BeruBara Tag Boom: S-Relationships

The Emergence of Girls’ Higher Education

During eighteenth-century Japan one of the changes that worried the lords and members of high-level samurai was the shift from the traditional agrarian economy that Japan had known for centuries and had built its identity around was starting to see an intrusion from a new and burgeoning money economy that started in large cities, like Edo and Osaka, and was being controlled by merchants. The merchant class was one of the lowest ranked civilian classes in the traditional society of the class-rigid feudal era of Japan, in differing domains the samurai class could be split into seven or eleven separate ranks, while farmers were the highest level of civilian class. Schools had long been established for samurai and primary education had become available for many civilians before the Meiji Restoration but samurai were not taught in the ways of commerce that allowed merchants and rural landlords to start making money and turn that money into influence and political power in smaller communities that many samurai now lived away from. After the Meiji Restoration, Japan transitioned into a modernized capitalist nation with industrialized agriculture and manufacturing that slowly started to compete with western countries; the samurai, merchants, and rural landlords were transformed into members of the infantile upper and middle-class of the newly established Modern Japan. Starting in the second and third decades of the Meiji Era a secondary school education for daughters in the upper and middle-classes became more appealing as women’s education was also seen as a symbol of a modernized country and in the early 1870s privileged girls started attending secondary schools. By 1872 three years of primary education was mandatory for boys and girls but as there was just one girls’ school offering higher education in Tokyo, many girls wore masculine clothing and attended boys’ schools to receive secondary education. The backlash of this masculinization of girls due to coeducation made many rich families start sending their daughters to private tutors and recently built missionary schools, but by the 1880s there was a growing criticism and negativity surrounding girls’ education as it was seen that missionary schools were teaching students American individualism and making them out of touch with traditional Japanese femininity and culture. In 1899 the government passed The Girls High School Law to set a national curriculum for girls’ schools that included a pro-state education along with Confucian values to ensure that students were kept feminine —female students were banned from wearing men’s clothes in 1883— and were indoctrinated to become ‘Good Wives and Wise Mothers/良妻賢母’.  Now with a standardized curriculum 5-year girls’ schools started increasing in number, reaching 143 schools in 1915, and by late Taisho girls’ schools had a positive reputation of teaching teen girls sophistication while ensuring the students’ chastity and innocence by providing a single-sex learning environment.

What is a S-Relationship?

The 2009 edition of Otome no Minato by Kawabata Yasunari and Nakazato Tsuneko

Despite early criticism, in the 1880s foreign Christians established many girls’ schools in Japan during Taisho and one of the enduring concepts that was brought along with them was the concept of spiritual love, known as ‘ren ai/恋愛’ starting in 1874. The idea of a spiritual love and its associated discourse was not exclusive to heterosexual relationships and became a popular subject in stories serialized in pre-war girls’ magazines when talking about the deep friendships made between classmates at girls’ schools, these became known as ‘S-Relationships’ around 1920. These relationships weren’t viewed as abnormal or morally corrupt as modern definitions of homosexuality were only just reaching Japanese shores in the early twentieth-century and the belief that homosexual acts equated a homosexual identity and what that identity was was not a commonly held belief even up to the 1930s in Japan. Homosexual sex among men was common during feudal Japan and was not scandalized, cross-class sex however was an act seen as socially corrupt and was heavily discouraged —A reason kabuki theater didn’t have favor among the Bakufu government even after the banishment of women was the fear that the onnagata would attract samurai patrons into paying for sex— a result of the class rigidity of feudal and modern Japan. Many professionals saw S-Relationships as a normal part of an adolescent girls’ development and acted as “practice runs” for formal heterosexual relationships that students would encounter upon graduation, it was often separated from instances of actual homosexuality among women, especially those homosexual relationships that had a heterogender appearance.  Besides an attempted ban in late Meiji S-Relationships became a known and accepted part of girls’ schools, the S-Relationship was usually between a senior student and one of her juniors and it encouraged a sameness between the two girls and that through the relationship both people can also help the other become a better, idealized, woman. The idea of sameness that permeated these magazines can be interpreted as a by-product of the Imperial State’s desire to assimilate Others living in Japan and its colonies into the Japanese identity. Due to children and students of the opposite sex being kept separate in society and girls’ literature not publishing stories about heterosexual love S-Relationships in real life and in books was a space for girls to read romantic language and imitate it without the dangers of engaging in an actual relationship with a boy. One of the most popular S-Relationship stories of the pre-war period was Otome no Minato, a story about two upperclassmen, Youko and Katsuko, vying for the affection and friendship of underclassman Michiko. Again, while Otome no Minato and real-life letters use romantic language these relationships were not inherently lesbian or intimate and did not challenge the gender-order of heterosexuality of Japanese society, it was an expected part of the all-girl school experience and was thought as a way for girls to learn to communicate and participate in relationships that they would find themselves in after school when they would be courted by a man.

A good example in modern wrestling that demonstrates the typical dynamics of a S-Relationship are real-life friends and former WWE tag team, The IIconics. The IIconics became friends while wrestling for PWA in Australia and shared the same desire of wrestling in the WWE and helped each other reach that goal, much like two students in a S-Relationship would help the other become a better version of herself, their friendship also mirrors S-Relationships depicted in books as both women share an aesthetic sameness and similar schooling. Their physical closeness and declaration of being life partners doesn’t contradict the heterosexual relationships in their personal lives either, because their friendship isn’t lesbian but instead a deep connection built on trust and respect for each other.

Some Grievances

Western anthropologists receiving criticism of their studies of girls’ culture and, what appears to be, willful ignorance to the fact that S-Relationships, Boys’ Love manga, and even the Takarazuka Revue exist in a space that’s not defined by modern LGBTQ discourse causes many, myself included, to misunderstand how this type of relationship became a norm for teen girls during the pre-war period. Robertson, Buckley, and Welker are three white, Western academics that when analyzing the phenomenon of intense homogender friendships and male homosexual relationships in shoujo manga show an insistence of applying anachronistic Western ideas of the homosexual identity and desire onto cultures and time periods where such framing would be inappropriate, in my opinion, and reveals the authors’ desires to see a subversion of the patriarchal society in which Japanese creators lived in. From Robertson and Buckley’s deflection of Japanese academic criticism of their work to Welker’s baffling assertion that the Boy’s Love genre was born out of lesbian panic —despite that by the late 1950s there were published manga dealing with romantic crushes and relationships between female students— and that Moto Hagio not making the setting of The Heart of Thomas a girls’ school as it was in her early drafts as an indication that Hagio intended to craft a lesbian story but due to “repressed lesbian desire” chose an unknown world of a German boys’ school, again ignoring the suggestions and reasoning of Japanese academics, such as Uemo Chizuko and Fujimoto Yukari, as well as The Heart of Thomas being Hagio’s interpretation of the German novel Demian. Hagio’s quote about the idea of two girls kissing being, “as gooey as natto”, may have less to do with any repressed lesbian feelings by the author and audience and more on how in Japanese society at this time women were not seen as capable of being sexual and acting on sexual desire, women were the objects of sexual desire while men were the subjects. In many patriarchal cultures women are not allowed to act on sexual desire and should only participate in sexual activities when they are initiated by a male, living in a culture that socializes women to believe in this will result in women not seeing themselves and others of their gender of being able to initiate sexual intimacy even if it’s something as small as a kiss. It’s especially egregious with the tone that these people discuss criticisms expressed by others, feeling as though critics are seemingly beholden to old ideas of an idyllic past and the treasured purity of shoujo. The following quote is from Sandra Buckley in response to criticism Robertson received after the publishing of her novel about the Takarazuka Revue from her contribution to 2001’s The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture (quote from Shamoon’s Passionate Friendship), 

There has been a strong reaction from Japanese critics to some Western feminist research [meaning Robertson] that is seen in Japan to focus too much on the issue of homosexuality and the erotic tensions of the Takarazuka. It could be said that this amounts to an acceptance or even an intellectual investment by these critics in the Takarazuka’s self-perpetuating myth of sexual innocence. The theater has achieved such massive popularity that it has almost become sacrosanct and beyond criticism, and yet there seems to be much still to be gained from a critical engagement with the Takarazuka on terms other than its own self-defined image.”

 It reeks of a feeling of superiority and severe othering of voices of people native to that culture and this is just a small slice of a larger issue in the worlds of anthropology and academia, the hubris of White Westerners exploring foreign cultures and time periods with a sense of self-appointed authority is an attitude that needs to be held to task and eradicated from the field.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s