Our Stories

Loftus Brings Women into the Historical Record

"History is all about telling stories," Japanese historian Ron Loftus says. "It's a collection of individual experiences. The trouble is, we don't live long enough to read 100 million life stories." That's why Loftus decided to dip into just a few--deeply.

His Telling Lives: Women's Self-Writing in Modern Japan is based on the autobiographies of five 20th century Japanese women. They come from a variety of circumstances and socio-economic backgrounds.

"Until the last 30 years, women were totally absent in history texts," Loftus says. "Feminist scholars dug up letters, diaries, poems and private autobiographies to find women and bring their voice back into the historical record."

The 1980s theory was that women's autobiographies would read differently than men's, Loftus says. It was thought that male autobiographies would be more egocentric and outer-directed, with the stories told in a linear progression, while women's stories would be less chronologically presented and more focused on domestic details and inner emotional states. Matters of the heart, it went without saying, would be less compelling.

Loftus didn't buy it. He went again and again to the library and discovered a tremendous outpouring from women. The language was rich, he says, and he discovered that the stories were not inner-directed recollections, but were outer-directed. Few women recounted details about their love lives or emotional existence, he says. Instead, they wrote about their public activities in a linear, chronological fashion. "I found this to be true in women's autobiographies in the West and elsewhere in the world," Loftus says.

"When I started, I was a little worried that people would say, 'What's a man doing writing this?'" But Loftus plunged ahead, discovering for himself the stories of five remarkable Japanese women.

"I wanted the women and their experiences to speak for themselves," he says. "These are names few people know. I sat here on summer days translating from Japanese to English, following their lives. This was a labor of love."

His book chronicles the lives of five women, including a blacksmith's daughter, Oku Mumeo, who grew up amidst the clash of old and new cultures. Her traditional father surprised her by advising her not to marry, as it "will only involve a lot of hard work." The comfortably settled and educated Mumeo decided to join the masses and take up work in a spinning mill, where she found nightmarish conditions. Women were treated as slaves and housed in unsanitary conditions. Mumeo became a passionate activist for health care for working women, and while the government wanted more people to fight its wars--in other words, more births--she pushed for more choice.

Takai Toshio entered the textile mills at age 11, and though she was hobbled by a crooked leg, lack of education and small stature, she became a labor organizer. Her activities earned her a jail sentence, but she continued to advocate for women in the workforce with resilience, and results.

College educated, Nishi Kiyoko came from comfortable circumstances financially, but not psychologically. Her mother, trapped by the Japanese patriarchal system, drowned herself in a lake as a way out. Kiyoko's "phantom mother" was the internal text that ran through her career as a liberal journalist. In her 80s, she wrote her memoirs, worrying all the while that calling it an autobiography "might sound impudent. It's not that I have lived my life in such a remarkable way, but that the time period through which I have lived has been a full and tumultuous one. And, by coincidence, there were a few times when I stood up as an individual against this swirling tide."

Sata Ineko began her career as a parlor maid, but quickly became frustrated and exhausted by her work routine. "I wanted my own time," she said. "I wanted to read books." The woman whose mother told her, above all else, to "be a good wife," became an active proletarian writer for the Marxist party.

Fukunaga Misao joined the illegal, underground Communist Party, which got her thrown into jail. She eventually became disillusioned with the pre-war Japanese Communist Party, as she felt it was dominated by men who felt superior to women, but she continued to advocate for gender equality and women's issues.

The five women in Telling Lives were in their late 70s or 80s before they wrote their stories.

Through Loftus's book, female students from the Tokyo International University of America have become acquainted with mentors they might never have known. One student said, "I never knew women like this existed." The students have expressed admiration, empathy and the desire to be like the women portrayed in Telling Lives.

Loftus was born in Washington, D.C., where his father was an international economist, and spent his formative years in India, Paris, Bologna and Bangkok. He serves as chair of the Department of Japanese and Chinese at Willamette.