Essay Series 2018 #05
Yasumasa Morimura / How Can We Talk About “Women”?

"Nippon Cha Cha Cha!" ©Jacqueline Trichard "Nippon Cha Cha Cha!" ©Jacqueline Trichard

The fifth in our series of columns exploring themes related to women is written by the artist Yasumasa Morimura, who is well known for imitating historical figures or characters from famous paintings. His recent work includes the lecture performance Nippon Cha Cha Cha!

About the Essay Series:
Kyoto Experiment 2018 focuses on women artists or artists and companies that identify as female. Bringing the words “woman” or “female” to the fore in this way encourages us to realize a wide variety of perspectives that offer a cross section of contemporary society, from the unease we feel from everyday conversations and customs to broader issues of gender seen in social and historical contexts. This relay-style series of essays presents texts by specialists from different fields that problematize feminism not as an issue only for women but for society as a whole. We hope that they will provide opportunities for audiences to gain deeper insights into the festival programs. (The articles will be published approximately once every two weeks.)


How Can We Talk About “Women”?

I frequently get irritated when writing. The reason is third-person pronouns. Japanese only has “he” and “she” for singular third-person pronouns, an inconvenient and troublesome situation that always annoys me.

When designating someone, my choice is always limited to these two options of calling the person either “he” or “she,” regardless of whether I want particularly to emphasize the gender of the person. Anyone who has ever attempted to write without using these pronouns will know how difficult it is.

And then, when it comes to designating a person whose body is a “he” but whose mind is a “she” (or the other way round), we don’t even have a pronoun for that. So I thought about this and came up with karejo (s/he) for someone whose body is a “he” (kare) but whose mind is a “she” (kanojo). Or perhaps as a solution for this whole problem of singular third person pronouns, I considered kanohito (roughly, s/he person) instead of kare or kanojo.

However, these are all merely my own neologisms. Unless they appear as new entries in a dictionary of buzzwords or, needless to say, an actual Japanese dictionary, they will not be recognized as “words.” Neither karejo nor kanohito can be anything more than the sounds of my helpless baying.

Though just another example of arbitrary daydreaming, I also tried to think about the nouns “man” (otoko) and “woman” (onna).

What would happen if we took the “ko” and “na” from the end of, respectively, otoko and onna, and switched them? Or the “n” from onna and the “to” from otoko? They would make otona (adult), right?

This discovery is rather helpful. If we mix otoko and onna, it seems like we get the equation for the emergence of a mature “adult” society.

“Nippon Cha Cha Cha!” ©Jacqueline Trichard

However, while writing this column, I have nonchalantly adopted a hierarchical ranking of first raising a male example, followed by a female one, which once again demonstrates the inconvenience and troublesome nature of language. In the words that we use, we can only talk according to chronology. For example, when we write “man” first or the phrase “male-female,” we cannot help but write “woman” next in a (broadly speaking) subordinate sense.

Of course, it isn’t only a question of “male-female”; this same inconvenience and troublesome nature of ranking is also frequently present even in the language used in political contexts, like “Japan-China” or “Japan-Korea.” However, the order can flip, becoming “China-Japan” in China or “Korea-Japan” in South Korea. The common sense behind the wording in the thorny world of international politics that we all know is quite fascinating. The trick of deftly utilizing the inconvenience and troublesome nature of language with a poker face, almost as if these problems do not exist, and calmly turning it rather into a political strategy, is truly dishonest and absurd, yet surely also an interesting sight to behold.

Is it really impossible to interpret the world of language not as a single chronological line but rather as something three-dimensional with facial and spatial breadth as well as depth? It would mean no more of the fuss that accompanies the question of whether “male” should come before “female,” instead juxtaposing the two and allowing for us easily to engage in a reversibility whereby ranking can change in all manner of ways.

In literature, particularly twentieth-century literature, at one point various attempts were actively made to break through the restriction of language that only conveys things chronologically. However, all this tended to do was complicate matters further and did not lead to a clear resolution.

In the twenty-first century, how can we talk about “women”? At the root of this, we are obstructed by the robust system of language. The “female” problem is surely a problem of social systems, of consciousness and history. And yet, as a human being and as an individual artist, I want to remain aware of how it is also a deep problem of language.

Recommended Reading

Yasumasa Morimura, Confessions of Self-Portraiture: When “I” Meets “Me” (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 2016)

Yasumasa Morimura, Art, Respond! (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 2014)

Yasumasa Morimura, Yasumasa Morimura (Vagabonds Standart) (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2014)

Yasumasa Morimura, All Actresses (Tokyo: Nigensha, 2010)


Yasumasa Morimura
Born in Osaka in 1951, Yasumasa Morimura is an artist. He graduated from Kyoto City University of Arts, majoring in art. His practice started in 1985 and has encompassed self-portrait photography alongside performance and film. His solo exhibition “The Self-Portraits of YASUMASA MORIMURA: My Art, My Story, My Art History” was held at the National Museum of Art, Osaka in 2016. In 2018, he presented a lecture performance, Nippon Cha Cha Cha!, at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France and at Libra Hall in Tokyo. He was the artistic director of Yokohama Triennale 2014.

In autumn 2011, he received the Medal with Purple Ribbon for his artistic activities. His recent publications include Art History to Imitate (Akaaka Art Publishing), Art, Respond! (Chikuma Shobo), and Important Lost Property (Heibonsha).