Robertson, Jennifer. 1999. "Dying to Tell: Sexuality and Suicide in Imperial Japan" in Signs vol. 25, no. 1 1-35.
When I was originally sorting out the current crop of journal articles into thematic groups for scheduling purposes, I’d put this one (like last week’s) into a “tragedy and crime” group. But in each case, once I started reading, I realized that those aspects were the smallest part of the thematic content. My planned “tragedy and crime” grouping has evaporated, while the “non-European topics” group has benefitted. I feel like that isn’t entirely coincidental. There’s a message in there somewhere about the intersection of sexual, social, and cultural othering. Maybe about how we are most likely to hear about marginalized identities when the people behave in what are considered antisocial ways? Or that no matter what marginalized people do, they are only considered worthy of note if they can be framed as antisocial? Or that we are most likely to have access to information about marginalized people in non-Western cultures when their own cultures consider them to stand outside normativity? Or just perhaps, it was my own knee-jerk stereotypes that interpreted suicide as falling within a tragedy/crime theme rather than a “culturally significant behaviors” theme? In any case, the present article wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
[Note: I was a bit concerned when I started reading about an author with a non-Japanese name tackling a subject as culturally fraught as suicide in Japan. But my impression is that Robertson is aware of those hazards, and the variety of resources listed in the bibliography gives me confidence that this isn’t a drive-by lookie-loo approach. In fact, she starts off by quoting another author stating, “To mention suicide and Japan in the same sentence is to bring to bear a set of stereotypes that continue to shape Western perceptions of non-Western culture.” At the very least, there’s a self-awareness of the pitfalls.]
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The article is centered around a relationship between two women in Japan who planned a double suicide to address what seemed like unresolvable problems in their lives. Both survived the suicide attempt and appear to have continued their relationship more successfully afterward. This study also focuses on the various popular culture and media responses to the suicide attempt, to “love suicides” in general, and to the question of women’s same-sex relationships in Japanese culture.
The article opens with a number of satirical and mocking commentaries on the women’s suicide attempt, illustrating the deep and complex cultural context for the event, and then moves on to the cultural and historical context of 1930s Japan and how it contextualizes the event.
Early 20th century Japan was in the midst of a cultural crisis around positive and negative attitudes to, and effects of, Westernization. One way in which those conflicts were balanced was to gender Westernization as belonging to men, while women were assigned the role of maintaining traditional culture. Thus the same issues prevalent in the West around the “New Woman” (emancipated, pushing for full citizenship and voting rights, rejecting or renegotiating marriage) were also overlaid in Japan with this burden of preserving traditional culture against the Westernization that men and the national economy were embracing.
Saijo Eriko was a performer in an all-female revue company, taking “feminine” roles in the context of theatrical presentations where women played both the male and female roles. Masuda Yasumare (her chosen name) was from an upper class family and sported male-coded clothing and hair styles. Masuda initially began courting Saijo as a “fan” of her performance and this moved on to a romantic relationship.
We digress now for a lot of cultural background.
Double suicides of heterosexual couples were an accepted motif, inspired not only by Japanese attitudes toward suicide as a form of social protest but also by a culture of arranged marriages and generational obedience. If marriage was impossible, then suicide together was viewed as the ultimate proof of love. Female couples, however, were not granted the same acceptance or praise for such a choice. In the Saijo/Masuda suicide, Masuda was portrayed as being the casualty of a broken and disfunctional family, and Saijo as the victim of an overzealous fan obsession on the part of Masuda.
Robertson provides a detailed background on intersections of gender and sexuality in Japanese culture, including both traditional Japanese, and borrowed Western, terminology for different types of identities and relationships. [Note: I’m not going to list the terminology here because individual terms should be understood within a much more complex web of social nuances that it’s possible to explore here. But this article looks like a rich source of leads for understanding coded language as well as those with more literal use. For those who are interested, a fairly simple vocabulary list drawn from this article is available on Patreon.] There was a recognition that gender and sex were linked but separate axes, but reactions to those who crossed gender lines varied depending on context and sex.
Among the social changes with the shift to the Meiji era (1868-1911) and later was a developing understanding and vocabulary for women’s same-sex relations, which were considered distinct from men’s same-sex relations for which there was a longer history of acceptance. With the introduction Western sexological ideas, there was conflict over how those might be interpreted with respect to the long tradition of male-only theater in which men played women’s parts.
As it fell out, those were “grandfathered” as part of Japanese traditional culture, while the growing visibility of women’s same-sex relations and “masculinized” modern-leaning women were viewed as the embodiment of destabilizing Western depravity. “Traditional Japanese womanhood” was in the process of being invented as part of the stabilization of Japanese national identity, and these women represented the most extreme rejection of what was considered women’s proper role. Gender ambivalence was discouraged on a state level and increasing militarization also pushed for a distinct separation of gender roles. Women were the primary targets of this gender-policing.
Within this context, Western and European cultural influences were framed as “feminizing” in a negative sense (i.e., in their influence on men) even as the “feminine” was equated with positive aspects of Japanese tradition.
Robertson now turns to a discussion of the place of suicide, and especially double suicides, within Japanese culture. Within the context of relationship-driven male-female double suicides (which were considered noble and admirable--as a vast oversimplification), for female couples to enact “love suicides” was seen as a “public claim for sexual citizenship”. It was in this context that such actions were sensationalized and mocked, as a rejection of that claim.
There is a detailed exploration of the history, context, and dynamics of “love suicide” as well as other multi-person suicide pacts. General cultural anxieties in the 1930s are a possible driver for a general increase in both solitary and paired suicides in Japan, and the prominence of female couples engaging in “love suicide” is to some extent only a special case of the general trend.
We return now to the specific case of Saijo and Masuda. The press treated Saijo more leniently, not only because she was the “female-presenting” member of the couple, but because, as a professional entertainer, there were lower expectations for her sexual behavior. Masuda, in contrast, not only was viewed as more transgressive and threatening as the “masculine-presenting” member, but was blamed for breaking the social rules for an upper class woman, whose assigned role was the be a traditional “good wife and mother.”
Their initial courtship in the context of Saijo’s theater performances gave rise to a passionate correspondence, and then to traveling together as a way of spending time alone and enjoying a sexual relationship. When Saijo pressed to return home, Masuda became increasingly anxious and shared the story of her unhappy family life. Saijo became ill, which concluded the struggle between then, but on returning to Tokyo, Masuda began discussing suicide, initially as an individual intention.
Meanwhile, Masuda’s mother had hired an investigator to find them, viewing Saijo as a gold-digging instigator of the relationship, and this along with public interest in Saijo as an entertainment figure brought the attention of the press.
Their families separated them, but they arranged by phone to meet at a hotel and there (as is indicated the resulting events) took sleeping pills together to attempt suicide. Masuda left several suicide notes for various parties (as was typical for love-suicide events). It appears to have been the intrusive interest of the press that interrupted the attempt and brought medical help.
In the aftermath, Saijo wrote a personal (and somewhat self-serving) account of the relationship and suicide that disavowed romantic investment on her part--she was “just looking after her friend”--although it’s clear that she also took the sleeping pills. And once the dust had settled, Saijo negotiated with Masuda’s family to allow her to set up an independent household (as if she were a man). Saijo left the live revue to become a film actress and continued with a successful (but lower profile?) career. [Note: the article is unclear on whether they continued as a couple. Saijo vows to “keep a close watch” on Masuda, which could imply cover for a continuing romance.]
Robertson discusses Japanese familiarity with, and use of Western sexological literature. As in Western interpretations, it was not the fact of a relationship between women that was seen as problematic, but the usurpation of a masculine social role by one of the women, or the way in which such a relationship might interfere with expectations for marriage. Relationships between feminine-presenting women that were considered transitory or life-stage were not treated as deviant. But also, in Japanese engagement with sexological studies, there seems to have been a certain intentional overlooking of practices that were felt to be at odds with the image Japan wanted to project. When Japanese researchers claimed not to be aware of any female homosexuals, they may have been classifying familiar practices in ways that avoided that category.
Robertson presents a survey of other well-documented cases of female “love suicides” in the early 20th century, showing a variety of backgrounds and interpersonal dynamics. In one case, one suicide survivor published an autobiographical account that not only pushed back against the sensational versions of her story that had appeared in the press, but argued for the validity of women forming independent households together, and against the tendency to assign a “man’s role” to one participant. Robertson comments on how the “cultural intelligibility” of suicide in Japanese culture created an effective means to make such arguments as part of public discourse.