier time, she’s really pointing to contemporary Japan, so one thing I like about Kirino is her ability to poke into the uncomfortable spots of Japanese society and uncover things that most people would rather leave covered.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode: 

Rebecca Copeland, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, February 12, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-93-dr-rebecca-copeland-washington-univ/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.