Yoshiya Nobuko (1896 - 1973)
In Japan, the late 1800's and early 1900's saw a lot of social change and upheaval, particularly the opening of country and subsequent growth of various industries, all desperate to corner niche demographics. Around the same time, a new class of women was formed due to the creation of all-girls schools in the 1880's, allowing girls from upper class families to now put off the traditional expectations of marriage for a while and pursue higher education. Magazines were quick to pop up and cater to this new group considered the middle ground between childhood and motherhood: shoujo.
Yoshiya Nobuko was basically the poster woman for the New Modern women, the shoujo, not only supporting herself with her writing but making more than even the prime minister at the time. What's especially remarkable, though, is that, in Jennifer Robertson's essay, "Yoshiya Nobuko: Out and Outspoken in Practice and Prose" (2002), she talks about how Yoshiya got her start publishing short stories in these magazines as early as age twelve. In fact, her most popular, influential series, Hanamonogatari (Flower Tales) was serialized from 1916 to 1924 in the magazine Shoujo Gahou (Girl's Illustrated). By 1935, "there [wasn't] a woman alive who hasn't heard of Yoshiya Nobuko," according to literary critic Ikeda Hiroshi (Robertson 156).
Another thing that set her apart and often saw her derided and insulted by other (male) authors was her refusal to settle down with a husband. Robertson's article includes some excerpts from an essay Yoshiya wrote for a left-of-center journal, titled "Dannasama muyou" (A husband is unnecessary), criticizing how it seems like people greet her by asking if she's lonely or when she's planning on getting married… She actually did want to get married, though, to her lifelong partner, Monma Chiyo. She had a house built for them, but, once she realized that Japan was likely never going to legalize same-sex marriage in their lifetimes, she resorted to adopting Monma, to at least ensure they'd have some kind of legal connection. This practice was somewhat common in the United States around the 1970's and 80's, also due to same-sex couples not being able to marry but still wanting certain legal rights, such as being able to visit their loved ones in the hospital and being considered the next of kin.
While few of Yoshiya's works were ever translated into English and she has unfortunately been mostly forgotten even in Japan, her stories (and all of the others featured in these magazines) have definitely left a lasting impression on shoujo culture to this day, in both style and theme. For example, Deborah Shamoon's book Passionate Friendship (2011) talks about these magazines pioneered and popularized "Class S" relationships, which are the precursor to the modern day yuri genre, having a particular focus on what she calls "homosocial" and "spiritual" relationships between young women. (Personally, I disagree with her main point, but I'll talk about that more a bit later…)
Shamoon says these relationships developed due to:
- the fact that boys and girls interacting was seen as extremely taboo, to the point that even brothers and sisters hanging out was considered scandalous (26)
- this led to homosocial relationships being normalized and even encouraged, specifically as a "practice run," so to speak, for later heterosexual relationships. These same-sex relationships were only seen as a problem if the girls never "grow up" and move onto to male partners or if they begin acting too 'masculinely,' themselves (36-7).
In other words, Shamoon says Class S relationships (the "S" standing for the English word, "sister") were a way of "redirect[ing] girls’ sexual desire away from boys" and inspiring the maintenance of purity, chastity, and innocence (30). From this came the symbolism of the white lily (yuri in Japanese) which, due to its association with the Virgin Mary, became the emblem of many girls' schools, both Catholic and secular. White lilies were also frequently depicted or otherwise mentioned in shoujo magazines, and girls would even refer to themselves as "lilies," in contrast to flowers that appear more frequently in Japanese poetry and literature like cherry blossoms (32).
Throughout her book, Shamoon repeatedly emphasizes that Class S relationships, while being monogamous and often involving frequent direct declarations of love, should not be compared to lesbian relationships as we know them today because they are born out of a different worldview, etc. When talking specifically about Yoshiya Nobuko, she criticizes other authors attempts to view her and her works through a lesbian lens, as well, because she says the framework of the "lesbian identity" hadn't been made yet.
I disagree with this. Homosexuality is a natural state of being -- you don't have to "identify" as gay or associate yourself with the greater gay community or even consciously realize that being gay is "a thing" in order to be gay. Even if you don't have the words for it, all that's required to be gay is to be attracted to the same sex.
Shamoon says that it does a "disservice to her work by reading only in biographical terms," which -- don't get me wrong -- I do think is a problem, like assuming every work by a gay artist is about being gay (like how people retroactively thought Lil Nas X's song "Old Town Road" was about gay sex after he came out). But I also think there's an issue when you look at stories where two women explicitly declare their love for each other and desire to stay together (especially when written by a women who had a lifelong relationship with another women), and repeatedly say there's no way this actually depicts a homosexual relationship!
Like I said earlier, almost none of her works have been translated into English. As far as I know, the only one is Yellow Rose, one of her Flower Tales, translated by Sarah Frederick in 2016. It's about a woman who just graduated from college to be an English teacher having a chance encounter with one of her new students on a train and how they slowly grow close, quoting Sappho and other romantic poets, before their relationship is tragically cut short by an arranged marriage.
Her writing style is quite flow-y, poetic, and indirect with frequent em-dashes and ellipses. I'm not quite sure how to describe this, but, if you've read a decent amount of shoujo and / or yuri manga before, you'll definitely find the narrative structure and way the characters interact very familiar -- I'd recommend checking it out, if only to see what the origin of the genre was like and enjoy her writing style.