Sun, Jun 05, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Japanese women given new role

Japanese youth culture has long embraced bizarre fashion, subversive comics and sexual graffiti. Now a new wave of violent female fiction is causing shockwaves

By Angela Neustatter  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

Hitomi Kanehara, 21, sits on the edge of a leather sofa in a Tokyo hotel, long legs evident in a pleated schoolgirlish skirt. Sheeny hair frames a startlingly pretty, childish face and an expression of sweet innocence. You could be excused, then, for viewing Kanehara as the embodiment of all those enduring male fantasies of what makes the ideal Japanese woman: naive submissiveness, ornate femininity and girlish sexuality.

It is a view that alters rapidly when you read Kanehara's first novel, Snakes and Earrings, a bestseller in her native Japan that has shocked the country with its violent and graphic opposition to the traditional cultural expectations of how Japanese women should be.

Kanehara is part of a burgeoning subculture of contemporary women expressing the same loud, emphatic message through fashion, graphics, comics, subversive graffiti, photography and fiction. It underscores a growing generational divide, a significant shift in values and attitudes.

Snakes and Earrings, which won the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize in Japan, is a visceral, gut-churning tale about Lui, a young, beautiful woman whose desire for ever more extreme body piercing, tattoos and violent masochistic sex leads her on a picaresque descent into a deadly, nihilistic world.

Kanehara describes it as the book she had to write. That urge was clearly strengthened by her own experience of being a troubled outsider: she was anorexic and a self-cutter in junior school, then dropped out of class altogether at 11 because, she says, "I had more important ways to use the time."

This caused what would seem an enduring conflict with her mother, whose comment on her novel, she says, was to say there was too much sex.

"Everyone who is young in the current Japan has a degree of despair," Kanehara says. "I have felt at a mental level that there was no hope. But I don't see myself speaking for my generation. I'm just writing what I feel."

Her aim is to write about how it feels to be a young, urban woman of her generation. The point about her characters, she says, is that they make choices for themselves, as she does, deciding how they want to live, rather than conforming. "Writing about sex graphically and disturbingly was an essential part of that."

But why are young women feeling the need to rebel in a way that is so thoroughly antithetical to the way Japanese women are perceived? Forty-year-old Mayka, a Tokyo-born woman who left Japan when she was 19 to go and live in England, has thought about this a good deal as she has two teenage daughters herself.

"I left Japan because I saw that a creative freedom of choice was not possible in my country, because my parents had very traditional expectations for me. But I think what is happening now is more extreme," she says. "It's a profound questioning of the way Japanese society sees and treats women. They are absolutely expected to be answerable to what men want, to marry, have children, and accept the fact that a lot of men will have an intimate life outside the home."

post-boom generation

But this generation is living after the economic boom, explains Mayka. During that time of prosperity, western material flooded Japan, the very liberated and libertine lifestyles of Europe and America influenced the young, and suddenly they saw that there were other ways of being, but without always understanding quite what they meant.

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