Posts Tagged ‘Japan’
I’ll admit; this wasn’t a connection I made, but one of the girls in my class mentioned it and I liked her theory so much that I wanted to write about it.
Our reading for this week’s class was about the culture of kawaii, and L was talking about how the goals of kawaii were, in a way, the same basic goals of Western feminism/girl power: to escape defined gender roles of subservience and submissiveness.
L’s point was that in the West, feminism went in the direction of wanting what men have: equal access to traditionally male areas of employment, for example. Women were “masculinized,” if you will: pants, high powered careers, etc. (None of this is a bad thing.) The idea was to escape the defined role of “woman” if “woman” means “wife” or “helpmeet.*”
In Japan, the general cultural trend was not to demand access to the same spaces and opportunities as men, but to abandon “adulthood” all together. According to my professor, there is a certain amount of freedom of identity of children in Japan. The outlandish fashions of young women and men alike are excused on the basis that, when the time comes, people will grow out of that phase and move on to being responsible adults. L’s point was that women attempt to escape their defined role as “women” in a society where “woman” means “mother” by simply not growing up. (Women who are not married mothers are not regarded as fully grown-up, regardless of age or experience.) Instead, she argued, women make themselves (appear) cute and helpless so that they will not be expected to participate in the grown-up world of Japanese society. (In Japanese, most adjectives can be modified with sou to mean “it seems…” For example, oishiisou means “it seems delicious.” Kawaii, or cute, does not work the same way; kawaiisou means sad or pathetic. A story where young lovers sicken and die? Kawaiisou.)
These seem like very different aims, inclusion in society or exclusion from it, but L’s point was that at the bottom of it, the goal is the same: to escape rigidly defined “womanhood.”
Kawaii as a topic fascinates me. As a lover of cute stuff and a young woman and a wannabe sociologist, I find that kawaii pulls in a lot of ideology about urban life, alienation, consumerism, gender, sexuality, psychological safety and so on. Expect more posts on this vein in the near(ish) future.
*Someday I’ll do a post about how much I hate this word/concept.
So we had to read this article,* and the author talked about “domestication” of foreign products: of taking a thing, stripping it of it’s original meaning, and repackaging it in a way that fits the local (in this case, Japanese) culture. (Unlike “appropriation,” which I will get to in a minute, “domestication” was given a positive spin.) Take engagement rings, for example: they’re a Western idea that’s been adopted into Japanese culture, but with some of the original† meaning (e.g., romanticism) lost and the engagement rings placed in the specifically Japanese context of yuinouhin, which is basically a dowry given to the bride’s family. The diamond ring was added to the list of “things that a dowry is supposed to include.”
But, uh, isn’t that appropriation? If I were to, say, start selling kimono as this “neat thing foreigners do (and I can make money off of) so you should do if you want to seem really classy,” people would be pretty pissed off. I’d be appropriating someone else’s culture; taking the material object, stripping it of meaning and context, and replacing my own cultural values onto that thing.
So when is it “domestication” and when is it “appropriation”? Is it “domestication” because Japan has historically been subject to the West’s power, so adopting Western things for their own use, without the original Western meanings, is somehow a radical subversion of cultural appropriation of their own culture by the West? (Can there be anything radical or subversive about buying into Western culture? Can it be said that Japan actively imports the West, rather than the West actively exporting to Japan?) Is it still “domestication” (and not “appropriation”) if one Western country takes an object from another Western country? from Japan? from China? from India? from Brazil? from Rwanda? When does it become one and not the other? How do we tell the difference between domestication/appropriation and cultural imperialism? (That is, when is one culture actively importing another, and when is one culture actively (or even forcibly) exporting its own?)
I’d like to hear all of your thoughts, because I’m really not sure about any of this.
*”Introduction: Domesticating the West,” by Joseph J. Tobin (book unknown, we weren’t given that information, but I can find it out if anyone wants to know)
†okay, without getting into the history of engagement rings, let’s go with “the meaning engagement rings had around the time that the idea was introduced to Japan”
Once upon a time, I had an epiphany. It started during ENGL221: Introduction to Film & Media Studies, around the end of the period, and continued until shortly before I got back to my dorm. I most vividly remember standing on the academic campus quad, and let me tell you something, I saw new colors. I could see the way things worked together; systems overlapping systems, like graph tracing paper laid over a photograph. (Sorry to be using a metaphor that relies on sightedness, but at the time, it really was like a veil had been pulled back and I honestly saw the world differently. I do also visualize the wa information is connected; in my mind, ideas are connected by glowing, colored threads.)
It was not as though the world had been crooked and it suddenly clicked into place. It was more as though the world was off-kilter, always had been and always would be, but for about twenty minutes, I was standing at the same angle – tipping my head to view a picture that was hanging off-center.
It was about Marxism. I understood, I think, the way Marx understood. Or at least, I understood Marx’s understanding. The actual content of the epiphany is irrelevant, however: what matters is the feeling during that twenty or so minutes of complete understanding.
Of course, I’m being a little uppity: I’m just a lowly undergrad. My exposure to Marxism was limited to a couple of photocopied articles, a Charlie Chaplain film, a paper on those two things, and an hour-and-a-half discussion on them. I probably didn’t actually know anything more than any other undergrad studying Marxism for a couple weeks in a theory class; I probably understood less. What matters, as I said, was the feeling of understanding.
It occurred to me, not long ago, that I will probably never experience anything like that ever again. That’s okay. Sometimes I come close.
It happened last night, while I was reading Broken Silence, a book of translated articles, interviews and art by Japanese feminists, which I checked out on the fabulously simple advice of Anemone: to see what Japanese feminists said about, well, Japanese feminism. (Face, meet palm. Why did I not think of that?)
The article I was reading focused on masculine and feminine forms of speech in the Japanese language, and it got me thinking about some things. First, I made connections to the way a number of characters from various anime speak and what that’s supposed to say about them. (The title of this blog isn’t Fangirl Saves the World for no reason, you know.) Second, and more importantly, I was thinking about Japanese as I have bee taught to speak it, and I realized all of the causal forms we’ve been taught are the “masculine” casual forms.
Now, since “feminine” casual forms tend to be softer and less direct, maybe learning the “masculine” forms is easier for an English speaker, who exists in a more high content/low context environment anyway; feminine speech patterns in Japanese are even less direct than masculine ones. Or, you know, “masculine” is “default,” and therefore the one that we’re taught as people learning Japanese as a second language.
More important than that is the difference in the use of kango, words of Chinese origin typically associated with academia and intelligence. “The more important the topic … the higher the frequency of kango.” Relating back up to the relative lack of directness in feminine speech and the “heavy” or “still” feeling kango conveys, women tend not to use it nearly so often as men, even in academic papers, because they are not as familiar with its use. Women, therefore, are seen as less inclined to academia than men.
Considering the relatively low rates of women at prestigious universities like Todai and the fact that education at a prestigious university or beyond undergraduate studies is often seen as harming women’s prospects more than helping, this information about kango is just another log in the fire.
So what does it all mean and what do I intend to do with that knowledge? Honestly, I don’t know. For now, gather more knowledge; seek to understand more ways in which oppression works. From there, I have no idea.
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?