Sabine Frühstück, "Gender and Sexuality in Modern Japan" (Cambridge UP, 2022)


Gender and Sexuality in Modern Japan (Cambridge University Press 2022) is a new addition to a list of publications by Sabine Fruhstuck, one of the leading scholars in the world on the topic. Written for both academics and the general public alike, this book introduces and discusses debates about sex, gender, and sexuality in modern and contemporary Japan, spanning from the 1860s to the 2020s. In Fruhstuck’s own words, this book aims to “balance descriptions of individual experience; institutional mechanisms based in law, pedagogy, and statecraft; and the socioculturally inflected politics within which those mechanisms have been embedded and which they have in turn shaped over an extended period that began with the nation- and empire-building of the late nineteenth century.”

The book is divided into seven chapters, each tracing the movements of individuals, ideas, and things between and beyond the nation, empire, and cyberspace. At the end of each chapter, readers can find a handful of recommendations for pairing the text with literary works, documentaries, and other films.

As Fruhstuck explains, the chapters share three analytical sensibilities. First, deriving from research in several nations’ archives and bodies of knowledge in Japanese, German, and English, the book is a transnational historical study in which “’Japan’ is configured as a malleable entity, as both a subject and object of global modernity, and a mediator between a global and a regional East Asian modernity.” Second, this book draws from History, Anthropology, Sociology, and Visual Studies, via a wide variety of sources ranging from print media and government documents to biographical accounts, from political pamphlets to pulp comics and contemporary art. Third, this book adopts a sensibility of “flexible intersectionality,” which aims to “invite readers to think at the varying levels of structures, dynamics, and subjectivities.”

Chapter 1, “Building the Nation and Modern Manhood,” discusses negotiations over different types of men, manhoods, and masculinities in Japan since the nineteenth century, through the early processes of nation-state formation and empire-building, defeat and democratization, and today’s challenges of a globalizing society and straining economy.

Chapter 2, “Controlling Reproduction and Motherhood,” addresses women’s struggle to both define motherhood for themselves and take control of reproduction amid Japan’s advancing imperialism, which relied on rapid population growth. In Chapter 3, “Redefining Womanhood,” Fruhstuck furthers the discussion on womanhood in modern Japan and reveals the new roles women have carved out for themselves amid the emerging modern mass culture in the early twentieth century.

Chapter 4, “Sex at War,” delves into the question of how violence, sex, and war were linked in numerous and sometimes contradictory ways during the decades of Japan’s modern nation-building and imperialist expansions. Chapter 5,” The Politics of Sexual Labor,” shows the transformation of earlier sexual regimes imposed by violence and the various manifestations of and shifting attitudes toward sex work in the postwar.

In Chapter 6, “Queer Identities and Activism,” Fruhstuck describes Japan’s longstanding embrace of gender ambivalence, covering the current expressions and activism of a range of non-heterosexual and gender-variant identities, practices, and communities that have come into being in Japan throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Chapter 7, “Sexing Visual Culture,” explores the history of representations of sex and sexuality in visual culture, such as erotic woodblock prints, film, contemporary pop art, and video games. The book ends with Fruhstuck’s critical reflections on the historical study of sex, gender, and sexuality in Japan, which identifies and highlights scholarly strongholds, addresses blind spots and identifies questions yet to be raised.

Sabine Frühstück is Professor and the Koichi Takashima Chair in Japanese Cultural Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages & Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In addition to her most recent book, which we will discuss in detail today in this episode, Professor Fruhstuck has published many books, edited volumes, and articles on the topics of gender, militarism, and children in modern Japan.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her for the New Books Network in 2019 on her book Playing War: Children and the Paradoxes of Modern Militarism in Japan (Uni of California 2017). It is a fantastic cultural history of the connections between childhood and militarism. To listen to our NBN episode on this book, click here.

Two other books by Professor Fruhstuck that our listeners will find interesting and relevant to today’s discussions are Uneasy Warriors: Gender, Memory and Popular Culture in the Japanese Army (2007), an ethnography on the ambivalent status and condition of Japan’s contemporary military; and Colonizing Sex: Sexology and Social Control in Modern Japan (2003), a socio-historical study of the creation, formation, and application of a “science of sex” from the late 19th through the mid-20th century.

Daigengna Duoer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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Daigengna Duoer

Daigengna Duoer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation is a digital humanities project mapping the history of transnational and transregional Buddhist networks connecting early twentieth-century Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Republican China, Tibet, and the Japanese Empire.

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