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Writing Boys and Girls in Imperial Japan: The Politics and Poetics of Childhood, 1868–1918


This dissertation examines the discursive formation of childhood and the gendering of Japanese children from the Meiji Restoration to the 1910s. Using a diverse range of sources including picture books, diaries, poetry, letters, magazines, newspapers, novels, essays, and translations, I analyze how the concept of childhood and the portrayal of children were conceptualized, reinterpreted, negotiated, and expressed through literary works and print media. In doing so, I show how the representation of children—as a cultural imaginary of the people—both endorsed and subverted the political discourse of “little citizens,” or shōkokumin (小国民), associated with modern Japan’s imperial subjects. Children were often considered uncanny, mysterious creatures whose incomprehensibility and irrationality threatened the modern sense of reasoning and logic. They were also depicted as immature citizens—passive, innocent, and vulnerable subjects in need of protection. Simultaneously, however, they embodied the hopes of the state, the essence of democracy, and the driving force of economic growth. Despite the print media’s celebration of children’s citizenship and their status as subjects in imperial Japan, the rights bestowed upon children were inconsistent—as were the expectations of their actions as “little citizens” with a political identity.

Numerous early national language textbooks, children’s magazines, books, poetry, and songs in the Meiji and Taishō periods created a sense of national belonging by bringing individual recipients together through the state’s national projects. However, heterogeneous configurations of linguistic and literary practices in diverse cultural settings demonstrate how the vernacular conventions of childhood occasionally deviated from the operation of the state-apparatus, functioning as a subversive force against the standardization of childhood. To illustrate such power dynamics, this dissertation highlights a series of literary works called shōnen-mono (少年物, stories about children and childhood) as sites of poetic imagination through which to resist social normalization and negate children’s subjection as imperial subjects under state power. My dissertation thus demonstrates how children’s multilayered representational agency, as seen in multiple discursive practices, led to a complex interplay between standardization and decentralization in the politics and poetics of childhood in a modern capitalist society.

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