Diva Nation: Female Icons from Japanese Cultural Culture

Diva Nation: Female Icons from Japanese Cultural Culture
by Laura Miller and Rebecca Copeland, Editors

University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2018
264 pp., illus. 26 b&w. $Trade, 85.00; paper, $34.95; eBook, $34.95
ISBN: 9780520297722; paper, ISBN: 9780520297739; ISBN: 9780520969971.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
March 2019

There are many ways to define the word “diva” and many local and global examples that illustrate a phenomenon that goes far beyond the original meaning of the word as “opera diva”. This collection is an important contribution to a better understanding of the diva in the post-feminist era. The main objective of the book is not to celebrate women or womanhood or to disclose notable women that have nevertheless been overlooked by patriarchal historiography, but to build a new interpretive framework. Key in this regard is the following proposal, made by the prefacer of the book, Laura Hein: “Successful divas re debt collectors –their honesty is a claim for reparations, but their demands are rarely met with an equally honest response.” (xvi). The very rich –and brilliantly written– introduction by the two editors further explores this fundamental hypothesis. It underscores the similarities between the extremely variegated case studies one finds in the book, which covers a broad range of periods and cultural spheres, while managing to  carefully point out their common features, all of them linked with the often tragic clash between female genius and social structures.

What most interests the various contributors is the permanent tension – social, ideological, political, in short: cultural – of mainstream culture and diva culture, more precisely between traditional Japanese ideas and ideals of womanhood and the often crude rejection of these norms centered on notions such as modesty, restraint and unpretentiousness, by all kind of women – straight, queer, transgender – whose way of life is exuberantly exceptional as well as exceptionally excessive, at least at certain moments of their life, since not all divas remain divas after their public performances –some of them even choose “excessive normalcy” as their way of performing the qualities and audaciousness of diva lives (the key example here is the Olympic skate champion Asada Mao, who powerfully combined the girl next door aesthetics with unusual personal strength and career planning).

Written by specialists of Japanese culture, Diva Nation offers a good panorama of the historical and contemporary presence and diversity of divas, ranging from mythological figures to current day performers and pop stars (for non-Japanese audiences, the best known example is probably Yoko Ono). The strong historical dimension as well as the generic diversity of the book are unquestionably two great advantages. First of all, the diva phenomenon can emerge as a general pattern of Japanese culture and do away with persistent clichés, at least in Western eyes, of mainly the geisha figure (roughly speaking, the Japanese equivalent of the “mother and whore” female stereotypes in Western traditions). Corollarily, the mix of high cultural and low cultural examples, theater and literature, music and visual arts, folklore and the Internet, also helps foreground these larger patterns. In a second step, and most of the contributions do this in an exemplary way, the initially purely Japanese take on the diva is the compared to examples and theoretical readings of the diva in other cultures, European as well as American (this may seem a Western bias, but it helps avoid making non relevant comparisons). On the one hand, there is a strong input of general theories on celebrity and performance culture and thus a permanent dialogue with authors such as Richard Dyer, Lauren Berlant, and Judith Butler). On the other hand, the Japanese examples are also interpreted and nuanced in light of non-Japanese cases of diva culture, such as Josephine Baker or Judy Garland (and the fact that some Japanese divas are actually cross-cultural examples, such as Yoko Ono, makes this kind of references and comparisons all the more useful and convincing).

At the same time, the transhistorical and cross-cultural perspectives, perfectly valuable in themselves, come also with a price. All more or less general or generalizing approaches remain in need of a no less necessary historical periodization and differentiation, which is clearly not the principal aim of the collection. It is now time to produce a second volume that is more committed to historical differences, between premodern and modern Japan, between pre-Western and Westernized Japan, between traditional and high-tech culture. Similar remarks may apply to the ecumenical approach of high and low culture. It is an excellent idea to bring together examples and practices from very different cultural fields, but it might have been interesting to learn more about the pressure of the cultural industries (if not the cultural industry in the Adorno and Horkheimer sense) in Japanese pop culture, where the diva is such a structuring phenomenon. The editors are definitely aware of this perspective, which has to do with the agency of divas, but the current framework of the book did not allow to address these issues as well.