Fangirl Saves the World

just who the hell do you think you are, anyway?

ethnography and feminism

with 2 comments

I may have mentioned, but I am currently studying abroad just outside of Tokyo. (I’m an East Asian Studies major, so it makes sense.) Two of the courses I’m taking are anthropology/sociology courses that focus on ethnography, a big part of which is learning to understand another culture in their own terms. It’s a lot harder than it looks, but I’m working on it.

One thing that came up was that a good ethnographer should be a cultural relativist and not judge; don’t say “what they do here is bad or weird/not as good as what I do at home.” I feel like that ought to be a given in an age of globalization. I’m good with that; I don’t believe any culture is inherently better or worse than others. (I don’t think I would be majoring in what I am if I did.)

There is one sticking point for me, though: as a whole (and, despite what some might think, Japan is not a homogeneous/monocultural country), Japanese culture is still very steeped in sexism. (I’m not saying that American culture isn’t also still deeply sexist, but because I’m not used to the ways that sexism operates in Japan, it’s easier for me to pin down as “this is sexism” rather than “this is normal.”) For example, most high schools do roll call by calling all of the boys first, and then all of the girls.

Not exactly a welcoming environment, is it?
There were times in high school (never in college, since I go to a women’s college) where I felt that the boys were trying to push me out – especially during junior year, when I was one of three girls in a class of thirty (it was a web design/computer animation votech program) – but the institution never made me feel unwelcome or like a second-class citizen.

Another example of sexism in education is the college ranking system here. My professor said that the process is a bit mysterious, but one thing that is known is that the higher the ratio of women to men in a university, the lower the university will be ranked. The university where I am studying, Kanda University of International Studies, is ranked around the B/B+ range, and until more men start attending (the students are mostly female), it will not be promoted to an A-/A ranking college.

Tokyo University, meanwhile, has an almost exclusively male student body – particularly problematic when you consider most Diet members are Todai grads – and is the most highly ranked university in the country. This ranking system is not about equality and having an even number of male and female students.

I have ideological issues with that; as an American, true, but as an American feminist. The feminist in me is not okay with those things, but the ethnographer in me is telling her to cool it, to try and understand it from a Japanese point-of-view.

I am, and I do try, but whatever the reason, the ultimate result still seems wrong to me.

So my question is this: can I be a good ethnographer, and work towards understanding Japanese society from a Japanese prospective, and a good feminist who notices and takes an issue with the way that society operates, or would that just be ethnocentricity? Or should I keep my white, Western nose out of it?



Written by Fangirl

October 16, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Posted in women are people too

Tagged with , ,

2 Responses

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  1. What do Japanese feminists say? After all, they’re a part of Japanese culture, too.


    October 16, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    • Obviously, that would be the thing to do, wouldn’t it? I … have no idea why that didn’t occur to me. Right now, I’ve got one book (Broken Silence) out from my study abroad center’s library. I’ll let you know how it goes.


      October 26, 2009 at 10:30 am

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