The Daring Feminist Writer Who Inspired Manga - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because she defied gender norms and set a new course for Japanese literature.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • Writer Nobuko Yoshiya broke convention in early-20th-century Japan by living with a woman, championing feminism and becoming immensely popular in the process.
  • Themes of intense female relationships and drawings of huge-eyed girls heavily influenced today’s manga.

In her early 20s, Nobuko Yoshiya wrote perhaps the most practical love letter ever sent, to Chiyo Monma, a math teacher at a Tokyo school.

“(1) We will build a small house for the two of us; (2) I will become the head of the household and officially adopt you; (3) We will ask a friend to serve as a go-between, and hold a wedding reception.”

For two women to have an intimate relationship in 1920s Japan, these kinds of hoops were necessary. Monma agreed to the terms, and she and Yoshiya lived together for 50 years. In the process, Yoshiya, who defied gender norms throughout her life, became one of 20th-century Japan’s most commercially successful and prolific feminist writers.

They push on girls the idea that they should be flirting with men.… I will do battle with them.

Nobuko Yoshiya

In fact, a 1935 profile of her in the magazine Hanashi maintained: “There is not a single woman alive who doesn’t know who Nobuko Yoshiya is.” 

That no longer holds true, even though Yoshiya helped shape much of modern life in Japan. At a time when LGBTQ rights have gathered global momentum, Yoshiya’s work has come to the forefront as the inspiration for shoujo manga, a genre aimed at teen girls, and its 1990s offshoot, yuri manga.

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Born in 1896 in Niigata prefecture to a family descended from a samurai clan, Yoshiya grew up in a household where she was the only girl of five children, “perhaps an upbringing that led her to question gender norms throughout her life,” says Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase, an associate professor of Japanese studies at Vassar College.

At 19, Yoshiya moved to Tokyo, where she spent the rest of her life. It was in Tokyo that she started her writing career, attending meetings of Japan’s pioneering all-women literary magazine, Seito. She also developed her trademark style: bobbed hair and loosely fitted shirts and pants. A year later, at age 20, Yoshiya published a 52-story collection Hana Monogatari, or Flower Tales

But as Sarah Frederick, an associate professor of Japanese literature at Boston University, notes in “Not That Innocent: Yoshiya Nobuko’s Good Girls,” “It would seem likely that her fiction would defy the gender norms of her time and extol bad girls of various sorts. Yet the female characters of her girls’ fiction and romance novels exhibit hyper-typical images of ‘good girl’ femininity rather than subvert them.… On the surface at least, her descriptions of pure and clean girls and women hardly overturn stereotypes and ideals of girlishness or feminine virtue.” 

But even that was enough to inspire a lot of people.

Flower Tales comprises stories about intense emotional female relationships. It introduced motifs and symbols that became staples of shojo manga, says Verena Maser, a translator of manga and anime from Japanese to German. The most influential example, she says, is the setting: all-girl boarding schools. 

Each of the 52 stories in Flower Tales was illustrated by artist Jun’ichi Nakahara, whose images of schoolgirls with big eyes likely influenced shoujo manga artists, according to experts. 

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A shoujo manga cover from 1908 (left) and a contemporary shojo manga cover.

Two years after the publication of Flower Tales, Yoshiya wrote Yaneura No Nishojo (Two Virgins in an Attic), a heartbreaking tale of two girls who feel like outcasts in their dormitory and hence spend a lot of time in an attic, where they inhale each other’s “lily magnolia” scent. Maser says the novel, which was published before Yoshiya started openly living with Monma and has a hint of the autobiographical, probably inspired yuri manga.

But these kinds of stories disappeared during World War II, when they were all but banned in Japan. Commissioned by the Japanese government to report on the war throughout Southeast Asia, Yoshiya eagerly agreed. “She did so because she thought it would help the sisterhood or bond between women that she so greatly valued. By contributing to the country, she probably thought she was uplifting women’s culture,” Tsuchiya Dollase says.

When shoujo comics started appearing in Japanese women’s magazines shortly after the war ended, the artists — who were mostly male — looked to Yoshiya’s work for inspiration. Tsuchiya Dollase points to Osamu Tezuka’s popular Astro Boy manga, with its theme of longing to be loved by absent parents, and Oyuki Konno’s Maria Watches Over Us, which is set in a dormitory with intense relationships among young girls, as traceable to Yoshiya.

Soon, a new set of shoujo manga written by women emerged, including Magic Knight Rayearth and Revolutionary Girl Utena, which focus on strong female bonds. In Yoshiya’s own words, the idea came from fighting “chauvinist male writers.” “They push on girls the idea that they should be flirting with men.… I will do battle with them,” she wrote to Monma.

The battle continues today, but it is easier for Yoshiya having fought.

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