Yuri 101 | Birth of a Genre, Birth of a Nation

In 1853, Commodore Perry’s fleet of “black ships” reached Japan, demanding the end of the country’s Sakoku policy and the opening of ports. 15 years later, recognizing the need to shore up the state’s power lest the archipelago fall like to Western forces like the rest of Asia, the shogunate fell, and the Emperor’s power was restored after nearly a millennium. In this restoration, the capitalist class established itself its reign as the nation’s vanguard, subjugating the old nobility. It was the dawn of a new nation. On January 12, 1896, the 29th year of the Meiji era, Yoshiya Nobuko, godmother of yuri, was born to a petit-bourgeois family of samurai-descended bureaucrats. She would become one of the most well-known Japanese authors of the 20th century. It was the dawn of a new genre.

Yoshiya was not born into a time of peace and democracy, but one of war and authoritarianism. Beginning in 1876, the nation had worked towards the conquest of Korea, with the 1895 Sino-Japanese War shifting the peninsula from China’s sphere of influence to Japan’s. By 1905, it was officially a Japanese protectorate, and from 1910, the country was an outright colony. Simultaneously, the Japanese state made it clear to the Western powers that they would sign no “unequal treaties”, thoroughly defeating Tsarist Russia in 1904 and 1905. The Empire of Japan was not simply a vestigial title, an attempt to place their ruler on the same tier as China’s: it quickly grew to become the foremost power in Asia, with the success of the Meiji Restoration fueling said growth.

Eager to impress the Western hegemons at all steps, the Restoration was followed by a swift modernization process. Industrialization moved forward and education was on the agenda, as the need for an intelligent and hard-working populace grew. Starting in 1912, the Taisho era brought with it liberalization and democracy, though only for those deemed Japanese citizens. At the same time came a growth in the left, from communism to feminism, though authorities were never fond of these groups. As part of the state modernization effort, Western scientific ideas were imported and adapted. It’s in this context that sexology arrived, growing in prominence towards the beginning of the 20th century as a means for understanding how populations—the unit or category that the bourgeois state is most concerned with—relate to sex and gender in a scientific manner. Combined with the growth of education, particularly Christian-led secondary schooling, came a specific combination: adolescent girls began to spend all of their time with one another, often in city dorms away from their hometowns, and this became a fertile ground for a new movement to emerge: Class S.

Defining Class S can be tricky and it’s important to start by looking at what made it possible. First, there is a history of same-sex platonic romance all around the world in the time leading up to it and concurrent with it. From America, to Germany, to China, spaces navigated primarily by one gender created room for desires not ordinarily allowed to be expressed, whether that was in military barracks or school dorms. Sexologists of the time tended to accept these behaviors, with a caveat. Same-sex action was essentially training, a way to prepare for “proper” opposite-sex marriage in the future. In many ways, it was encouraged; there was much fear at the time of sexual relations outside of wedlock, especially when it came to young girls, and so these ‘S’ relationships were seen as positively beneficial by comparison, at least in the aggregate, though the fear remained present of their becoming carnal.

What, then does the S in the name mean? No one can really say, but there are many hypotheses, all of which make some degree of sense. Some say it’s sister, referring to the archetypical onee-sama and imouto relationships that characterize so much of the experience. Others say it’s for sex itself, representing the fact that it focused exclusively on girls and young women. More radical scholars of the movement often claim it stands for escape, presenting it as a flight from marriage, if a temporary one. Most interesting, though, is the theory that it stands for shoujo, a word whose implications are often missed in general discussions. While it’s typically translated as girl and does mean that, the shoujo as such is a category which did not appear until the modernization of the country, a new stage of life between childhood and marriage that arose in this new bourgeois society. The shoujo is a dangerous beast, assigned the blame as women often are for any perceived ills in society, and their utmost representation in the early 20th century, the so-called “modern girl”, was equally fetishized and reviled. In Jennifer Robertson’s words, the shoujo is a “not-quite ‘female’ female” and as a result, it was a category marked for specific disciplinary action, fundamentally deviant in its very existence. Class S, insofar as it was accepted, was seen as one of many ways to tame this shoujo-ness, a method of providing girls a healthy place to explore themselves and spend their time on the way to marriage, cutting off more dangerous pursuits such as finding a boyfriend or even sex work. According to one study, as many as 80% of schoolgirls experienced an S relationship as of 1911; a number which makes it clear that these were not necessarily homosexual in a modern sense, while also showing the ways in which shifting discourses can allow for possibilities in the sexual realm that we can hardly imagine right now; it’d be world-shattering if a contemporary survey reported similar figures for same-sex experiences.

Yoshiya Nobuko herself was just one such modern girl, wearing her hair in the oh-so-scary Western bob, preferring more masculine clothing, and avoiding marriage at all costs. But how, then, did she become so popular? It all comes back to the social context. In the late Meiji and Taisho Periods, magazines targeted towards the growing number of educated girls popped up, publishing stories and columns that were often written by their cohorts. Incredibly talented, Yoshiya was a regular writer in these by the age of 12, and her career only took off from there, until she was publishing her famous Hana Monogatari or Flower Stories series by the age of 20. These stories were usually focused on the relationships between young girls, decorated in Yoshiya’s characteristic hyper-flowery, almost narcissistic style. Tapping into the feelings she and many like her had experienced, her works were immediately popular, playing a defining role in the Class S movement and genre which many other writers contributed to as well.

But, of course, Class S was not something accessible to everyone. Even by 1920, very few girls in the nation went on to higher education; it was only those in the middle and upper classes who could afford the cost and loss of income of sending their daughters away to boarding schools. The millions of factory and farm girls certainly read shoujo magazines at the time and especially in the factory dorms there are trace accounts of same-sex relations, but the Class S movement as such was something which distinctly barred the working masses, with the shoujo itself being a bourgeois entity, something working girls didn’t have time for.

The result of this is a genre with one primary stake: marriage. In most Class S stories, especially the more romantic ones, the threat of being wedded away is the primary driver of plot complication. In her famous 1923 story, Yellow Rose(translated into English by Sarah Frederick), Yoshiya portrays the relationship between a student and a teacher, one which is explicitly romantic. Using the typography she was famous for such as dots and dashes to hide the explicit material heavily implied to occur and invoking such famous sapphic figures as Sappho herself, the story ends with the student’s parents growing concerned and marrying her off, forcing the teacher to move to America. As many of her stories go, this is a relatively happy ending: nobody even dies. Marriage was a necessity to most women of this time, and while working girls had other things to worry about, for schoolgirls it was the sole albatross hanging around their necks.

That said, Yoshiya was not always happy being constrained to these standards. In 1919, she published Yaneura no Nishojo, or Two Virgins in the Attic, telling the story of a pair of girls on the cusp of adulthood living in the attic of a Young Women’s Christian Association dorm. As in many of her stories, they create a strong connection through flowery language, with scenes such as that of a shared piano performance resonating a century forward. Yet the reason it’s most clearly remembered is its conclusion: the two girls eventually leave the dorm, together, with the aim of building a relationship and working lives in the outside world. Make no mistake: this is a radical statement for its era, in spite of the tepid class politics it almost necessarily espouses. Using the trappings of the genre she was working within, Yoshiya was able to communicate a deep, even physical connection between two women in a way which could be sold to the very girls it aimed to encourage. It is, perhaps, the first lesbian novel ever published with a happy ending, decades before the Anglosphere got such a thing.

In spite of Two Virgins’ publishing, however, other shoujo works continued to propagate marriage and heterosexual love. Of course, it’s important not to over-focus on Yoshiya as the sole defender of lesbianism in shoujo magazines, as her power in the form of wealth and fame have kept her books in circulation, and we can’t forget the many other girls writing about their experiences in the popular magazines which are a century out of print. Still, dissatisfied with the state of the shoujo stories genre, she started a personal magazine, Black Rose. While technically disconnected from her Flower Stories, the title clearly signifies it as a darker take on the topics pursued in that anthology, targeted at a slightly older audience. Unlike her other works, its main story explicitly deals with the “abnormality” of loving those of the same-gender, not shying away from the difficulties of doing so and painting it as a purely happy period bound to be cut short, or even portraying the optimism of Two Virgins. The story, in spite of using the word “abnormality”, claims that those who feel this way should be allowed to do so; it’s used quite as we use queer in current discourse. Still, it ends in a less-than-happy way, with the rape and death of the main character’s girlfriend and her chastisement by God Himself; life simply did not work out for those interested in pursuing these relationships past the shoujo boundary.

That said, the publishing of Black Rose was accompanied by a major event in Yoshiya’s life: the beginning of her relationship with one Monma Chiyo. A schoolteacher, the two of them quickly fell in love and established a working relationship. While she hardly boasted about it, the media was well aware of this, as Yoshiya was uncommonly open to the press about her life. Their relationship would ultimately last all the way to Yoshiya’s death, with the woman adopting Monma as her daughter eventually, as doing so was the only method available for treating them as proper members of a family. As a result of the independence she was able to build due to her fame, Yoshiya was able to live out the happy future she wished for in Two Virgins, avoiding the fate of Black Rose’s main character as few other women could, escaping the accepted nature of Class S into the far more taboo realm of lifelong same-sex relations.

Of course, Class S had never been accepted uncritically by those who shaped the country’s politics; after all, anything relating to the shoujo was dangerous. In 1911, two schoolgirls recognized the fact that graduation would mean a separation of their love by the scourge of marriage, and committed double suicide. While lover’s suicide has a long history in Japan, it was recognized at this point that, if not kept careful track of, Class S relationships, initially envisioned as pure, could themselves become the harmful same-sex relations which threatened to destroy the nation’s girls. The movement only became larger as time went on, but this growth was met with increasing suspicion, especially as the Takarazuka Revue became a target of derision, a topic which will be discussed in the next episode. Lover’s suicides only continued to occur, and unwilling to shift society in such a way that they would no longer be necessary, Class S was blamed. It was certainly true that what they called “genuine” homosexual relationships emerged from the so-called “pure” ones; their issue, of course, was in analyzing this as a problem. The discourse had shifted, and the nation was less and less sure that Class S was a net positive force. It’s hard to say exactly why Yoshiya shifted away from the incredibly romantic highs of Flower Stories, Yaneura no Nishojo, and Black Rose, but it’s in this context of increasing resistance to the movement that she did so.

From here, she began writing more “normal” stories. Close relationships between girls and women were still the norm, but unlike in the past, these characters would often have boyfriends or husbands. Still, she made sure to minimize the importance of marriage; the women’s husbands were often awful, and even when they weren’t, female-to-female connection was always emphasized as more important, both between sisters and between friends. With the dynamics in the country changing, she was forced to adapt her writing, and it’s hard to know what she thought of that. All we can definitively say is that she grew even more successful as her writing shifted towards adult women, rocketting her to a place as one of the most popular writers in the country.

Things would not stay stable forever, though. In 1926, the Taisho emperor died, bringing in the Showa era, and with it an end to the liberalization and relative democracy which had prevailed for 14 years. Militarization ramped up massively, and by 1932, Manchuria had fallen to the Japanese army. Amid this climate, Class S simply became too dangerous a trend to allow, with its “feminine and weak” qualities and its ability to corrupt young girls, and as a result it was banned by the increasingly censorious state. Until the war ended, Yoshiya herself, like many artists at the time, accepted some degree of complicity within the empire, writing stories that were set in the colonies, part of the nation’s attempt to patriate its other holdings with the ethnically Japanese. Unfortunately, this portion of her career can’t be ignored; she was hardly an oddity in doing so, but she certainly could have done more to avoid helping the imperial machine given her wealth.

This, ultimately, ties back to the modernization of Japan. The shoujo itself is a fabrication of bourgeois developmental and sexual discourses, a stage that had not existed prior to that class’s rule and may well cease to exist after it. The very existence of the shoujo, its very right to express itself in the ways it saw fit, was simultaneously dependent on the industrialized Japanese state and its imperial ambitions while also necessarily harmful and opposed to that very state. It was only natural, then, that Yoshiya would help create propagandistic works; she couldn’t do otherwise and still claim to be a proper writer of shoujo culture as such. Her works contained an ambiguity in their position towards empire, as Class S could not properly exist within it, but it could not repudiate it either. It was a bourgeois movement through-and-through, no matter how many working class and peasant girls may have tried to take its ideas to heart, and the Japanese bourgeoisie could not but serve the Empire of Japan. It’s only a shame that a movement so radical in many ways would eventually serve such reactionary ends.

But Class S, especially Yoshiya’s role in it, is only half the story of yuri’s pre-war roots. No movement ever comes from one person and Yoshiya was simply the one who rose to prominence in a context that was bound to elevate someone, and for all her faults she did a good job in a necessary role. Still, to get a full picture, we’ll have to spend some time on the Takarazuka Revue, a story which is no less implicated in the horrific build-up of the Japanese nation, and perhaps even moreso. But for that, you’ll have to wait for the next episode. Remember to support me on patreon like these nice people if you want to see it: [Read names]. Check where else I’m at in the description, and I’ll see you next time.

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