Girls in Motion: Japanese Bus Conductors as Figures of Nostalgia

busgirl1Some of the most visible workers on the streets of Japanese cities and countryside were the women who took tickets and called out bus stops. Known by the diminutive title “bus girls” [basu gâru], they developed their own vocabulary, creating words used by their counterparts in China and Korea, and influencing notions of gender in other parts of Asia. They even developed a distinctive fashion. Bus girls were especially common from the early 1920s until the mid-1960s, when the so-called “one-man bus” staffed only with a driver became the norm.

Because of the accessibility of mass transportation, large sectors of the population looked at bus girls differently than women working other occupations. In prewar Japan, bus girls came to represent the dangers and allure of modernization. During the postwar high-growth period, they were promoted as model service workers and associated with neighborly values believed lost through rapid urbanization. Poor and exploited in reality, bus girls became characters in stories of the small encounters that showed how technology shaped human behaviors and interactions.

Although bus girls are now found only on tour buses, their images are reappearing in Japanese popular culture in interesting and mostly positive ways.

First-hand accounts written by bus girls indicate discrepancies between their actual lives and cultural lore. What do these discrepancies say about women in Japanese society? My talk explores the cultural and historical significance of a female workforce forgotten by scholars but fondly remembered in accounts of 20th-century Japan. Drawing on literature, film, newspapers, songs, television, and comics, I show how Japanese bus conductors were conceived as modern girls in motion, ideal laborers, and figures of nostalgia. My talk coincides with the 2009 anniversary of the use of female bus tour guides in Japan.

Presenter Profile: Alisa Freedman, Associate Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures

alisaphoto1Alisa Freedman, Associate Professor, UO Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, has taught Japanese Literature and Film at the University of Oregon since 2005. Much of her work investigates how the urban experience has shaped human subjectivity and cultural production. She strives to show how literature and visual media can provide a deeper understanding of society, politics, and economics. Her book Tokyo in Transit: Japanese Culture on the Rails and Road, published by Stanford University Press in 2010, explores fictional and artistic depictions of the ways increased use of mass transportation changed Tokyo’s social fabric. Her edited volume Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan is due out soon from Stanford University Press. In addition, Alisa is engaged in many literary translation projects, especially experimental modernist prose and stories by contemporary women writers. Her annotated translation of Nobel Prize-winner Kawabata Yasunari’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (Asakusa kurenaidan) was published by the University of California Press in 2005 and was favorably reviewed in such mass-circulation periodicals as the New York Review of Books, Village Voice, and Japan Times newspaper and in major academic journals, including Japan Forum and Japanese Studies. The Library Journal gave the book a starred review.