On this day February 8: Nobuko Yoshiya

Nobuko Yoshiya february 8 Shōjo manga

Kanojo no michi, the cinematic adaptation of a book by writer Nobuko Yoshiya opened in Japan on February 8 1933. The author lived openly with her female lover for over 50 years and pioneered lesbian storytelling in Japanese literature.

At the age of 19, Nobuko Yoshiya moved to Tokyo from a regional city. She joined a feminist group, began to dress in men’s clothing and eventually cropped her hair short.

Shōjo manga

As a child, Nobuko Yoshiya contributed stories to Girl’s World magazine for the joy of seeing her words in print. But once she moved to Tokyo, she became a paid contributor. Over the next few years, she published a series of stories about romantic female relationships called Flower Tales.

The illustrations accompanying the stories featured girls with the large doll-like eyes familiar to modern readers from manga.  Some internet sources attribute the illustrations to famed graphic artist and fashion designer Jun’ichi Nakahara. However, he was born in 1913 so it seems unlikely.

The stories barely mentioned men. The Flower Tales’ passionate teenage crushes focused on intense relationships between adolescent girls. They allowed young women to dream of an escape from the inevitability of marriage and domestic servitude.

Nobuko explicitly referenced the possibility that young women could defy the strictures of Japanese society and make a life independent of men. But, as she warned in Yellow Rose, doing so would present challenges.

“So it is that the sadness of those who love their own sex and therefore cannot live their lives in the form of a conventional marriage is redoubled by the chagrin of parents – for whom marriage represents the sole pinnacle of womanly achievement – and the opprobrium and scorn of everyone else.”

Two Virgins in the Attic

In 1919, Nobuko published Two Virgins in the Attic about a romance between two teenage girls who decide to live together after finishing their schooling. Unusually for the era, the author gifted her characters a happy ending with no devastating last-minute punishment visited on them for their transgressive sexuality.

She was destined to find that same happiness in her own life. She based the semi-autobiographical Two Virgins in the Attic on a romance of her own, but it did not last. However, in 1923, she met maths teacher Monma Chiyo. They remained together the rest of their lives.

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Despite Japanese literature’s long history of depicting male homosexuality, it neglected lesbianism. Nobuko Yoshiya tilled virgin ground. However, once she achieved literary fame, she pulled back from explicit references to lesbianism with her subsequent stories featuring more sisterly relationships. No doubt, the platonic relationships were both more socially acceptable and commercially successful.

But Nobuko always adhered to her main theme that through the sisterhood, women could make a life separate from men. They need not accept an inferior status. That meant that her teenage audience remained faithful as they moved into adulthood, married and encountered the domestic life she promised them an escape from.

Nobuko Yoshiya also never left any room for doubt about her own sexuality.

Officially, Monma Chiyo was Nobuko’s secretary. But the author never attempted to hide their relationship and always acknowledged the collaborative nature of their work. When they arrived in Hawaii to research and write a screenplay in 1953, the Honolulu Advertiser reported, “Nobuko Yoshiya and her secretary are making their headquarters here.”

Nobuko adopted Monma in 1953 despite an age difference of only 4 years. Under Japanese law, two women could not otherwise share property or make medical decisions for each other. So, the lesbian lovers of many years became, at least officially, mother and daughter.

Nobuko Yoshiya remains famed as the pioneer of Japanese lesbian literature. Modern-day yuri manga with its focus on lusty lesbian romance derives much from her work.

Nobuko died at the age of 77 with Monma holding her hand as she passed. Monma said the author never let go of the dreams of childhood.

“Even in her old age, Ms Yoshiya remained in pursuit of the sweet fragrance of her girlhood dreams. Perhaps that is why I was attracted to her.”

Read more: February 6 <— On this day —> February 9

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