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“Japan in War Time,” 1904. Credit: The Bystander, HathiTrust Digital Library

Rediscovering Murasaki Ayami: Vogue’s First Asian Author

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Bela Kellogg is a 2023 Kluge summer intern, where she worked with editor Andrew Breiner and scholar in residence Samira Spatzek. She is currently pursuing a B.A. in English and history of art from the University of Michigan. In addition to being a member of the La Jolla Historical Society’s Historic Preservation Committee, Bela is a coxswain for the Michigan Men’s Rowing Team and works for The Michigan Daily as a copy editor and daily arts writer. 

I have a confession: if you asked me three months ago if I’ve ever read a magazine before, I’d probably say no. But it’s not just because the tabloids I’d rifle through in supermarket checkout lines didn’t require much more than light skimming. Rather, my aversion to reading magazines originated from my belief that the words didn’t matter. Spoiler: I was wrong, but in my defense, even when you look beyond the tabloids that only ever gossip about the UK’s royal family, washed up child actors, or JonBenét Ramsey, the literary offerings of magazines in 2023 are still much different than they were 100 years ago.

I started researching historic fashion periodicals as part of my work as an intern at the Kluge Center. There, I assisted the scholar Samira Spatzek in her ongoing investigation into the ways in which fashion literature, namely Vogue, leveraged racialized gender norms in their negotiations of ‘fashionability’ in the 1890s.

It might come as a surprise to learn that at its inception, Vogue was never intended to pander to popular culture the way it does today as celebrities grace the cover from month to month. Instead, Vogue originated from the efforts of New York’s social elite to elevate the concerns of a magazine from purely fashionable to social. As such, Vogue set out to be a “magazine of society [that was] financed, made, planned and read by New York’s leading social group.” But Vogue’s offerings didn’t end at high quality fashion illustrations, portraits of the season’s débutantes, or news of the events at the country club. In fact, Vogue also published literary material, ranging from serialized fiction to editorials about social topics like female employment and co-education. As someone who once thought the words in magazines weren’t important enough to read, I was amazed when Vogue’s literary material quickly became the bread and butter of my research.

“The Woman Question—Shall I Dare It?” Credit: A. J. Keller, 1894, Vogue Archive

 

The majority of the work I did for Samira entailed keyword searching every issue of Vogue from the first ten years of its publication. In doing so, it didn’t take long for me to notice a glaring disparity in the representation of different racial and ethnic groups in the magazine. On one hand, through portraying New Woman tropes like the unmarried, economically self-sufficient “female bachelor,” Vogue’s literary matter liberated white, upper-class women from the constraints of canonical, domestic femininity. The representation of people of color, on the other hand, told a different story. In essence, people of color were systematically marginalized into aesthetics, caricatures, advertisements, or racially stereotyped literary tropes.

What stood out to me, in particular, was the representation of Japan. When I conducted a keyword search for the term “Japanese,” I immediately noticed that nearly 75% of my search results corresponded to household items, clothing, or other material goods. Through the gaze of New York’s white social elite that Vogue personified, the Japanese were, in other words, more readily perceived as objects than actual people. But even in the rare instances when their representation transcended materiality, Japanese people were still objectified in Vogue’s literary contexts.

“Japanese Decorative Furnishings,” 1902. Credit: Vogue Archive

 

Published in the spring of 1893, “Mademoiselle Kiku” by Charlotte Adams epitomizes the way white authors characterized Japanese women as objects in fictional stories. In short, “Mademoiselle Kiku” is a story about the unrequited love that the narrator, a male artist, develops toward a Japanese model whom he meets while visiting a fellow painter named Melton Bowers. Immediately, the narrator is anything but subtle about his sexual attraction to Kiku. His observations of Kiku’s physical appearance are so meticulous, they border on perverse. We’re not even 100 words into the story, and he’s already making careful notes of her “white, mouse-like teeth between her soft red lips, [which] rose a little and made an inclination of her lithe loosely robed body.” And trust me, there’s plenty more where that came from.

But if the narrator’s fixation with Kiku’s physicality isn’t a great enough indication of his degrading gaze, he takes it one step further by literally appraising her body: “Clearly Mlle. Kiku represented a gold mine of pictorial production,” the narrator says, “I already valued her at several thousand dollars. […] Such a golden-skinned, red-lipped, dark-eyed, gracious, charming, intelligent model! I was simply head over heels in love with Mlle. Kiku. Now if I could only get rid of Melton Bowers and keep his model all to myself. There’d be money in her.”

Kiku cannot escape the white male artist’s gaze that exploits her body as though it’s an object that can be bought and sold for profit. The narrator’s treatment of Kiku exemplifies a broader trend among the representations of Japanese people in Vogue. When white authors like Adams wrote stories about Japan, they almost always situated a white European as the narrator. In doing so, Japanese women were consistently characterized as objects, which were animated by nothing but the sexualized fantasies of the Western gaze. To that end, when reading Vogue, it was literally impossible to come across a story involving Japan where a white narrator didn’t ascribe the same list of recycled qualities to Japanese women: “little,” “docile,” “submissive,” “coquettish,” and “pathetic” to name a few.

 

“Charming Negligees in Japanese Motive,” 1900. Credit: Vogue Archive

 

There was, however, an exception to this rule, one author among the 260 (yes, I counted), whose fiction was published in Vogue during the first ten years of its existence. Murasaki Ayami was the first author of Asian descent to be published in Vogue in its infancy. She may have been the first person of color published in Vogue, and was certainly among the very few in this early era.

Murasaki’s short fiction initially caught my eye in two issues from 1902: first, “The Routing of Madame Shibusawa,” and second, “La Comptesse Grosse, Nee O Haru Fujiwara. Given my track record, it probably isn’t shocking to learn that a photograph was the reason why “La Comptesse Grosse” stood out to me, long before I read a single word of Murasaki’s, as Samira and I analyzed hundreds of Vogue’s illustrations and photographs to determine the visual modalities of marginalized representation.

Artists overwhelmingly rendered people of color in styles that lacked realism. Representations of Black people, for example, were largely limited to racist caricatures that evoked the visuality of minstrel performances. Representations of East Asian people, on the other hand, recalled a style with a lack of realism aligned more closely with the two-dimensionality of East Asian art like scroll paintings or woodblock prints. In contrast to the modes of Black representation, this racialized style of art didn’t overtly dehumanize East Asian subjects. Rather, this degradation stemmed from the way illustrators appropriated this oriental aesthetic to position East Asian bodies as nothing more than decorative page ornaments framing walls of text.

Be it racist caricatures or the reduction of bodies to decoration, a deprivation of subjectivity was intrinsic to visually representing people of color in Vogue. Even in the rare instances when photography—the most hyper-realistic form of media—featured people of color, Vogue still systematically denied their subjectivity by writing captions that characterized them not by markers of individual identity but rather ethnographic classifiers, such as “Japanese” or “Tahiti.” If you’re interested in learning more about a photograph entitled “A Nubian,” check out Samira’s blog post where she situated it alongside other visual texts she collected from the issue, such as an advertisement for “Nubian Fast Black Linings.”

 

“Some Notes on Life in the Orient,” 1894. Credit: Vogue Archive

 

Like I said before, Murasaki represented the exception to the rule. Occupying almost half of the page space alongside the text of “La Comptesse Grosse” is a black and white photograph of a Japanese woman smiling while entangled in cherry blossoms, accompanied by the caption, “Ucho Laughingly Broke off a Branch of the Exquisite Cherry Blossoms.” In this portrait, Ucho isn’t a racist caricature, a page ornament, nor an ethnographic study. She is a subject. She is human.

This photograph alone was enough to distinguish Murasaki’s work from the other objectifying, dehumanizing representations of Japanese women in Vogue. However, when I read the story itself, I realized Murasaki’s subversive representation didn’t end at the story’s visuals. Instead, Murasaki also mounted a resistance to the literary trope of the “little” Japanese woman, which I had observed all too often in stories like “Mademoiselle Kiku.”

 

“Ucho Laughingly Broke off a Branch of the Exquisite Cherry Blossoms,” 1902. Credit: Vogue Archive

 

At first, “La Comptesse Grosse” reads like any other story written by a white author about Japan up until that point. The story centers itself around Miss Margot Stuyvesant, a beautiful white American globe-trotter, who travels to Japan to attend a garden party hosted by the empress. This party is regarded as the social event of the year for not only Tokyo’s social elite but also its European diplomatic circle. As Margot’s escort to the party, Count Wilhelm Oscar Grosse, the first secretary of the Austrian Embassy, enlightens her with his degrading view of Japanese women while distantly gazing upon one named Ucho: “You say [Japanese women] are too doll-like, too simple, and that intellect is not theirs. Oh c’est vrai [It’s true]! but it is submission and a slave that gives pleasure to a man, to us men, in a wife!” Murasaki, in this way, aligns Count Wilhelm with the prototypical portrayals of European men, who only fetishized Japanese women because of their thirst for power.

In contrast to stories like “Mademoiselle Kiku,” in this story the power-hungry European man is used to dismantle the trope of the “little” Japanese woman. In the months following the party, Margot receives a letter from a friend who divulges all of the latest gossip from Tokyo. The letter reveals that Count Wilhelm, a “great, fat, stupid Austrian,” went on to marry Ucho, the same “fascinating little Japanese woman” who inspired his degrading comments at the garden party. Instead of conforming to Count Wilhelm’s vision of a submissive, obedient Japanese wife, Ucho is “ambitious,” “insists on having her way,” and is a “clever wee flirt” whom “the men are all in love with.” By contrast, Count Wilhelm is characterized as “frightfully henpecked,” “jealous,” “green with rage,” and a “picture of misery and dejection.”

By depicting the reversal of power between the observer, Count Wilhelm, and the observed, Ucho, Murasaki proves that the objectification of Japanese women begins and ends with the Western gaze. When Count Wilhelm initially gazes at Ucho from a distance, he sees her as nothing more than a pathetic, doll-like slave. After their marriage, however, when his interactions with Ucho go beyond gazing, Count Wilhelm discovers that Ucho obeys no one’s will but her own. And for that reason alone—female subjectivity—Ucho scares him. If you ask me, if Count Wilhelm was really scared of women, he should’ve just said so.

After discovering Murasaki’s work in Vogue, I was eager to find out as much as I could about her life. But a cursory web search turned up no more than four relevant results. Effectively, it was a dead end. I kept looking, and searched every database of historical periodicals that I could think of in hopes of unearthing more of her work.

 

“Japan in War Time,” 1904. Credit: The Bystander, HathiTrust Digital Library

 

Finally, I arrived at a series of articles published in The Bystander in 1904 the Russo-Japanese War. In a paragraph preceding these articles, Murasaki is identified as a “Japanese lady, who has just returned to her own country after a stay in England, [and] is acting as the special correspondent of “The Bystander” in Yokohama, sending us, from time to time, accounts of the domestic life during the present conditions—an aspect hitherto quite neglected by the Press.”

What struck me most about Murasaki’s nonfiction was that she doesn’t just subvert traditional modes of Japanese representation—she invents new ones. Writing from a first-person perspective, nonfiction allows Murasaki to depart from the Eurocentric points of view that typically characterized fiction written about Japan. For Murasaki, the act of writing itself, therefore, becomes an articulation of subjectivity for Japanese women, who emerge as agents of strength and resilience through her eyes.

In an article entitled, “The Pinch of War: Stories of Self-Sacrifice in Japanese Homes,” Murasaki paints a picture of how Japanese women grieved the loss of their fallen husbands. Based on their fictional characterizations alone, one might think the loss of a husband would rob “little,” “pathetic” Japanese women of all their strength and spirit. Murasaki shows us that nothing could be further from the truth. In places of worship such as the Ikegami Temple, Japanese women could be seen “prostrating themselves before their gods” just moments before they “raise their hands to their heads to cut off their hair—thus not only signifying they are widows, but registering the vow that they will not marry again.” Shortly after these locks are severed, they are “then bound with a broad band of white paper and hung up at the entrance to the inner chapel, there to remain until a sufficient number of such offerings have been collected to weave into rope, as the rope made from human hair is said to possess an amazing strength and is much valued in the field and on the ships where cords of great durability is required.”

 

“The Famous Ikegami Temple,” 1904. Credit: The Bystander, HathiTrust Digital Library

 

By casting light on this rope of human hair, Murasaki creates a representation of the Japanese female body that is very different from the one envisioned by the Western gaze. Their bodies, in other words, aren’t the objects of a Westerner’s sexual, aesthetic, economic, or power-hungry fantasies. Rather, as reflected by the quality of the rope itself, the bodies of Japanese women act as wellsprings of strength and durability. This is significant because female bodies, Japanese or not, were almost never repurposed for war because they were looked down upon as weak and pathetic. By fighting for the survival of not only their family but their country too, Japanese women, Murasaki included, represented the exception to this rule.

It’s tempting to conclude this blog post with a gross simplification of everything I learned from reading magazines this summer: the words really do matter. And as cliche as it sounds, it’s the truth. For authors like Murasaki, who never made a name for herself outside of the handful of articles published at this time, magazines represented the only way unknown authors could actually reach hundreds of thousands of readers. But there was a catch: while unknown authors could reach large audiences, magazines couldn’t promise that their readers would remember them. After all, there’s a reason why Murasaki rewrote representations of Japanese women, and we all but forgot about them.

Well before magazines lived on the internet forever, they were discarded by the time next month’s issue hit doorsteps. Countless stories remained largely unread in the years, months, or even weeks following their initial publication. As a result, memories of Murasaki and hundreds of other authors alike are endangered in the public consciousness. As more and more magazines are digitized each year, it’s imperative that we treat them like sites of literary excavation, where we can unearth the revolutionary work of authors we’ve long forgotten.

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