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Schoolgirl as Femme Fatale
Artwork featured on the cover of Indra Levy's latest book, Sirens of the Western Shore: The Westernesque Femme Fatale, Translation, and Vernacular Style in Modern Japanese Literature

Schoolgirl as Femme Fatale

Stanford's Indra Levy discusses the development of the schoolgirl figure as a femme fatale in modern Japanese literature.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

The advent of formal education for women during the Meiji period placed the schoolgirl at the vanguard of Japan's efforts to remake itself as a modern nation after the Western model.

The rise of educational opportunities for Japanese women during the Meiji period (1868-1912) influenced the early works of modern Japanese literature, explained Indra Levy, an assistant professor of Asian Languages at Stanford University, at a May 21, 2007, lecture sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at UCLA.

"The advent of formal education for women during the Meiji period placed the schoolgirl at the vanguard of Japan's efforts to remake itself as a modern nation after the Western model," Levy said.

In her book Sirens of the Western Shore: The Westernesque Femme Fatale, Translation, and Vernacular Style in Modern Japanese Literature, Levy examines modern Japanese literature in terms of gender. In her lecture, Levy focused on one of the three case studies taken up in the book, Futabatei Shimei's Ukigumo, to discuss Japanese adaptation of the archetype of the femme fatale.

A fixture in Western folklore and art, the femme fatale is alluring and uses her charms to put her typically male admirers in compromising or dangerous situations. In Japanese appearances beginning in the late 1880s, this figure is ethnically Japanese and educated in Western culture. Levy said that the Westernesque femme fatale is often juxtaposed with the self-conscious, modern Japanese male intellectual, as is the case in Ukigumo.

In Ukigumo, the male protagonist falls in love with a schoolgirl. The schoolgirl's mother hints that she would support the couple's marriage, but the protagonist loses his job and everyone begins to turn against him. The schoolgirl's mother later becomes hostile toward the protagonist and friendly with his former colleague in the prestigious government bureaucracy. The schoolgirl eventually turns her affection to the protagonist's former colleague, and at the end of the story, the protagonist finds himself alienated by society and ostracized by everyone he knows.

Levy argued that the schoolgirl was seen in both the popular and literary imaginations to represent Japan's development as a more civilized nation.

"In Ukigumo, Futabatei self-consciously exploited the schoolgirl's incipient status as the cultural representative of Japan's turn to the West," Levy said.

With her distinctly Western-influenced hairstyle, fashion, speech habits, and relationship to the opposite sex, the schoolgirl was major departure from the reserved and demure bijin, or "beautiful woman," courtesan that was part of popular and literary imaginations before the modern era.