In the summer of 2017, about 20 Japanese women in their 40s, 50s and 60s visited Vassar. The purpose of their visit was to tour the campus from which their favorite writer, Jean Webster, known for her novel “Daddy-Long-Legs,” graduated. They also visited the house of “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott in Concord, MA, on this trip.
Western girls’ stories have fascinated Japanese women for over a century and continue to be read by Japanese children today. I am one of the women who grew up reading these stories. In fact, the very first book I bought with my own pocket money was “Little Women.” I, the oldest of three sisters, even tried to write a “Little Women”–like story when I was a child, although after drawing the cover illustration of the book, I lost the energy to continue.
My research is rooted in Western girls’ stories that I enthusiastically read when I was a child. My forthcoming book, “Age of Shōjo: The Emergence, Evolution, and Power of Japanese Girls’ Magazine Fiction” (SUNY Press, 2019), examines how translations of Western girls’ stories that were introduced in Japan at the turn of the 20th century empowered girl readers and inspired women writers. My book deals with girls’ magazine stories from the 1920s to the 1980s.
Girls’ magazines played an important role in helping spread, evolve and enrich the Japanese girls’ fiction genre. They also served a salient part in the creation of the term shōjo (adolescent girl). Magazine stories always included illustrations of girls with big eyes, small mouths and long limbs, and the shōjo portrayed there became the prototype of girl characters in manga later on. From the girls’ magazine community, many aspiring young female writers emerged, and many of them looked up to Jo March, the main character of “Little Women” who eventually becomes a writer. The girl characters presented in their works are naive, dreamy, rebellious and aloof. These characters are socially marginal and viewed as immature. But because of these girls’ “immature” qualities, authors could exercise power to express their thoughts without worrying about the reaction of authority.
Every year, I spend several weeks in the summer in Japan conducting research. Flipping through issues of old girls’ magazines gives me blissful pleasure. I sometimes find pictures of Vassar College and articles which mention Vassar in these magazines from generations ago. I feel fortunate to be able to work at a school that has a close connection to the origin of Japanese girls’ stories.