Ambivalent Female Bodies:

A Place for Feminine War Memory in Japan

Kaori Yoshida, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University [About | Email]

Volume 22, Issue 1 (Article 2 in 2022). First published in ejcjs on 17 April 2022.


Collective memories of previous wars, being controversial, are constantly (re)shaped significantly through various media. Many studies have criticised postwar Japanese war-themed fiction for its gendered narratives intended to satisfy the national masculine desire. However, since these studies tend to look at female representations in a dichotomous framework, assuming the existence of male counterparts, they often fail to investigate the potential representations of women in (geopolitical) peripheries within the country, such as Okinawa and Hokkaido. This article demonstrates how Japanese popular war fiction represents peripheral women in Japan, who, through their abject bodies, become the subject of transmitting their narratives of their own bodily experience of WWII to reconfigure memories in postwar Japan.

Keywords: Japan’s collective war memories, war memories and popular media, gendered war narratives, women’s war narratives, the abject body and écriture féminine

Introduction: background of the study

Women’s general silence about the war may be explained by the absence,
historically, of a war discourse featuring women’s voices. Chronicles of war
are predominantly written by men about the ideas, battlefield strategies,
and actions of male soldiers; women do not generally appear in war's accounts.
Where they are included, women exist as part of the landscape of war—not
subjects but, rather, the objects of discourse. — Linda Angst [1]

The concept of collective war memory, associated with national identities, has been ever controversial, as the term itself implies the view of a nation’s (or any group’s) war experience as singular, neglecting differences within. Many scholars have pointed out the variety and changeability of collective memories in dynamic social contexts (Olick & Robbins 1998, Halbwachs 1992, Nora 1989). Certainly, memories are not only the information of past events stored in one’s brain, but the process or the act and practice of remembering in specific social conditions. In this regard, Halbwachs (1992) states that “the collective memory endures and draws strength from its base in a coherent body of people, it is individuals as group members who remember” (p. 84), emphasising the interrelation between the social and the individual, or the social aspect of individual memories.

Halbwachs (1992) goes on to argue that memories reach social actors only through written and other types of records, such as photography, and are kept alive through commemorations and festive enactment. [2] That is, individuals do not remember the events directly, and events can only be stimulated in indirect ways through reading or listening or through commemoration and festive occasions when people get together to remember in common. Past wars are constantly re-memorialised or (re)shaped by means of various media that construct a shared past (Olick, Vitnitzky-Sroussi, & Levy 2011, Huyssen 2011, Erll 2010, Hughes-Warrington 2006; Landy 2001; Rosenstone 1988).

Memories of WWII in Japan, just like many other countries, are diverse (Fretwell 2016, Dower 2012, Seaton 2007). Some memories are continually dominant, and others are marginalised and hardly integrated into the public discourse.[3]  The construction of collective war memories at a national level implies a significant involvement of power dynamics in its process, operated largely concerning gender, racial, or (post) colonial politics. Gendering of war narratives through media, particularly, feminisation of war narratives through war-themed fiction, is prevalent and effective in postwar Japan. Many critics have argued that these fictions typecast helpless civilians (typically women and children) as suffering victims, juxtaposed to the enemy’s aggressive attacks and bombings that signify a masculine attribute. The salient manifestation of the masculine and feminine prompts the endorsement of a national memory that fosters victim consciousness. These studies criticise gendered narratives for denying the subjectivity of women and the space for them to represent their own war experience. Instead, these gendered war narratives favoured the masculine national desire, by highlighting the representation of women suffering, or nursing and caring for (future) soldiers, while men were fighting for the nation on the battlefield (Napier 2005, Mizuno 2007, Wakakuwa 2004).

However, these studies fail to investigate differences within women’s war memories in Japan; they fail to distinguish the representations of “Other” women or women in peripheries and their war experiences, from women living in the core islands of the Japanese archipelago. Philip Seaton (2007b) points to complexities of the victim and assailant positions in composing Japan’s memories of WWII, introducing the example of Korean comfort women working to serve Korean men who worked as forced laborers in Hokkaido’s mines.[4] This hints at the significance of (post)colonial dynamics in Japan, and suggests complexities or layers in representations of feminisation and victimhood in war media, which are entangled with national identity politics in postwar Japan. Examining these multiple layers also bring to light different and hierarchal representations among Japanese women and their bodies in the core islands of the Japan and peripheries. The composers of the typical representation of “women as victims,” barely ask, “Who are these women? or are there different positions among of women?” Consequently, they do not go far enough to investigate the representation of “other” women in media texts to explore the (im)possibility of their subjectivity to narrate and participate in the process of Japan’s remembering of the war.

Based on these observations, this study aims to pursue the following two lines of inquiry: 1) how are women of different geopolitical positions within Japan represented similarly or differently in postwar popular war fiction, and how would these representations challenge the monolithic discourse of the national memory of WWII, and 2) how do narratives and the act of narrating the war manifested by “Other” women communicate the subjectivity of women in ways that count, particularly looking at peripheral women, being different yet an essential part of the mainstream (the core islands of Japan) women and of the national body. For this purpose, this article will examine the television drama Kiri no hi [Fire of the Fog] (2008), having as its theme the Soviet Union’s military action on Sakhalin, in comparison to the original version of Kiri no hi, the film Hyosetsu no mon [Gate of Ice and Snow] (1974), in the framework of Julia Kristeva’s (1982) “abject,” as well as Hélène Cixous’ (1976) concept of “écriture feminine” or women’s language distinguished from its masculine counterpart for memorialisation. It attempts to interpret the peripheral female body narrating, as a potentially subversive medium of communication and negotiation as to the shared national memories, while destabilising the dominant national narrative based on masculine desire.

Stylisation of gendered war narratives through popular media in postwar Japan

As Joane Nagel (1998) contends, the nation state is essentially a masculine institution. Many scholars have pointed out that war is a manifestation of masculine national identity and nationalist politics.[5]  Certainly, “men are not the only propagators of such [belligerent] masculinities”: women can perform them, too.[6] That is, war narratives composed, represented, and disseminated through popular media, operate in favour of the masculine national desire. Recurring manifestations of the typical gender roles in war narratives of popular media are often regarded as “hypergendered,” [7]  in which men fight bravely on the battlefield for the righteous cause of protecting their women and their motherland, while women play the rather passive role as “beautiful souls” (Elshtain 1987, xiv) caring for and nurturing (future) soldiers on the home-front. [8]  Likewise, Cynthia Enloe (1993) also suggests that gendered roles in war narratives are crafted as part of the “gendered working of power.” [9] This fictional world constituted by the narratives, rather than merely offering entertainment, shapes the discourse of war consistent with the gender dichotomy, [10] which may contribute to forming gendered national identity.

Japanese popular media themed on WWII are a case in point, as one of the main contributors to gendering the national war narratives. Additionally, Ichiki Masashi (2011) asserts that the atomic bomb pacifist narrative composed by Japanese visual media significantly contributed to shaping social perception of the war. Gendered war narratives, underpinned by the dichotomy of hegemonic masculine and feminine gender roles, have been perpetuated largely through films and other visual media in postwar Japan (Mizuno 2007, Seaton 2007, Wakakuwa 2004, Yoshida 2019). Those war narratives in war-themed media texts have highlighted the view of Japan as a victim suffering from atomic bomb atrocities by means of female (and child) characters, which function to feminise war narratives and memories collectively shared (by individuals in the society) in postwar Japan. [11]  A review of the literature of war-themed media texts both in Japan and other countries demonstrates that female representations in these media texts, taking a feminist perspective, have tended to focus on the “otherness” of female representation.

Epitomising and idealising of Japan’s periphery: Doubly “othered” women

Having acknowledged the issue of gendered representations typically catering to the masculine national desire, it is important not to fixate on the masculine/feminine framework of narratives constituted in media (fictional) texts, but to make a closer analysis of those media texts and examine female (and male) characters beyond the monolithic view of gender representations. Many studies on gendered narrative in postwar Japanese popular media have failed to discuss the significance of different war experiences among women from different socio-political positions in the country.

Representation of Okinawan women as the feminised and subjected “other”

    As girls from the upper classes of Okinawan society, the Himeyuri students
represented the most fully assimilated patriotic element of wartime Okinawa:
the state's newest "good subjects" were idealistic female students whose days
were devoted to learning the ways of the metropole. Yet, simultaneously,
Himeyuri represent the furthest possibility from political subjectivity. [12]

… it is precisely as young virginal female students that the Himeyuri
signify not women as such but rather a place prior to that of womanhood
and, hence, an unproblematically apolitical—because premature—locale. [13]

The process of coming to terms with the defeat of WWII, accompanying de-militarisation and pacification, which foregrounded the emasculated or feminised image of the country, is rather complex in Japan; the view of the country as a victim, coexisting with the desire for (re)building a strong nation. In order to retain the trait of masculinity for the nation, Japan exercised the symbolic feminisation of its own peripheries—primarily Okinawa and Hokkaido. In this regard, McCormack and Norimatsu (2012) point out the Okinawans’ distress toward the ignorance of those who live in the core islands regarding who pays the price for the present peace.

This view is more pervasively manifested in Japanese anti-war films—portrayals of women as sufferers and men as tragic heroes, fighting to the death to protect them. Looking at female representations in media closely, however, it seems too simplistic, especially in the case of Japan, to argue that gender-specific roles of characters (re)inscribe the line between men/masculine/powerful/hero and women/feminine/supporting/heroine in war-themed Japanese media. [14]  It would be rather limiting to interpret media texts and their characters based on the gender binary, without questioning “Who are those women or men?” Instead, it is necessary to incorporate a postcolonial perspective into interpreting representations of female characters in war-themed fiction to complicate them, considering the diverse geopolitical positions of women within Japan—the core islands and peripheral.

The two citations in the beginning of this section from Linda Angst (1997), unpacking the image of the Himeyuri, which means lily in English, meticulously illustrate the interlink between gender (sexuality) and (post)coloniality involved in the position of peripheral Okinawa’s identity in relation to the core islands of Japan. According to her, “to the Japanese living in the core islands, Himeyuri has become the canonical narrative of Okinawan identity in the postwar era,” wherein “the socially peripheral becomes the symbolically central.” She hence regards Tokyo as “the cultural centre of the imagined community of modern Japan,” while the Himeyuri story acts as “the symbolic centre of Okinawan identity” (Angst 1997: 103; emphasised by the author). The phrase illuminates the symbolic hierarchy between the advanced/modern Japanese nation and pre-developed/pre-modern Okinawa, which is imagined to uphold the superiority of the former.  

Misonou’s (2009) study of Okinawan women as represented in different versions of the film Himeyuri no tō (The Tower of Lilies) (1953, 1968, 1982, 1995) takes a similar perspective to problematize the interlink of gendering and national identity. [15]  She argues that the Himeyuri nurses are doubly marginalised, as being women and Okinawans, both of which epitomise a place which may disturb Japan’s (masculine) national identity. She thus describes the Himeyuri as “naiteki tasha (the internal other)” (2009: 231).

Among various women’s experiences of the Battle of Okinawa, the virginal and pure image of the Himeyuri nursing troupe—the embodiment of ideal femininity in the national identity—has prevailed through the rhetoric of popular films and dramas. The popularity of the Himeyuri story in postwar Japan and the sympathy it evokes can be attributed to the virginal condition of those young women (Angst 1997). The image of the pure Himeyuri women diligently serving to the nation, with rhetoric that brings the viewer to the climax of their “honourable” death, has been a vital element not only to convey the misery of the war, but also for the Japanese to identify themselves with the victim. [16] This also represents how Okinawa and the Battle of Okinawa have been remembered, as a shared past among the postwar generations in and outside Japan. The “ideal” and tamed heroines of Okinawa are sacralised by death, keeping off from committing the dishonourable act of “contaminating” the Japanese imperial blood, while the death of other women in the periphery are likely to be forgotten in the process of popular memorialisation through various media.

Another social periphery, the internal other: Hokkaido’s war memories

Hokkaido is another Japanese periphery geographically and socially. Hokkaido’s experiences of WWII differ from those of the core islands of Japan, and are partly similar to those of Okinawa (Philip Seaton 2007a; 2007b). Accordingly people from Hokkaido and share a distinctive set of collective memories of the war, and these identities and memories interact with national memories.[17]  The USSR plays a prominent role in Hokkaido’s war memories, particularly in regard to experiences of the Soviet-Japanese War and the postwar campaigns to force Russia to return the Northern Territories. This is largely because many settlers from Manchuria and Sakhalin were repatriated to Hokkaido, including many who spent time in Soviet camps. (See Seaton 2007b). Unlike the extensive and ubiquitous representation of the Himeyuri in Okinawa, symbolising the cruelty of the war and virginal women dedicated to Japan constantly appearing in major mass media, war experiences in Hokkaido do not seem to have the same level of saturation in the national consciousness. In this sense, Hokkaido’s war narratives can be regarded as more marginalised and neglected in terms of visibility.

Based on these observations, the following question arises: What does it mean that the women who suffered from the war in Hokkaido have not been perceived as carrying the same degree of the “ideal femininity” as the Himeyuri story in popular media representations and narratives? This question will be discussed through the examination of selected fictional dramas. The examination focuses on how similarly or differently women in the battlefield in Hokkaido have been represented within particular narratives, and how we can interpret their representations.

“Himeyuri in the North” as abject bodies: ambivalent position within “other” women

Overviews of Kiri no hi (2008) and Hyosetsu no mon (1974)

This study examines the text of TV drama, Kiri no hi [Fire of the Fog] (2008), with reference to its original film Hyosetsu no mon [Gate of Ice and Snow] (1974),[18]  in comparison with the typical peripheral Okinawan women in Himeyuri no tō, focusing on the representation of the body of female protagonists. It also analyses the structure and content of the narratives of these fictional texts as a potential means of embodying and diversifying the manifestation of women’s experiences in collective remembering of the war in postwar Japan.

The drama, Kiri no hi, revolves around the female protagonist, Nakamura Mizue, one of the young female phone operators serving on the battlefield in Sakhalin, working to evacuate civilians from the Soviet invasion in the five days following the end of WWII in August 1945. As the title “Fire of the Fog” suggests, the story begins with a very foggy day in the summer of 2008, with the elderly Mizue in a nursing home, incoherent and screaming, having a flashback to the summer of 1945, when she was 15 years old, working as a phone operator for the nation. This persistent reappearance of her repressed war memory torments her with the guilt she feels toward her deceased operator teammates.

The story unfolds, going back and forth between past and present, as the elderly Mizue narrates her war experience to her grand-daughter, Aiko, who records Mizue’s war experience. The young Mizue is a patriotic, militaristic girl, who is very proud of her father who died in the war. After her father’s death, she, along with her mother and her younger sister, mobilise from Tokyo to Sakhalin, specifically Maoka Town, where for her family to survive her mother bonds with the former Communist Mr. Yamada, an unpatriotic merchant trading with USSR who refuses to join the army.[19]  What distinguishes the representation of Mizue most from that of the Himeyuri women is that she survives even after being raped by Russian soldiers on the battlefield.

It is worth noting that in the original film, Hyosetsu no mon (Ice and Snow Gate) (1974), unlike its TV drama remake Kiri no hi, the female operators kill themselves by deliberately taking cyanide they share to protect their virginity from Soviet soldiers. They all die; their death was presented as their own decision to dedicate themselves to the nation, as the subjects of the nation. This is a similar scenario to the Himeyuri plot as to the manifestation of their docile bodies in service for saving the face of the masculine nation.

Abject body in periphery, a woman in Sakhalin

In contrast to Hyosetsu no mon, in Kiri no hi, the female protagonist, along with other operators, is handed cyanide powder by the male director of the telephone office. Although all other female operators “successfully” kill themselves, Mizue fails to take it, ending up being raped by Russian soldiers. Despite the fact that both the Himeyuri nurses in Okinawa and Maoka Town operators in Sakhalin are located in Japan’s peripheries, the latter group of women are depicted with possessing a potential subversive force toward the dominant discourse. To interpret the function of the character of Mizue, an “other” woman in the periphery or a doubly othered body, Julia Kristeva’s “abject” (1982) is a useful concept, illustrating Mizue as one who “disturbs identity, system and order,” neglecting “boundaries, positions, rules.” [20]

The notion of “abject” is a social and psychological logic that conceptualizes the self/other separation. It also exposes the fact that the seemingly “unified” national identity of Japan always and already contains that which is opposed to the self/subject, or threatens it.[21]  At the same time, according to Kristeva (1982), the abject is never completely detached or expelled, invoking a sense of the foreign yet the familiar. In regard to this aspect of the abject, she states the following:

The skin of milk, for instance, puts one in mind of the thin skin membrane that defines the borders and the limits of the physical body; because human skin provides only a relatively flimsy and easily assaulted partition between the body’s inside and the world outside, this milky reminder disturbs our distinctions between outside and inside, I and other, moving us to retch, and want to vomit in an acute attempt to expel the scum from our being.[22]

Bill Hughes (2009) encapsulates Kristeva’s abject as “part of the subject, repressed, denied but lurking, hovering, whispering barely audibly from some liminal place…” [23]

It follows that the abject is a necessary part of the self; it is embraced to be marginalised or exploited symbolically. This view is reflected in Angst’s account of Japan’s peripheries, by which Himeyuri signifies “a particular means of placing Okinawa within postwar Japanese images of its ‘own’ marginals.” [24]  As social peripheries to Japan, both Okinawa and Hokkaido/Sakhalin, are marginalised, yet simultaneously included with the definition of Japan as a nation.

Kristeva (1982) highlights the liminality of the abject as well as its unignorable impact on established systems or taken-for-granted ideas and norms, by asserting that “[t]he abject is what disturbs, identity, system and order,” which “does not respect, boundaries, positions, rules: the inbetween, the ambiguous, the composite.” [25]  Furthermore, in the following statement she implies (un)intended consequences brought about by the subversive power of the abject (toward the nation):

The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule, or law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them. [26]

Based on these accounts, Samantha Pentony (1996), applying the concept to studying fairy tales and postcolonial novels, suggests that the border between the subject and the abject “is imaginary, and however we try to exclude the abject, it still exists. When we are forced into the world of the abject, our imaginary borders disintegrate and the abject becomes a tangible threat because our identity system and conception of order has been disrupted.” [27]  

The marginalised yet necessary body, Mizue as the abject, disturbs systems that construct the unified national identity, and which also hold up the unified memory of the war. Manifestations of her subversive body are observed in a couple of scenes in Kiri no hi; more specifically, in ways which undermine the order, dominant systems, or boundaries. Three “system breaking” scenes or elements illustrate how her abject body, displaying its liminal space, challenges Japan’s dominant national war narrative making.

Abjection ①: Mizue’s family lineage and evacuation to Sakhalin

The first element/trigger of making Mizue into the abject is her physical relocation to the periphery. Mizue’s family evacuates from Tokyo to Sakhalin outside the imaginary national boundary, where her mother leans on unpatriotic Mr. Yamada, a merchant, who acts as Mizue’s stepfather. Throughout the drama, he is depicted as living outside norms and rules, juxtaposed to Mizue, who is extremely patriotic and “disciplined” toward the nation. However, it should be noted that despite their constant conflicts, their fights are sometimes amusing rather than hate-filled and that Yamada recognises her intellect and abilities, while Mizue never completely hates him, having an ambivalent feeling toward this man who is tough and self-sufficient enough to support Mizue’s family. In fact, it is Yamada who consoles Mizue when she is raped by Soviet soldiers and encourages her to live.

Also, Mizue’s family lineage demonstrates the existence of matrilineal strength and resilience, which is uncommon in the dominant war-themed fictions wherein women die virgin, and it also suggests how she can be viewed as an epitome of the abject, or outside the norm, transgressing boundaries (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Mizue’s family lineage: a sign of her abjected body

This drama presents three strong female characters in different ways in each generation—the protagonist Nakamura Mizue, her mother Nakamura Kane, and Mizue’s granddaughter Inoue Aiko. Kane is a strong and perseverant mother; she does not hesitate to financially depend on a man after her husband’s death as to survive and raise her children in the war. Aiko, Mizue’s granddaughter, is on the one hand a typical young woman today, and unlike the previous generations of her great grandmother and grandmother, she, though caring, is direct and blatant and does not hesitate to say ‘no’ to what she does not like. She is even tough on her divorced parents, yet considerate enough to be interested in taking down Mizue’s war experience as the abject. Among them the protagonist Mizue is the most resilient and subversive in terms of both calamities that occurred to her and choices she made. Figure 1 demonstrates that Mizue’s survival in the war ensured the continuation of the female line in her family to her granddaughter Aiko, despite the fact that all related male figures—her father (and stepfather), her husband, her son—having passed away. It is also intriguing to see that Mizue’s body consistently interacts and is conflated with the socio-political “other,” including Japan’s colonial subjects, and symbolically transgresses the demarcated or controlled national identity formation: being raped by Soviet soldiers, being (mentally) saved by the outlaw stepfather, and giving birth to a (mixed pedigree) son with a Korean man. It is as if she survived to pass her story down to Aiko, a representative of women of the young generation.

Abjection ②: Mizue’s transgressive body talking

The second sign of Mizue’s abject body is observed in the very beginning of the drama. There is a very striking scene where elderly Mizue in a nursing home is screaming in emotional breakdown, traumatized by her war experience, having a flashback of the terrifying year of 1945 when she was 15 years old. She is constantly transgressing the boundary between past and present. Moreover, she is in no condition rationally to tell her experiences of the war. The viewers may never be certain whether her narrative derives from her delusion or hallucination: it may be a mad woman’s tale. However, whether it is or not, her narrative is put down in words by her granddaughter, Aiko. Muzue’s oral narrative while in an “abnormal” “irregular” condition is inscribed to reach and potentially be disseminated among following generations.

Abjection ③: Undermining rules/categories, becoming the ambivalent body

The third boundary crossed by Mizue as an abject can be observed in the breakdown of one of the popular conventions of war-themed fiction. Conventionally, the popular signification of a female protagonist in this genre is typically either the mother of a soldier, a nurse, or a suffering victim of a war-related disease, such as radiation poisoning. Women in the core islands, as well as Okinawa, are depicted as keeping the national body unified, and they are positioned in a place or in a way that does not disturb the unified national identity. That is why, often times popular war-themed fiction depicts women who kill themselves to avoid being raped by the enemy, or if women become affected or “abjected” by the atomic bomb, or diagnosed with radiation poisoning, they tend to die at the end of the story.

However, this is not the case with Mizue the protagonist of this drama. It is also important to point out that in one scene, her step-father Yamada tells her, “You were raped by Russians… Do not worry, it is far more important that you are alive here.” Given the dominant discourse, where the male figures usually stress the importance of protecting female virginity, it is rather noteworthy to see her father prioritise her abject body over her virginity. Moreover, after the war, Mizue gives birth to a baby through her Korean husband. Her body mobilises transgressively and in a free-floating manner. These manifestations hint at the powerlessness of Japanese males who are unable either to protect or to control the women of the nation. That is, male fear has come true; the abject woman breaks down national boundaries, becoming the agent of “contamination” of a “pure” nation by producing a mixed pedigree child, and retells her experience to the next generation.

 Parker et. al (1992), rightly pointing at the strategic aspect of archetypal female images in national discourse, assert that “[the] trope of the nation-as-woman of course depends on its representational efficacy on a particular image of woman as chaste, dutiful, daughterly or maternal.” [28] They then go on to state regarding different levels of access to the resources of the nation-state for men and women; “Their claims to nationhood frequently dependent upon marriage to a male citizen, women have been ‘subsumed only symbolically into the national body politic’.” [29]  Similarly, Angst contends that “women who signify purity are the only ones worthy of enshrinement in national memorials.” It follows that the Himeyuri women and young female phone operators in Sakhalin who only “successfully” kill themselves to stay “pure” unto death epitomise the ideal and docile body to the nation. If this is the case, Mizue’s abject body having merged with non-Japanese men—Russian soldiers who raped her and a Korean man with whom she has given birth to a child—not only annihilates Japan’s national desire to manifest itself masculine through the fictional narrative, but also casts question on the granted mechanism of re-constructing the national war memory, which, neglecting its complexity and diversity, centralizes the control in the core island of Japan.

The potential of “écriture féminine”: abject woman as the narrating subject

… writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve
as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a
transformation of social and cultural structures.— Hélène Cicous [30]

Mizue’s abject body can be also viewed as the agent of “écriture féminine”— woman’s language, which, according to Hélène Cixous, is practiced outside logos, rules, or regulations, challenging phallogocentrism as endorsed by masculine desire. This concept relates to the abject body here in quality. As Cixous describes the woman who voices her own language to the public, “[s]he doesn't ‘speak,’ she throws her trembling body forward; she lets go of herself, she flies; all of her passes into her voice, and it’s with her body that she vitally supports the ‘logic’ of her.” [31]  This view underlines the effect and significance of somatic or corporeal language, which is close to the body, and a pre-conscious language before logos or Lacan’s symbolic stage. Thus, “she physically materialises what she [is] thinking; she signifies it with her body,” which distinguishes her language from the male logocentric language. [32]  

These phrases explicate how Mizue’s abject body operates in the dominant discourse of war narrative articulation. The condition of elderly Mizue in a nursing home, as a user of language, is placed in opposition to logic and the rational. Mizue’s distinctive, if somewhat illogical, way of communicating her story resonates with Cixous’ push for women to write in their own terms, saying; “why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. I know why you haven’t written.… Because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it’s reserved for the great-that is, for great men”; and it’s “silly.” [33]  As Cixous suggests, Mizue, without any hesitation, sometimes in an antagonistic and emotional tone, keeps telling her war experience to Aiko, including private matters, such as details about her feelings toward her first love, Mr. Noda, a patriotic man, other female operators’ romances, and the intricate relationship between her mother, her stepfather and herself. Her narrative as conveyed to Aiko is often pushed forward with emotions; in particular, their conversations about Mr. Noda sometimes take the form of “girl’s talk” between women across two generations, with Aiko complaining of her parents’ divorce as well as her ex-boyfriend, as they share their feelings toward men in their lives.

With the combination of distinctive form and content of narrating, in tandem with Aiko, who transcribes her words, Mizue’s language constitutes écriture feminine, which destabilises the masculine national war memory of Japan. Her narrative is sometimes expressed through screaming, such as the opening scene, and with emotional outbursts. Her narrative is sometimes hardly chronological or orderly. Mizue talks in language coming directly from her body, without being processed first by her mind.

Mizue’s thriving act of narrating, exposing what would be otherwise considered to be shameful such as her survival after being raped by enemies and her “mixed pedigree” baby, and her narrative in dementia, embodies Cixous’ view: this woman’s body has been repressed, misrepresented, and distorted in phallocentric language, and a woman, who has no access to that language, has nothing to do with her own body which has been misrepresented in the male-centered linguistic code. As Tanimoto (1994) states, referring to Cixous’ strategy of écriture féminine, “woman’s body, sexuality, desire, autonomy, subjectivity - these things are thoroughly repressed in the phallocentric discourse.” [34]  The act of woman’s writing and corporeally expressing her experiences to the public in her own terms, without relying on the dominant logocentric rules, is the moment of her liberation coming true. [35]

“Her-history” passed down to her granddaughter: the narrative structure of Kiri no hi

Mizue successfully becomes the subject to tell an alternative history from the position of the abject to be documented and passed to the next generation. The drama skillfully makes it happen by using a particular narrative structure, a frame narrative, to create the condition that lets her inner stories be told. More importantly, the narrative is framed in such a way that it constructs a female-oriented memory-making space, where a woman passes a memory to her granddaughter. This allows the female protagonist, as the subject, to tell her own experience from her (abject) position, an alternative narrative, and make sure it is heard and handed over to following generations of women, as the framing narrative (outer-diegetic) is wrapped up with the completion of the documentation of her story. Kiri no hi demonstrates how the female characters, Mizue and Aiko, by means of narrative, create a female space, using the designated narrative format as well as the strategic use of the abject body. What they have accomplished can be illustrated again by the following remark by Cixous.

It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will confirm women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence. Women should break out of the snare of silence. They shouldn't be conned into accepting a domain which is the margin or the harem. [36]


It [a feminine practice of writing] will be conceived of only by subjects who are breakers of automatisms, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate.— Hélène Cixous [37]

The representation of the “other” women in Okinawa in the Himeyuri rhetoric does not reveal the problematics of doubly othered women in popular media, key players in collective remembering of the war. On a contrary, the abject female body manifested in Kiri no hi reveals the fragmented national identity that has been often glossed over in popular war narratives after the war catered to the masculine desire, by breaking the dominant rule of the female abject being expected to maintain chastity through death or die as a victim of a war-related sickness.

In the process of (re)forming the “proper” national body and identity of postwar Japan, coming to terms with the defeat, some women are epitomised as the bodies that are valued and prioritised over “other” women in the memorialisation of WWII. Japanese women predominantly in the core islands of Japan are manifested as the respected bodies, while female bodies in the peripheries haunt as the “abject” in media representations. While, as mentioned in the introduction, the feminised and victimised representation of women in the core islands of Japan and Okinawa in popular fiction has been criticised, previous studies have yet to adequately investigate peripheral women other than the “ideal” feminine bodies manifested in the Himeyuri nurses. “One prominent Himeyuri survivor… expressed her sense of ambivalence toward the Japanese state, T-san expressed not only her deep commitment to peace and against war—the official Himeyuri rhetoric—but could not help but indicate to me her anger at the Japanese prewar government for the sacrifices they asked of the Okinawan people.” [38]  While this kind of animosity in Okinawa, especially as an issue of the central-peripheral, has been known in the real world, Okinawan women in popular media, through which psychological desires are projected, have manifested themselves as the “model other” to the nation. This manifestation fails to recognise not only the difference between the Himeyuri and the rest of Okinawans, but also difference within Japan’s peripheries.

In contrast, this study has demonstrated a potential of the abject to influence the process of remembering WWII through the manifestation of a woman in Sakhalin, in terms of her body and her subversive narrative form and content. The representation of the subversive female bodies in Sakhalin—another peripheral group of women—greatly illuminates the particularity or unnaturalness of the Himeyuri representation even as an image of peripheral women. In the analysis of Mizue, her body is compromised yet negotiates through narrating and documenting her own war experiences from an abject position, which hinders the stabilisation of the dominant national war narrative and the national identity as the authoritative narrative of war memory in postwar Japan. The protagonist Mizue’s resilient abject body exposes the impossibility of maintaining the unified national war memory and the importance of local history for understanding broader Japanese war memories. Some war-themed fiction has exposed discrepancies in female war experiences within Japan; ones living in the core islands are sacralised, and others in peripheries are not. This study has demonstrated how the storytelling of women in peripheries, as the subject of narrating, serves as a strategy to (re)claim their marginal memories in the national memory discourse. In the diegesis of Kiri no hi the body of Mizue and her narrative underscores the effectiveness of écriture féminine which may subsequently influence the way the war is (collectively) remembered outside the masculine national discourse in Japan.


1. Angst. p.104

2. Regarding the role of popular media in stylizing war narratives, also refer to Hughes-Warrington. History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film (2006); The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media (2001); Rosenstone Robert A. “History in Words/ History in Images: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History onto Film.” American Historical Review (1988), 93, 5, pp.1173-1185.

3. Within the “composure” of war memories, the memories or narratives of groups that people belong (or aspire to belong) to assume particular prominence, while the memories and narratives of groups with whom there is weak identification may be marginalised or ignored. (Seaton 2007)

4. Nishida Hideko, “Senjika Hokkaido ni okeru chosenjin ‘romu ianfu’ no seiritsu to jitsuno” (“‘Laborer comfort women’ from Korea in wartime Hokkaido”), Joseishi kenkyu Hokkaido (August 2003), (ctd. Seaton 2007b)

5. See works such as Betty Reardon’s (1985) Sexism and the War System, and Robert W. Connell’s Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics (1987).

6. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Gosh, Boy George, You Must Be Awfully Secure in Your
Masculinity,” in Constructing Masculinity, eds. M. Berger, B. Wallis, and S. Watson (New York: Routledge, 1995), p.13. Gendering in the discourse of war has less to do with innate differences between genders than political intent.

7. Sjoberg, L. 2010. “Gendering the Empire’s Soldiers: Gender Ideologies, the U.S. Military, and the ‘War on Terror.’,” Gender, War, and Militarism: Feminist Perspectives, p. 216.

8. Elshtain, J. B. 1987. Women and War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Also see Laura Sjoberg, “Gendering the Empire’s Soldiers: Gender Ideologies, the U.S. Military, and the ‘War on Terror,’” in L. Sjoberg and S. Via (eds.) Gender, War, and Militarism: Feminist Perspectives. (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), p.216.

9. Enloe, C. 1993. The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War, p.246.

10. See Wakakuwa, Sensō ga tsukuru joseizō: dainiji sekaitaisenka no nihonjosei dōin no shikakuteki puropaganda [Female images shaped by the war: visual propaganda for mobilising Japanese women in WWII] (Tokyo: Chikuma shobō, 2000).

11. See Susan Napier, “No More Words: Barefoot Gen, Grave of the Fireflies, and ‘Victim’s History,’” in Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), pp.161-174.

12. Angst. 1997, p.102

13. Ibid.

14. Earlier, I argued for this point, stressing the gendered narrative of war in Japanese postwar films. See, Kaori Yoshida, “(In)visible Women: Gendering of popular war memories through the narrative of the battleship Yamato for six decades in postwar Japan,” in Mikyoung Kim (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Memory and Reconciliation in East Asia. (New York: Routledge, 2016).

15. One of the main reasons for continuing productions of versions of The Tower of Lilies, keeping the basic plot of the first version (1953), lies in the depiction of “pure,” “innocent,” and “sweet” young female nurses, which highlights the misery of the war (Mizonou 2009). Moreover, this image of innocent and persevering young women has allowed the Japanese to identify themselves, becoming the typical style of communicating antiwar story in postwar Japan, although it has been criticised for Japan’s neglecting its position as victimiser. It is also worth noting that a version of The Tower of Lilies were released to reflect a shift in social understanding of the war in relation to other countries involved. Each year different versions of The Tower of Lilies were made—1953, 1968, 1982, 1995—correlates to specific occasions concerning the identity of Okinawa in relation to Japan. The first version was released in 1953, two years after Okinawa was detached from Japan and placed under U.S. rule. The production year of the second version, 1968, coincides with various movements to have Okinawa returned to Japan. Okinawa was returned in 1972, and marking the tenth anniversary, the third version was released in 1982. The latest version, made in 1995, marked the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. The parallel between the timing of the film releases and political events accentuates the view of Okinawa as the “other” within Japan.

16. It could allow them to turn away from the fact of Okinawa as the sacrifice for Japan.

17. In this regard, Seaton states that “the Japanese people have not yet achieved a consensus on how to narrate and interpret that war, not only because of a wide range of war experiences, but also because Japan’s contested war memories are a product of divisions regarding the morality of Japan’s war aims and conduct” (2007b: 2). It is also noteworthy that, according to Seaton, the war most deeply imprinted in Hokkaido military history is the Battle for Okinawa in which 10,065 people from Hokkaido died, the largest number from any prefecture after Okinawa (2007:6).

18. The story of Hyosetsu no mon, besides the original film, has been performed in different art forms such as stage plays and musicals up to this year. There has been a theater play titled “Kyū nin no otome: mou hitotsu no shinjitsu” (Nine Girls: Another Truth), and a musical version of Hyosetsu no mon.

19. Mr. Yamada is unpatriotic, which often causes fights between him and Mizue, the militaristic/patriotic girl. In comparison to the rather subservient Himeyuri women as well as other women in the typical antiwar films in postwar Japan, Mizue’s mother bonding with a Communist and unpatriotic man also suggests transgressiveness in her character.

20. Kristeva, 1982.

21. “The abject has only one quality of the object and that is being opposed to I.” Kristeva, J. Powers Of Horror: An Essay On Abjection. Boston: Columbia University Press, 1982, p.1.

22. Kristeva. 1982. Powers Of Horror: An Essay On Abjection, pp.2-3.

23. Hughes. 2009, p.405.

24. Linda Angst. 1997. “Gendered Nationalism: The Himeyuri Story and Okinawan Identity in Postwar Japan.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 20, 1: 104. Angst (1997) further argues that the Himeyuri image implies that “Japanese imaginings about an idea of nation continue to be defined within categories of race and gender,” which means that the image of Himeyuri contributes to constructing an Okinawan identity relying on “a disempowered, gendered and racial other.” Okinawa, as a part of the periphery, acts as a mirror to the national center to evaluate assumptions about the national self. (p.104)

25. Kristeva. 1982, p.4.

26. Kristeva. 1982, p.15.

27. Pentony. 1996. Deep South, 2, 3.

28. Parker et. al. 1992. Nationalisms and Sexualities, p.6.

29. ibid.

30. Cixous. p.879.

31. Cixous. 1976. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Sign, 1, 4, p.881.

32. Cixous. p.881.

33. Cixous. p.876.

34. Tanimoto. 1994. p.87.

35. In this regard, Cixous states, “A woman without a body, dumb, blind, can’t possibly be a good fighter. She is reduced to being the servant of the militant male, his shadow.” (Cixous, 1976. p.880.)

36. Cixous. p.881.

37. Cixous. p.883.

38. Angst 1997, pp.105-106.


Angst, Linda. 1997. “Gendered Nationalism: The Himeyuri Story and Okinawan Identity in Postwar Japan.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 20, 1, 100-113.

Cixous, Hélène. 1976. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs, 1, 4, 875–893.

Connell, Robert W. 1987. Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Elshtain, Jean B. 1987. Women and War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Enloe, Cynthia. 1993. The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Erll, Astrid. 2010. “Cultural Memory Studies: An Introduction.” In A. Erll, A. Nunning (Eds.), A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Hughes, Bill. 2009. Disability & Society, 24, 4, 399-410.

Hughes-Warrington, Marnie. 2006. History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film. New York: Routledge.

Huyssen, Andreas. 2011. “Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia.” In J. Olick, V. Vitnitzky-Sroussi, & D. Levy (Eds.), The Collective Memory Reader, 430-436. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ichiki, Masashi. 2011. “Embracing the Victimhood: A History of A-bomb Manga in Japan.” IJAPS 7, 3, 35-52.

Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers Of Horror: An Essay On Abjection. Boston: Columbia University Press.

Landy, Marcia. 2001. “Introduction.” In The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press.

McCormack, Gavan and Norimatsu Satoko. 2012. Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Mizonou, Ryoko. 2009. “Women Serving in War: War and Gender through ‘The Tower of Lilies’ (Jūgun-suru joseitachi: ‘Himeyuri no tō’ ni miru sensō to jenda).” In Masaru Okumura (Ed.). Eiga to sensō toru yokubō/miru yokubō (Film and War: Shooting and Watching Desires). Tokyo: Moriwasha.

Mizuno, Hiromi. 2007. “When Pacifist Japan Fights: Historicizing Desires in Anime.” Mechademia, 2, 104-123.

Nagel, Joane. 1998. “Masculinity and nationalism: gender and sexuality in the making of Nations.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21, 2, 242-269.

Napier, Susan. 2005. Anime From Akira To Howl's Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. New York: Palgrave.

Nora, Pierre. 1989. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations, 26, 7-24.

Olick, Jeffrey K., Vinitzky-Seroussi, Vered, Levy, and Daniel. 2011. “Introduction.” In Olick, J., Vitnitzky-Sroussi, V., & Levy, D. (Eds.). The Collective Memory Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parker, Andrew, Russo, Mary, Sommer, Doris, and Yaeger, Patricia. 1992. Nationalisms and Sexualities. New York: Routledge.

Pentony, Samantha. 1996. How Kristeva's theory of abjection works in relation to the fairy tale and post colonial novel: Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, and Keri Hulme's The Bone People. Deep South, 2, 3. vol2no3/pentony.html

Reardon, Betty. 1985. Sexism and the War System. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Seaton, Philip. 2007a. Japan’s Contested War Memories: The 'Memory Rifts' in Historical Consciousness of World War II. New York: Routledge.

-----. 2007b. “Family, Friends and Furusato: ‘Home’ in the Formation of Japanese War Memories.” Japan Focus, 5, 7, 1-29.

Rosenstone, Robert A. 1988. “History in Words / History in Images: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History onto Film.” In American Historical Review, 93, 5, 1173-1185.

Sjoberg, Laura. 2010. “Gendering the Empire’s Soldiers: Gender Ideologies, the U.S. Military, and the ‘War on Terror.’” In L. Sjoberg and S. Via (Eds.) Gender, War, and Militarism: Feminist Perspectives. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Tanimoto, Chikako. 1994. “Rereading Helene Cixous’s L'Ecriture Feminine.” Doshisha Literature, 37, 79-92.

Wakakuwa, Midori. 2004. Sensō ga tsukuru joseizō (Female Images Created by War). Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

Yoshida, Kaori. 2016. “(In)visible Women: Gendering of popular war memories through the narrative of the battleship Yamato for six decades in postwar Japan.” In Mikyoung Kim (Ed.) Routledge Handbook of Memory and Reconciliation in East Asia. New York: Routledge.

About the Author

Kaori Yoshida is a professor at the College of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. She researches issues of gender, sexuality, and race in comparative cultural studies, popular culture, and memory studies. Her publications include “Mediating Otome in the Discourse of War Memory: Complexity of Memory-Making through Postwar Japanese War Films” (in Shōjo across Media: Exploring Popular Sites of “Girl” Discourse in Japan, edited by Jaqueline Berndt, 2019), “Art as Peace Education at ‘Dark’ Museums and Sites in UK, Europe, and South East Asia” (Asian Journal of Peacebuilding 6, no. 1 [2018], co-authored with Christopher Williams, Huong T. Bui, and Hae-eun. Lee), and “Heritage Landscape of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (in Tourism and Heritage: Places, Imaginaries, and the Digital Age, edited by Linde Egberts and Maria Alvarez, 2018).

Email the author

Back to top