Karen Kelsky. Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams. Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press, 2001. 294 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-2816-2; $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-2805-6.
Reviewed by Seija Jalagin (Department of History, University of Oulu, Finland)
Published on H-Women (September, 2002)
Any Country That Has to Export Women's Frustrations is Just Not Right: Japanese Women's Turn to the West
Any Country That Has to Export Women's Frustrations is Just Not Right: Japanese Women's Turn to the West
After dozens of books about representations of Japan by the West, Women on the Verge presents Japanese imagery of the West, and it does this by focusing on one of the most central topics: the West as the target of Japanese women's dreams and aspirations for something they do not seem to find in their own country. Karen Kelsky, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon, dives into the world of Japanese women's narratives of internationalism both in the past and in the present. Women's internationalist narratives center around Western akogare, translated as "longing, desire, or idealization" of the West. Kelsky's central argument is that this "turn to the foreign has become perhaps the most important means currently at women's disposal to resist gendered expectations of the female life course in Japan" (p. 2). In Women on the Verge Kelsky demonstrates this with a thorough analysis of contemporary Japanese women's use of the West as a mirror image of critique against their own society.
As the starting point Kelsky takes some central indications of a profound change in Japan's social relations during the past two decades. The 1.57 shock (declining birthrate), defeminization of the countryside, Equal Employment Opportunity Law (1987) and rising marrying age bound together with the internationalist narratives of Japanese women Kelsky sees as the strategies to flee the conventional roles offered to women. As the various ways with which Japanese women transform their akogare for the West into action, Kelsky presents foreign-language study, study abroad (ryugaku), work abroad and work in foreign-affiliated companies in Japan, short-term visits to Western countries (increasing overseas tourism by young Japanese women), and romantic and/or sexual relations with foreign men.
With statistical facts the author demonstrates how women monopolize the international niche and goes on to argue that this still does not mean that they could effectively use their transnational abilities and experience to alter the Japanese gender reality, or to get satisfying results on a personal level. The "internationalist Japanese women," as Kelsky calls them, have, however, built up a "new self" (atarashii jibun). Women on the Verge presents us with different ways this altered identity enables women to continue their existence somewhere between Japan and the West. Some try to settle in Europe or North America permanently, and the ones who fail to do this travel to Western countries whenever possible; whereas others later regard their Western akogare as a "symptom of immaturity [in] the prior self" (p. 214), eventually preferring Japan to the West. As Kelsky articulates, the West is not defined on a map, but consists of European and North American countries as well as Hong Kong and Singapore--all of which Japanese women regard as merit-based societies. Traditionally it is the United States that has been the closest of the (mental) West and is the usual target of internationalist Japanese women.
The first chapter traces the roots of female internationalism in Japan by focusing on selected phenomena and characters from the Meiji era (1868-1912) to the Occupation period (1945-1952). Kelsky briefly mentions the sexual nature of early contacts between Japan and the West in the form of arranged wives and prostitutes for foreign men who stayed in Japan for longer periods in the era of isolation (prior to 1859). She would have done well to go deeper into this since the most persistent element in the imagery of Japan in the West has been, and may still be (as this book also indicates), the lure of the Japanese woman as sexually liberal and doll-like at the same time. This image is male-dominated, no doubt, and although it is Kelsky's agenda to let the women speak, elaboration on this topic would have helped in finding the historical roots of present-day consensus between some Japanese internationalist women and western men in their mockery of Japanese men.
In chapter 1 the book familiarizes the reader with Tsuda Umeko, the famous Japanese women's educator who herself was schooled in the United States between the 1870s and the 1890s and eventually found her path in promoting Japanese women's education by founding a higher academy for girls' English study (now the Tsuda juku daigaku, Tsuda College in Tokyo). What is noteworthy in Tsuda and in many other Meiji Japan women activists is that they were also Christians--unlike present-day internationalist women. Considering the basis of internationalism in Japanese women's thinking, this is something that may explain Kelsky's notion that today "internationalist desires derived from this fantasy image [of the West] give birth to no social movement" (p. 224). To contemporary Japanese women their various investments to internationalize (to the West) mean first and foremost an individual project. Where Tsuda Umeko used her learning in the West to improve the lives of young women under her guidance, present-day internationalist women in Japan are driven to the West because of individual agendas.
From Tsuda the text moves through the Taisho (1912-1926) and early Showa (from 1926 onwards) periods, to wartime female internationalism concentrating on Mishima Sumie and her memoir published in 1941. After World War II, the Occupation period offered ordinary women a chance to write to other women what could be called "a program of relentless self-reform" (see p. 59) where the American women were taken as forerunners of liberation politics. No doubt the Occupation administration in its two D's program (Democratization and Demilitarization) was keen on supporting these kinds of ideas. In addition to written Western akogare, Kelsky deals with the actual relations between the occupation troops and the Japanese women which began to constitute the "sexual nexus of the Occupation" (p. 69). Despite the fact that the women who were intimate with American soldiers were scowled at and ridiculed (and as a historian I would add: as in many other countries during war-time where native women associated with foreign soldiers, allies or occupiers), these relations among others helped push the Japanese men to the backstage and create a more gentle and peaceful image of Japan in America.
This phenomenon constitutes yet another phase in the "eroticization of national power relations" which Kelsky very skillfully presents in her book. One of the many strengths of Women on the Verge is the theoretical contextualization of Japanese women's Western akogare. In addition to tracing the meanings of the foreign realm in the lives of internationalist Japanese women, Kelsky also exposes their connections in transnational relations, from individual to economic, from political to gendered. In this web of global markets, national policies, and individual tactics the internationalist women are shown to be conscious of the representations of themselves as Japanese women and of the representations of the West in Japan.
In chapter 2 Women on the Verge turns to "internationalism as resistance" in the lives of contemporary Japanese women. This resistance grows primarily from the Japanese workplace reality which discriminates against women in the white-collar sector by age, marital status and gender. Analyzing discussions in the media about women and women's role, and the ideas of her female informants, Kelsky presents the aims and fantasies projected onto study abroad, work abroad, work in international organizations (like the UN), and foreign-affiliated companies in Japan. Some women head abroad on career-oriented trips while others go on "refresh-type" short-term visits to study language (see p. 104). Kelsky's interviewees are also conscious of the price they have paid for their international flair: even a short period abroad might mean that they would not be hired by Japanese companies who recruit new employees from fresh graduates. At the same time, during their study or work abroad, "interactions with the Other" often launch a process of examining their prior Japanese self and sometimes help them discover a new self "in the atmosphere of 'freedom' of the foreign/West" (p. 121). For these women the gaishikei (foreign-affiliated firms) are presented "as the Messiah" (p. 114) after they have been "'spoiled' by the individualism and equal treatment" in the West (p. 116). The women Kelsky interviewed regard themselves as more flexible and as having an adaptability that Japanese men lack. Thus the alienation that is the consequence of their internationalism is transformed into a mark of (a new kind of) identity. The West is not just a job opportunity, but a realm of identity formation.
In chapter 3 the analysis moves into the romantic and sexual aspects of the Western akogare by Japanese women. The educational and professional opportunities in the West and the promises they make for Japanese women as described in chapter 2 are closely bound to the gender relations anticipated as being based on equality in the West. Thus it is no surprise that the critique of Japanese men and their domination over the working culture is most explicit in Japanese women's idealization of the Western man. It is in this arena that the cultural and gender aspirations of Japanese women and Western men are knitted together in a way that excludes both Japanese men and Western women. Women on the Verge points out how the historical eroticization of the Japanese woman in the West has found its counterpart in Japanese women's eroticized and fetishized imagery of the Western man. Kelsky portrays this with a careful reading and analysis of Japanese popular female fiction and commercials, as well as her female interviewees. The Western man is presented as a "prince on a white horse" who is expected to save the woman from the oppressive conventions of her own culture. Being conscious of the Western man's fetishized imagery of the Japanese woman, some internationalist women "have constructed themselves as 'she-who-must-be-saved'" (p. 174). Race in the post-colonial world is also seen as being more problematic to Japanese men and western women than to Japanese women who do not, at first sight at least, admit to being subjected to any racial assumptions on behalf of Western men, black or white. Kelsky's interpretation emphasizes the fetishization of race rather than the women being excused by their race.
The power of these sexualized fantasies is further strengthened by the market forces which unscrupulously utilize them. TV commercials and printed advertisements depict especially the white man as the target of female fantasies. At this point I must make a comment on Finnish advertising to show the globalization of these fetishized imageries. A Finnish chocolate company has during the last years produced several TV commercials to advertise its Geisha chocolate bar that has been produced since 1908. One of these commercials depicts a big-nosed Western man rowing on a river towards a Japanese woman. The scene can be dated somewhere in late nineteenth-century Japan and the commercial clearly makes use of all the clichés of the traditional image of Japanese women in the West. What makes it odd is that while chocolate is mainly marketed to women, Finnish women are certainly unable to find any of the hidden agenda that so explicitly points to Japanese women's akogare for the West. My example also refers to what Kelsky brings out: "the female-targeted commercials that employ the female desire for the white man are the creations of Western multinational companies" (p. 196). The fantasy they thus depict is that of the capitalist West, although they appeal to the Japanese women's Western akogare. What happens is that "the commercial posits the Japanese woman as the exotic object of multinational desire, a border-crossing Madame Butterfly in an era of late capitalism" (pp. 197-98).
The counter side of this is the mockery of Japanese male as the mutual opponent of both (some) Japanese women and Western men. In the commercials, popular fiction, and even English language books, Japanese men are infantilized. Japanese internationalist women's frustration, voiced, for example, as follows (and as in the citation of the title of this review): "I'm right! Japan is wrong!--I knew that Japan is the one with the problem, not me" (p. 228), finds its target in castrating Japanese men both physically and mentally in a union between Japanese women and Western men. Infantilizing the male of the Other is a traditionally Western way of depriving the men of other cultures of all their independent abilities as, for example, Stuart Hall has written. Kelsky does not refer to this, nor to the fact that the mockery of Japan, and its men especially, has also been adopted particularly in the American media as a means to fight Japanese economic power since the 1980s.
After reading the first three chapters I started to wonder whether the Japanese women interviewed by Kelsky had experienced anything negative in their turn to the West. The West depicted in popular fiction, commercials, language books, and the women's internationalist narratives had begun to resemble a flawless fantasy land. In chapter 4 Women on the Verge eventually comes to the limits and downsides of internationalism. In organizing the research material into a thematic approach, this order proves to be a well-chosen one. The anger a Western female reader starts feeling toward the global markets and the prevailing neo-liberal economics in exploiting (Japanese) women, and towards these women's (and Western men's) ridicule of Japanese men, all realized as subconscious mechanisms rather than deliberate tactics, fades away once the reader reaches the last chapter. This is not to say that the reader would not sympathize with Japanese women when they bring out the negative experiences that have resulted from their internationalization with the West. It is rather that with this chapter the internationalist Japanese women are illustrated as standing "on the verge": for many the West and Japan have become integral parts of their identity molding, "pragmatic exercises in hybridity" (p. 217).
What many internationalist women experience as their "authentic self" (p. 203) becomes alive only outside Japan and the need to relive this draws them over and over again to the West. This produces narratives of homelessness and stories of the many difficulties in trying to find a way abroad a second or third time. Some pursue green cards by marriage with foreign men, some through successive study periods and permanent professional positions. The gaishikei, foreign-affiliated companies in Japan, offer a safe harbor for some, where they, however, come face to face with the fact that clients still prefer to deal with men, and that Western men sometimes treat their Japanese female colleagues primarily as women expecting white men to save them, or as willing play-mates. Many internationally oriented Japanese women find themselves being chased by Western men who want to have a "docile" Japanese wife. Thus they as individuals become trapped in the traditional imagery of Japanese women.
As Women on the Verge shows, there are several sets of narratives that record women's positive and negative experiences of the West. Some women have turned back to Japan, primarily in two ways. The ones who do not pursue a career criticize Western women for neglecting their families at the expense of their working lives. Some women cast blame on Japanese men and reveal "the degree to which gender relations in Japan have been destabilized without reaching a resolution in a direction that women find acceptable" (p. 219).
At the threshold of the conclusion, the reader is puzzled: what happened to Japanese men in all this female projection to the West? They were silenced by internationalist Japanese women and the globalized consumer culture presenting the white man as the phallistic hegemonic figure. Although Japanese men are not the object of this book, their role in the internationalist narratives of Japanese women (and in the thinking of some Western men) left an annoying feeling that there should be some way to react to the representations depicted of them. The opportunity comes eventually. One of the aims of Kelsky's research is to "query the role of the Western ethnographer as native of globally circulating West" (p. 31). In the process of interviewing internationalist Japanese women she found both these women and Western men in Japan trying to ally with her as an American woman and as a researcher. The women automatically take her as an icon of the assumed Western gender equality, whereas the men see her as a Japan-specialist who will understand Western men's superior role to Japanese men. Kelsky's own private life, especially her marriage with a Japanese man, questions all these presumptions. In the conclusion she "rehabilitates" the Japanese man by recalling her own reactions against the mockery of Japanese men by some of her female informants and by some Western men. Through her own case Kelsky indisputably tears down the image depicted of Japanese men by the material she has just analyzed. I willingly applauded her for this "methodological turn."
Positioning herself as a researcher in relation to her material and topic is necessary in another way, too. The "taken-for-granted levels" at which the "foundations of women's international impulses operate" (p. 237) also show the dangers one faces in trying to translate internationalist Japanese women's Western akogare. It is all too easy to take them as signs of Western superiority over non-Western cultures and societies, and it is all too easy to find an audience that will readily use these oppositional discourses as confirming the Asian women's misery and oppression. Therefore, Kelsky wishes to emphasize that although "Japanese women's internationalist rhetoric feeds Western 'vanity'" it does not "diminish its effectiveness or value as oppostional discourse within a domestic Japanese context" (p. 246).
Karen Kelsky's Women on the Verge makes a strong case in showing that Japan, although never formally colonized, was and is affected by imperialist and colonial ideological domination. The importance of Women on the Verge lies in its effectiveness at tearing down the popular, historically loaded imagery of both Japanese women and the assumed Western superiority.
. See for example Seija Jalagin, "'The Fidelity of the Wife and the Purity of the Maiden': The Image of Japanese Woman as an Example of the Origins of a Stereotype," Japan: Reflections of the Eastern Mind, Seija Jalagin, ed. (Acta Universitatis Ouluensis, Humaniora B30. Oulu: Oulu University Press, 1998); Seija Jalagin, "Gendered Images: Western Women on Japanese Women," Looking at the Other: Historical Study of Images in Theory and Practice, Kari Alenius, Olavi K. Fält and Seija Jalagin, eds. (Acta Universitatis Ouluensis, Humaniora B30. Oulu: Oulu University Press, 2002); and Ian Littlewood, The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths (London: Secker & Warburg, 1996).
. Stuart Hall, "The Spectacle of the 'Other'," Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: Sage Publications, 1997).
3) See for example, Charles Burres, "Calling the Kettle 'Yellow': U.S. Media Is Tarnished by its Japan Coverage," The Japan Times Weekly, International Edition, September 8-14, 1997). Later examples of this kind of coverage in the Western media are Kay Itoh's "Women Warriors" and Hideko Takayama's "Samurai Eunuchs: Just What Is Wrong with Japanese Men?" in Newsweek, April 3, 2000.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-women.
Seija Jalagin. Review of Kelsky, Karen, Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams.
H-Women, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.