Yellow Rose

Yellow Rose

Title: Yellow Rose
Japanese Title: 黄薔薇 (Kibara)
Author: Yoshiya Nobuko (吉屋 信子)
Translator: Sarah Frederick
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 1923 (Japan)
Publisher: Expanded Editions

I’m absolutely thrilled to write that one of Yoshiya Nobuko’s stories has finally appeared in a readily available English translation. “Yellow Rose” is drawn from Yoshiya’s acclaimed collection Hana monogatari (Flower Stories), which first appeared in print in the 1920s and has been a major guiding influence in shōjo manga, literature, and aesthetics. Thankfully, Yoshiya’s fiction is not just important from the perspective of literary history but also a true delight to read.

The short story “Yellow Rose” is about Katsuragi Misao, a twenty-two-year-old college graduate who accepts a teaching post at an all-girls prefectural academy “a thousand miles distant from Tokyo” to avoid getting married. On the train departing from Tokyo she meets Urakami Reiko, who happens to be a student entering her final year at Katsuragi’s school. Reiko is running late; and, clutching a bouquet of yellow roses, she dashes across the platform to catch the train, just barely making it:

Perhaps because she had been running so fast her little chest beat wildly, sending the profusion of flowers in that single hand all a-tremble, and this quivering of the yellow rose bouquet moved in unison with the fluttering of the girl’s sleeves – it was a beautiful scene–

Reiko gets a grain of soot in one of her eyes, thus giving Miss Katsuragi a chance to be alone and in intimate contact with her as she administers aid:

The end of her ponytail stretched down below the pillow, and a wisp of stray hair lay on her white forehead; her cool eyes were both gently closed and just her lips moved with her breath like a flower – in the stillness of a moon perhaps her closed eyes were seeing a dream……ah, how lovely!

The two continue their association throughout the summer, and their romance blooms in a series of short vignettes, of which the following is representative:

Thus carries the sound of the bell down to the water at Kiyomigata shore. It must be from the Seikenji Temple bell tower in Okitsu –

The bell sound crosses the twilight waters……

Motionless on the beach shadows……two of them

Two shadows paused silently as if to let the sounds of the bell gently embrace them –

Twilight, the moon thinly visible at the yonder edge of the sky – as they neared the shore only the very faint tips of the breaking waves sported a faint whiteness, like frayed silk tassels.

Miss Katsuragi and Reiko make plans for the girl to attend Katsuragi’s alma mater in Tokyo before embarking on a journey to the United States together, but Reiko’s mother expects her to enter an arranged marriage immediately after her graduation in April. At the end of the story, as Katsuragi boards a ship to Boston alone, she abandons herself to her grief.

As with many of the stories contained within Yoshiya’s Hana monogatari, “Yellow Roses” ends in tears. The story’s focus is not on plot, however, but rather the beauty of the two young women and the depth of their feelings for one another. Entire paragraphs are spent on detailed descriptions of mournful eyes and chiseled cheekbones, and the poetry of Sappho is quoted at length. As in the above passages, Yoshiya’s writing is characterized by fragments and ellipses, which heighten the emotional impact of certain scenes while leaving the reader free to fill in the suggestive gaps in the text with her imagination.

“Yellow Roses” can be a quick and feather-light read, but the reader is rewarded for returning to the story a second time, as many of its passages can be appreciated as jewels in a beautiful setting – or roses in a stunning bouquet.

Although the story alone would be well worth the price of admission, this publication is graced by the addition of an extended translator’s introduction, a fascinating note on the cover illustration, an extensive selection of illuminating endnotes, and a meticulously curated list of selected English-language readings that functions as an invaluable resource to anyone interested in the history and inner workings of shōjo culture in Japan from the nineteenth century onward.

Translator Sarah Frederick’s introduction, which is roughly as long as the translated story itself, functions as something of an abbreviated textbook, touching on not merely the author and the story but also many aspects of the society and publishing culture that form its context. Frederick’s writing is not mired in the academic garble of postmodern theory but is immediately accessible to a casual reader as it paints a picture of a time and place in broad yet deliberate strokes. What I especially appreciate about this short essay is that it directly confronts the issue of female queer sexuality in Japan:

While it is not difficult to frame these desires via the flexible contemporary category of “queer,” it may be surprising to some readers that to invoke the word “lesbian” for Katsuragi and Urakami’s relationship, Flower Stories, or Yoshiya’s work and life more generally, has sometimes been controversial. I think this is a wonderful question to raise and discuss in a classroom or elsewhere using the story itself, and no translator’s introduction can “answer” it. […] While the term “lesbian” or loan word “rezubian” were not used in these stories or by Yoshiya herself in her lifetime, they are used literally here in reference to Sappho from Lesbos. More broadly, the claim that “lesbian” does not apply in the Japanese context or the prewar Japanese context (both arguments are sometimes made) leans far too much toward cultural essentialism and the false sense that Japan was cut off from the rest of the world, including its varied discourses on sexuality. The impression given by “Yellow Rose” and its milieu is rather the opposite: a highly cosmopolitan girls’ culture, aware of Sappho as a figure available to express the desire of one girl for another. It is engaged in active exploration of the rich but incomplete solutions posed by the possibilities of western philosophy, emotional poetry, and travel to America as sources for different ways of thinking about the realities and aesthetics of women’s lifestyles, desires, and conceptions of love.

The words in bold are my own emphasis, because I’ve been waiting for someone to state that very point as clearly and succinctly as Frederick for years now. Yes Virginia, there are queer women in Japan! The next time anyone asks me whether we can really call portrayals of homosexuality in Japan “gay,” as if the Japanese archipelago were home to a bizarre alien society completely removed from the cultural currents flowing across the rest of the world, I am going to quote this passage word for word.

The main appeal of “Yellow Rose” and its introduction really isn’t in any sort of political statement, however. Instead, the reader is invited to enter a sparkling, rose-colored world of radiant young women, their pure yet dangerous emotions, and the tragic pressures of a bygone era that prevent them from expressing their truest selves. As Frederick explains in her introduction, there is no better place to go looking for the roots of shōjo manga and literature. The translation itself expertly captures the language and cadences of the girls’ literature of writers such as Frances Hodsgon and Louisa May Alcott (whose work Yoshiya was almost certainly familiar with), so even the English feels pleasantly nostalgic. I therefore recommend “Yellow Rose” not only to serious academic types and hardcore shōjo fans but to even the casually curious. Within the short span of a train or subway ride, you can be transported into a glittering space removed – but never too removed – from the grittiness of the mundane. It’s quite an experience!

Yellow Rose is currently available exclusively as a digital text, and it can be purchased on Amazon’s Kindle store. It will also soon be available directly from the website of its publisher, Expanded Editions, a shiny new operation with two translations of vintage Japanese science fiction ready to download. Even if you’re not interested in Yellow Rose, be sure to check out Expanded Editions, which has done a fantastic job with its digital texts.

The manageable length and impeccable scholarship of Yellow Rose recommend it for classroom use. For educators hoping to incorporate the text into a printed or PDF course pack, Expanded Editions offers educational sales and will work directly with campus bookstores to make the material available to students. More information can be found on the relevant section of the publisher’s webpage.

Review copy provided by Expanded Editions.

Twinkle Twinkle

twinkle-twinkle

Title: Twinkle Twinkle
Japanese Title: きらきらひかる
Author: Ekuni Kaori (江国香織)
Translator: Emi Shimokawa
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1991 (Japan)
Pages: 171

About thirty pages into Twinkle Twinkle, I thought to myself, “Are all contemporary Japanese books written by women this depressing?” It’s an interesting literary trend. In America, writers like Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, 2005) and Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees, 2004) craft literary paeans to female sisterhood, hope, and endurance, while contemporary Japanese female authors seem to be losing the struggle to gaman, or to deal with the hardships presented to them by Japanese society until they are able to claim some immaterial reward in the far-off future. In short, the new breed of Japanese women writers seems to be cracking under the strain of contemporary Japanese society, which has been slow to acknowledge new gender roles, even as the economic structures that have supported these gender roles have crumbled. Ekuni Kaori’s novel Twinkle Twinkle perspicuously demonstrates the effects of this societal paradox.

Twinkle Twinkle follows the fortunes of the newlywed couple Shoko and Mutsuki. Mutsuki is gay and quite in love with his boyfriend. Shoko is highly emotionally unstable and is quite open about the fact that she doesn’t want to be in a romantic relationship with anyone. Although the pair lives together, and although they are quite affectionate towards one another, their marriage is nothing more than a legal convenience. In fact, the only reason they agreed to marry in the first place was to escape from the pressure imposed upon them by their parents. Through the first months of their married life, Shoko and Mutsuki make friends and lose friends, battle their respective families, and learn how to live with one another in the strange situation they’ve created.

Because Shoko and Mutsuki take turns narrating the chapters, the reader is able to gain a very interesting perspective into their relationship and their individual personalities. I found myself becoming frustrated with the characters and sympathizing with them in turn. Mutsuki is kind, but passive and somewhat clueless. Shoko displays the classic symptoms of borderline personality disorder, which occasionally devolves into depression and alcoholism, but she is honest, true to her herself, and genuinely means well in her interactions with others. Both of the two main characters, as well as the cast of supporting characters, are expertly realized, and I felt that I came to know them quite well over the course of the novel, as if perhaps they were friends of mine in real life.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Yes, the characters occasionally have fun and enjoy each other’s company, but the challenges they face are quite real, extremely frustrating, and never entirely resolved. Although the novel has something of a happy ending, I found myself fearing for the fate Shoko and Mutsuki several years down the road. Also, I found it hard to accept Shoko’s extreme behavior at times, and the all too accurate portray of her emotional instability was difficult to deal with. The hardheadedness of her traditional Japanese parents was even worse.

Overall, though, I think Twinkle Twinkle provides a welcome antidote to the bubblegum fluff of shōjo manga, “light novels,” and the works of novelists like Yoshimoto Banana. Don’t let the bright cover of this book fool you – Ekuni’s novel contains more insight into the dark side of contemporary Japanese society than you may find comfortable.