Diva Nation: Female Icons from Japanese Cultural History

Diva Nation: Female Icons from Japanese Cultural History

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520297739
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/08/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Laura Miller is the Ei’ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, where she teaches courses and does research on Japan.
Rebecca Copeland is Professor of Japanese Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where her research and teaching focus on modern women writers, mystery fiction, gender, and translation studies. 

Read an Excerpt


Kirino Natsuo Meets Izanami

Angry Divas Talking Back


This tale may be spun from my words but I speak for the goddess, the one who governs the Realm of the Dead. My words may be dyed red with anger; they may tremble in yearning after the living; but they are all, each and every one, spoken to express the sentiments of the goddess....

— Kirino 2012:3

But Izanami's anger did not abate....

— Kirino 2012:136

Japanese goddess Izanami has every reason to be angry, at least from a twenty-first-century perspective. Betrayed by her erstwhile partner, Izanagi, and shamed by his judgmental regard of her body, she is locked for all eternity into the dark world of death. Meanwhile, Izanagi is free to roam both the heavens and the earth, giving birth of his own accord to one celestial deity after another. And what did the primal goddess do to deserve such treatment? She suffered a mortal wound in childbirth and as a result was designated the embodiment of death and its attendant impurity. It wasn't fair. And while all eyes were trained on her prolific ex and his shining progeny, she was forgotten, save for the occasional celebration of conjugal union that brought her forward as a paragon of wifely chastity. The irony must surely have been infuriating. But other than one momentary expression of wrath, Izanami is denied access to even a residual anger in traditional sources. Rather she is treated — if she is treated at all — as the vessel of modest silence.

The Izanami-Izanagi sequence is an integral part of the Japanese foundation myth as related in the eighth-century Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters). The primal pair are the first of the myriad gods to take human form. And from their sexed bodies they produce a multitude of offspring representing natural matter in the Japanese archipelago. All is well until Izanami is fatally burned while giving birth to fire. She slips off into Yomi, a separate realm, once she has died. But her consort, Izanagi, longs for her. He chases after her and discovers her in a darkened chamber. She forbids him to look upon her but he cannot contain his curiosity. He lights a torch and finds her fetid body. Repulsed, he flees. She gives pursuit and is close to overtaking him when he hurls a giant boulder into the passageway to Yomi, sealing her permanently in her realm of death. At their parting, she pledges to kill 1,000 lives a day in Izanagi's world. In turn, he pledges to build 1,500 birthing huts. He goes on to lustrate in a nearby river, purifying his body of the taint of death. And Izanami retreats into a dark silence, never mentioned again.

How would the silent Izanami have reacted if she were a twenty-first-century woman, aware of the inequities in the system and unrepentant in her anger? Might she have given voice to her fury, lashing out at Izanagi and the system that saw her marginalized and barricaded from her former power? Perhaps she would have taken on the mantel of Lauren Berlant's (1997) "Diva Citizen" and allowed her anger to flash up like a glorious flame. Author Kirino Natsuo, herself something of a diva citizen, imagines just such an outcome. In Joshinki (The Goddess Chronicle, Kirino 2008), her creative retelling of the Izanami-Izanagi myth sequence, Kirino picks up where the Kojiki leaves off, inventing an angry afterlife for the female goddess Izanami. In doing so she forces readers to wonder why only the female is consigned to the realm of death, while her male consort produces the deities who will shape the imperial line. And she questions how the positioning of the female deity predicts the status of real-world women. In the process Kirino invents not only a sequel to the Kojiki, but a parallel story that unfolds in the mortal realm, suggesting a human counterpoint to the fancifulness of myth. In this chapter, I discuss the way Kirino defies earlier gendered expectation and stereotypes by reconstituting Izanami with a divaesque interiority. After briefly introducing the author Kirino and the concept of diva citizen, I explore the way she activates Izanami's angry voice in resistance to the mythic imperative that would see her anchored with both the precarity and potency of national symbol.


Kirino Natsuo (b. 1951) is a writer diva. In many ways, she is larger than life, her image frequently projected on bookstore posters and featured prominently on her book jackets. She is a striking woman.

In one of her iconic, black-and-white book jacket photos she stares pensively off to the side as she lifts the edge of her dark turtleneck collar over the corner of her well-formed lips (Figure 7). Her fingers are perfectly manicured. Her posture projects poise, sophistication, and intelligence. Although she does not appear to brandish a particularly difficult ego — part and parcel of the stereotypical diva image — she is a performer of celebrity status. Thus, she fits the definition Jeffrey Jung (1999:4–5) notes of fin-de-siècle actresses in the West: she is "one whose power and influence within her profession allow her to dictate the terms of her performances, asserting control over her peers and putative directors. ... She cultivates a personality that befits such attention: a magisterial and confident pose, elegant diction, graceful movements, and a studied indifference to the mundane and tedious elements of daily life." Kirino has perfected her performance of aestheticized smartness. But it is a performance that is all the more provocative because it suggests defiance. With her carefully tousled shoulder-length hair, her porcelain-smooth skin, and her penchant for clothes that accentuate her figure, she is intensely feminine and exudes a magnetic sexuality. Even so, the uninformed often assume that she is male, based on the intentional ambiguity of her chosen pen name, Natsuo. A popular writer, she has nevertheless earned the accolades typically awarded more highbrow authors. In many ways, then, her diva status is all the more potent because it derives from these moments of transgression. She is difficult to define, or name, or own because she defies easy categorization. And in refusing to be pigeonholed, she both exerts her control while she simultaneously removes herself to the margins where she is excluded from normal channels of power.

Kathleen Abowitz and Kate Rousmaniere (2004), drawing on the work of Lauren Berlant, identify the elements that characterize the "diva citizen." I list these elements here because they apply equally to Kirino Natsuo and her goddess diva, Izanami. In the first place, the diva citizen, though marginalized from both knowledge and power, gains strength through marginalization by being disruptive. She twists her differences in ways that draw attention to the limitations and falsehoods implicit in the structures of power that would marginalize her. Her disruptiveness is often derived from her ability to use "humor, irony, and bombast" (Abowitz and Rousmaniere 2004: 11). Diva citizens have strong, dynamic personalities that sometimes discomfort. In discomforting, they work to improve the lot of others who toil on the margins. Of this last point Lauren Berlant states that the "diva citizen" does not change the world. Even so, her acts of resistance not only force a reconsideration of the status quo but by "flashing up and startling the public," she is able to take control of the dominant narrative and retell it "as one that the abjected people have once lived sotto voce, but no more." The diva citizen "challenges her audience to identify with the enormity of the suffering she has narrated and the courage she has had to produce, calling on people to change the social and institutional practices of citizenship to which they currently consent" (Berlant 1997:222–23).

Often heralded as a pioneer of feminist noir (Davis 2010:222), Kirino Natsuo has made a career out of putting "the dominant story into suspended animation." Since her earliest works Kirino has explored the social constructions of gender, class, and ethnicity, critiquing contemporary Japanese society, picking uncomfortably at our assumptions, and digging beneath the surface of polite lies. Her stories feature immigrant workers, transvestites, homosexuals, older women, and others who havebeen chased to the fringes of society. She has been recognized as the voice of "new proletarianism" (Gregus 2014:12), or as "Fighting Kirino" for the way she champions the so-called "yellow trash" (as opposed to America's "white trash") of society (Iwata-Weickgenannt 2012:20). But whereas Kirino does fight social injustice in her novels, she is also just as apt to fight the labels used to promote her works. Her novels struggle against the boundaries of genre expectations. They are layered with different narrative approaches: diaries, letters, reportage, and frequently, unreliable narrators and quixotic endings, confounding readers. The Goddess Chronicle is no exception as it is at once fairy tale, myth, science fiction, and modern horror tale.

If Kirino has been consistent in anything over the course of her career it is her anger at the unrealistic and unequal expectations women have been made to endure. Her novels bristle with rage and her female characters invariably are two-faced, dangerous, and socially aberrant. Not only do they defy stereotypical images of Japanese womanhood, they defy readers' expectations of feminist rebellion. Her heroines frequently let us down. They don't stand and fight, not for the downtrodden and sometimes not even for themselves. But by presenting their unhappy stories, Kirino stages her own protest. She will not adhere to seamless narratives of success or cater to expectation. In order "to change the social and institutional practices of citizenship" that Berlant (1997:222–23) describes, Kirino must dismantle it wholesale, and often with the finesse of a sledgehammer. Frequently she presents readers with competing narratives — none of them trustworthy — and each of them vulnerable to extinction in the end. From the shards, between the gaps, we piece our way back to a new understanding.

Kirino enjoys lifting the masks Japanese women have been expected to wear, uncovering the dark visages that lurk beneath. In her 1997 bestseller OUT (AUTO, in Japanese), for example, she explores the murderous rage that simmers within the breasts of those women who have been exiled to the darkness of the home — the middle-aged housewife. The novel draws together four unlikely women who bond over their experiences working part time on a factory assembly line. When one of them snaps and kills her philandering husband, the other three rise to her defense. With assembly-line precision they dismember and discard the body. Before long they find themselves caught up in the body disposal business. All but forgotten by the media, the workforce, and in many cases their own families, these invisible women launch a lethal rebellion. In an interview with journalist Howard French (2003), shortly after OUT debuted in Stephen Snyder's English translation (Kirino 2003a), Kirino noted that she was less concerned with writing about the particulars of a crime, the police procedural, or the reinstitution of order that inevitably concludes a crime novel. Her interests lay with the way crimes expose the psychology of the criminal and the callousness of society. "A crime is like a crack in reality, and it is the author's role to explore those cracks. As a writer, I like to see how they impinge on people," Kirino explained in the interview. Society is ever vigilant to maintain the polite façade of order and normalcy. But a crime challenges this order and allows an opening, a way to peer beneath the myth of civility. Many of Kirino's works, appropriately, employ an archeological motif as she scrapes away the surface, digs into the cracks, and peers down into the darkness below.

Grotesque (Gurotesuku, Kirino 2003b), for example, refers to Cambrian fossils, to a prehistoric life beneath the sea, to a subterranean survival of the fittest. Based on a sensational crime in which the murder of a prostitute uncovers her secret double life as a successful career woman, Kirino's 2003 "re-narration" reveals not so much the hidden identity of the protagonist as the seedy double life of society itself. The crime that inspired the novel offers Kirino the crack that she needs to expose the perverted sense of justice in contemporary society and the utter invalidation of former value systems. The female protagonists in this novel drill deeper and deeper into the depths of degradation, chasing dark desires into self-destruction and nihilistic extinction. It is not surprising, then, that in her Kojiki retelling, Kirino (2008, 2012) pulls us down into the cavernous underground world of death. "Huge stone pillars towered above the cold rock floor, each set an equal distance from the next. ... They extended as far as the eye could see, the distant ones melting into the darkness. They were massive, so wide that three people could join hands around one and still not encircle the girth, and so tall the tops disappeared into the darkness above" (Kirino 2012:98). Here we accompany Izanami on her daily task of taking one thousand lives. We open into a story that the Kojiki had closed.


The first Japanese god to have taken female form, the iza in Izanami's name means to beckon or to invite while the phoneme mi identifies the female. Thus, Izanami is "the woman who invites." Or as given in the translation below, "She Who Beckoned." Having assumed a bodily form, she and her consort, Izanagi, descend from the heavens to the island beneath and build a palace there. Having done so, Izanagi turns to his partner and asks:

"How is your body formed?"

She replied, saying: "My body is empty in one place."

And so the mighty one He Who Beckoned proclaimed: "My body sticks out in one place. I would like to thrust the part of my body that sticks out into the part of your body that is empty and fill it up to birth lands. How does birthing them in this way sound to you?" The mighty one She Who Beckoned replied, saying: "That sounds good."

And so the mighty one He Who Beckoned proclaimed: "Well then, let us walk around this mighty pillar of heaven and then join in bed."

So they pledged thus, and then straightaway he proclaimed: "You circle from the right to meet me, I will circle from the left to meet you." So they pledged thus and then circled around it.

The mighty one She Who Beckoned spoke first, saying: "What a fine boy!"

The mighty one He Who Beckoned spoke after her, saying: "What a fine girl!" (O no Yasumaro 2014:9)

As the myth unfolds in the Kojiki, Izanagi betrays Izanami, usurping her power, on several occasions. First, following the encounter described above, their initial offspring are flawed — one is a "leech child" unable to stand. The other is too small to be considered worthy, and both are cast out to sea. Concerned by their failure to produce excellent children, they consult with the heavenly beings and are told to redo their greeting. And so they circle the pillar again and this time the male speaks first — appropriating the female's language. When they again unite, they produce the varied islands of Japan and the various natural elements. The worthiness of these offspring underscores the silencing of female initiative and the advancement of male privilege. Aggressive, confident women are doomed to produce failure.

In a second betrayal, Izanagi ignores Izanami's request. Following her death, she retreats to the underworld. After Izanagi comes in pursuit of her, she beseeches him not to look on her but he refuses her request and lights up her chamber where he beholds her putrefying corpse covered in maggots (Figure 8). Gazing upon her body without her consent, in fact, in a direct violation of her request, demonstrates another of Izanagi's attempts to enact control. Sight leads to knowledge, knowledge to power. And the power he wields over Izanami keeps her locked in her state of dark shame.

But perhaps it is what follows that results in the final humiliation. Once Izanagi leaves — having sealed Izanami in her tomb — he bathes in a rushing river and produces from his now purified body the Moon God, Tsukiyomi, the Wind God, Susa-no-o, and the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. These three gods, produced singularly from the body of the purified male, will become the most important deities in the Shinto pantheon. While Izanagi is thus linked to the wholesome power of harvest, fecundity, and life. Izanami — the mother of the Japanese archipelago — becomes the embodiment of death. She is, in one body, both life and death. In many ways Izanami becomes the container of the nation — the source of its mythic power and the site of its vulnerability as well. She represents the danger of contamination and the need to enforce rigid borders. Jennifer Coates (2014), in writing of the diva persona in Japanese cinema, describes the often abjected, dangerously unbounded female body on screen in terms that apply equally to Izanami as mythic mother: "The reflexive image of the female body as nation and nation as female body is… self-perpetuating, in that the ideology of nationhood is figuratively housed within the female body; the female body then comes to symbolize aspects of the nation, particularly those gendered 'feminine' (Coates 2014:30). Those "feminine" qualities reside precisely in the acute accessibility of her body, a body that is known for its precariously permeable boundaries.


Excerpted from "Diva Nation"
by .
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii
Acknowledgments ix
Preface: Transnational and Time-Travelling Divas xi
Laura Hein

Diva Seductions: An Introduction to Diva Nation 1
Laura Miller and Rebecca Copeland
1. Kirino Natsuo Meets Izanami: Angry Divas Talking Back 13
Rebecca Copeland
2. Ame no Uzume Crosses Boundaries 34
Tomoko Aoyama
3. Searching for Charisma Queen Himiko 51
Laura Miller
4. Izumo no Okuni Queers the Stage 77
Barbara Hartley
5. From Child Star to Diva: Misora Hibari as Postwar Japan 95
Christine R. Yano
6. Yoko Ono: A Transgressive Diva 115
Carolyn S. Stevens
7. Transbeauty IKKO: A Diva’s Guide to Glamour, Virtue, and Healing 133
Jan Bardsley
8. Seizing the Spotlight, Staging the Self: Uchida Shungiku 151
Amanda C. Seaman
9. The Unmaking of a Diva: Kanehara Hitomi’s Comfortable Anonymity 168
David Holloway
10. Ice Princess: Asada Mao the Demure Diva 185
Masafumi Monden
Afterword: Diva tte nan desu ka? (What Is a Diva?) 203
Rokudenashiko (Translated by Kazue Harada)

Bibliography 207
Contributors 229
Index 233

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