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Japanese Feminism

sarahcollins's picture


Sarah Collins
Feminist Critical Studies

“Our perspective is that of existentialist ethics. … Thereis no justification for present existence other than its expansion into anindefinitely open future. Every time transcendence falls back into immanence,stagnation, there is a degradation of existence into the ‘en-sois’ – the brutish life of subjection to given conditions – and of liberty into constraint and contingence. … Every individualconcerned to justify his existence feels that his existence involves an undefined need to transcend himself, to engage in freely chosen projects”
-From Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (Introduction)

 “Culture is fundamentally a shaper of perception…and perception is shaped by culture in many subtle ways…To a great extent, changes in materials translated from atribal to a western language are a result of the vast difference in languages; certain ideas and concepts that are implicit in the structure of an Indian language are not possible in English. Language embodies the unspoken assumptions and orientations of the culture it belongs to”.
-From Paula Gunn Allen’s “Kochinnenako in Academe” (225)

“Asian women do have significant power, although it is not aform of power recognized by non-Asian feminists. I think that we need a far greater sensitivity to cultural differences. It is possible for Asian women to develop a feminism that is the product of their own cultural context and meaningful to them.”
–Ueno Chizuko (Buckley, 278)

The topic of Japanese feminism is just as sprawling, complicated, diverse, and self-contradictive as American feminism, so this paper will be limited to responding to the materials and discussions of this class specifically.
During the course of this semester, I was struck several times by the thought that many of the readings we had werewritten with a fairly narrow, American or Western definition of feminism inmind – that is, the idea that a woman is not entirely liberated until she hascomplete autonomy as an individual to construct her identity as she pleases, orthat she must be defined separately, and not in relation to anybody. In asociety such as Japan’s, in which most people “are most at ease when situatedin their assigned role within the group” (Buckley, 63), America’s particular flavor of individualistic feminism simply does not make sense in settingfeminist goals. The three quotes above are meant to illustrate several things: The de Beauvoir quote is the philosophical basis for Western feminists’ goal ofactualizing every individual’s potential. The Allen quote is to highlight thepowerful difference cultural context makes in determining what feminism means,and also to point out the fundamental role language can play. Not being exposed to different cultures prevents people from conceiving how an entire other segment of the population has a completely different way of looking at theworld. Japan, with its radically different culture (women have their own styleof writing and speaking, household labor is esteemed as virtuous, not merelyseen as chores), lends itself very easily to be misunderstood. The Keres peoplethink differently from Americans in that they do not “foreground” and valuecertain elements of their stories that Westerners naturally do; The Japanesecommunity-centered mentality is radically unlike Western thinking as well, although not in the same way as the Keres way of thinking. The third quote isto clarify how feminisms and the achievement of equality can be relative toeach culture. I am not writing this paper in order to prove that feminists inJapan, academic or activist, are happy or complacent to exist in relation tomen as the Other, or without legal, social, or economic equality. I amattempting to refute the notion that in order to be liberated from theconstraints of patriarchy, it is necessary for every woman to be defined as acompletely autonomous being, and that the individualist component of Americanfeminism is not relevant to all cultures, and to Japanese culture, within whichpeople “characteristically give greater importance to their identity within thegroup than their independent or individual identity” (Buckley, 63), inparticular. I want to stress the danger of projecting cultural values on toanother culture, which can lead to a misconception of the feminisms of othercultures as being misguided and behind the times. That being said, I am notenough of an authority on current Japanese feminism to assess howun-/successful the efforts of contemporary feminists have been. There may besome Japanese feminists who believe the Westernization of Japanese society, tomake it less community-oriented, would be progress, however, I am focusing onthe feminism of those who believe feminism can operate in a manner intrinsic toEastern societies. In order to do so, I will explain the concepts of amae, or "indulgent dependency" (Nomi andSmith), and of woman’s speech (onna kotoba), the distinct pattern of speech that women use.

Amae and Interdependent Thinking
Many people wonder why Japanese feminism is in the“conservative” or “timid” state it is now: the gender gap between paychecks iswider than it is in a America due to the fact that very few women ascend to thehighest paying corporate jobs; pornographic comics are sold at almost everynewsstand, many depicting rape or other sexual assault on women; there arestill very strict ideas of what the ideal woman is and how women should behave;women are expected to serve tea at all social events; divorced women arestigmatized but divorced men are not; women are still groped on the subway. Thelast two of these things are the object of feminists’ activist efforts, but therest are issues to a lesser extent. In Japan, there are not many attempts tocompletely overthrow all gender roles. This is because of the rigidity ofsocial roles that have been in place in Japan for centuries. One prominentJapanese feminist, Ueno Chizuko, reflecting on the differences between NorthAmerican and Japanese feminisms summed up the American feminists demand forindividual freedom within the context of the country’s historical ideology offreedom and independence: “[America’s] society developed in an almostartificial way. It is a recent society, which made strong and deliberate choiceson such issues as individual rights and freedom. It developed in a very plannedor conscious way, and the feminist movement developed within the context of afreedom closely associated with the autonomy of the individual” (Buckley, 278).
            Itis necessary to understand the concept of amae and how it is relevant to Japanese culture and society in order tofully comprehend how many Japanese women are content to be thought of asmothers and nurturers. Amae, aterm coined by Doi Takeo in his Anatomy of Dependence, describes the relationship that exists between anoverly attentive mother and an immature, sometimes selfish child. This works inthe larger Japanese social framework of the “nation as family”, an attitude bythe Japanese, who were “keen to achieve the goals of national unity andindustrialization” (Buckley, 23) after the Americans forced them to open up toeconomic trade in 1868. The dynamics of this relationship are evidentthroughout Japanese culture (Nomi and Smith), and it explains a great dealabout Japan’s attitude toward individual success. For example, in thewidespread case of Japanese mothers who help prepare their sons for therigorous process of being admitted to a prestigious college, one feministobserves that the sons depend so much on their mothers for support that “italmost seems that the strongest motivation is to please the mother rather thanindividual success” (Buckley, 286). It also explains some fundamentaldifferences between Japanese society and American society:
“European languageslack an equivalent word to amae,” which“implies lack of social recognition and need of feelings of dependency and thedesire to be loved in the West. … In contradistinction, Hess and Azuma (1991)suggest that the American preoccupation with independence prevents us fromnoticing the extent to which the need for "indulgent dependence"expressed by amae positivelyinfluences educational aspirations through American parent-child andteacher-pupil relationships” (Nomi and Smith).
            InJapanese culture, therefore, mothers are revered for their nurturing roles.This is why Japanese feminism has never has the goal of destroying every socialand gender role, because the majority of Japanese women are relatively contentwith their position. There is no overwhelming desire or social pressure toexpress the aspect of one’s identity that does not consist in family relatedmatters because many women consider that to be the main part of their identity,and do not feel as oppressed by it as American women. However, feminists havemade changes that mitigate the stigmatization of women who do wish to set outon career paths for the sake of individual achievement without being perceivedas selfish. Japanese housewives, who usually hold a professional job as well (Buckley,281), are also endowed with a tremendous amount of responsibility and powerbecause their husbands often hand over their paychecks to them virtuallyuntouched. One feminist writes: “In any East Asian culture you will find thatwomen have a very tangible power within the household. This is often rejectedby non-Asian feminists who argue that it is not real power, but I woulddisagree…Japanese women look at the low status attributed to the domestic laborof housewives in North America and feel that this amounts to a denigration of afundamental social role – whether it is performed by a man or a woman”(Buckley, 278-79). Other feminists, of course, oppose the extent to which thematernal role is esteemed and how it can lead to the denigration of women innon-motherly roles, such as artists or businesswomen. Aoki Yayoi, for instance,in discussing how men and women are raised to conform to the immature son ordoting mother roles of Japan, warns that “the individual who harbors theseunsatisfied desires [of having an infantile parent-child relationship withone’s spouse (for men) or superior (for women)] will create a vicious cyclewithin which is it difficult to sustain an equal relationship with a member ofthe opposite sex” (Buckley, 29-30).
The Japanese feminist movement tookplace parallel in time to America’s, but many Japanese feminists say ithappened independently and was not influenced by American women, who wereperceived as too radical and unstable. “The women in the [American] movementwere presented as eccentrics”, Aoki Yayoiexplains.“The media focused on such isolated events as bra-burning ceremonies and theviolent protest at the Miss America pageant. That was Japan’s first exposure tothe American movement. Japanese feminists were not anxious to be identifiedwith all this…they were wary of giving the media any excuse to misrepresentthem in the same light” (Buckley, 13). The pressure not to go overboard intheir agitations reflects the Japanese sensibility of living in close quarters andthe need for civility and politeness. One feminist, Ide Sachiko, even cites thefact that Japanese women are aware they have an average life expectancy of 80years to plan for, and to divorce their husbands and become single mothers ortake other unconventional stands would mean cutting themselves off from anelaborate social structure of support and leaving themselves financially andsometimes physically helpless. In this respect, “the American system is farmore flexible and offers more support mechanisms to women who go out on theirown” (Buckley, 47).
            SomeAmerican manifestations of feminist seem not to make very much sense in aJapanese context. For example, tentative efforts have been made to instate aJapanese “Take Back the Night” to address the issue of sexual assault. However,due to the fact that “Japanese statistics for rape by strangers are very low”,and mostly are inflicted by acquaintances and family members, Ueno Chizuko, oneof the most well-known Japanese feminists, believes they “need to developcampaigns that fit our lives and not just follow trends in America that arequite specific to the conditions of that society” (Buckley, 288).

Woman’s Speech in Japan
Paula Gunn Allen’s quote is very pertinent to understandinghow Japanese culture requires a different variety of feminism. In Japan, thevery structure of the language encompasses an element of decorum almostincomprehensible to non-Japanese speakers. Many of the authors I have read havesuggested that Japanese culture shares more in common with European countriesthan with America. A possible explanation is that class-based hierarchies havehad and still do have an effect on daily social and professional interactions.Japan tends to differ from European countries in that it modernized andretained significant gender-based social structures. Ueno Chizuko, a prominentJapanese feminist, writes: “it is worrying when this [fact] is used as evidencethat Japan is not ‘successfully’ modernized. It simply means that Japan hasmodernized differently” (Buckley, 281).
In our class, the question ofwhether there exists a fundamental difference between men and women, whichmight manifest itself in writing, thinking, or speaking, came up repeatedly aswe read second wave feminists such as Hélène Cixous, Virginia Woolf, PatriciaSweickart, and others. In Japan, the inquiry is altered slightly because of theexistence of a separate, distinct manner of verbal expression, known as woman’sspeech. This means that for anyone raised speaking Japanese, there alreadyexists a much more concrete barrier between the sexes than for any speakers ofEnglish. It also means that the neutralizing of language in Japan, such asexchanging “he or she”, or “a person” for just “he” in English, is an almostimpossible endeavor, unless woman’s speech is given up completely. There iscontroversy in Japan as to whether this way of speaking works in favor of oragainst women, and whether it ought to be abolished or nurtured. Those whobelieve in eradicating it argue that it perpetuates the idea of women as weak,inferior, and outsiders to the patriarchy, as a sort of verbal corset; onelinguist, Robin Lakoff, has observed that in order to be successful in thebusiness world, a woman must be bilingual in the language of men and of women(Buckley, 39). The fact that women are always expected to be more mindful ofpropriety and respect makes competing in intellectual arenas more difficult andcomplicated for women than for men, who can speak informally andstraightforwardly. Others propose that woman’s speech be used to create aunique female space in literature, and say that it emphasizes the best aspectsof being a woman, such as being attentive to emotions and nuances ofsocializing.

Unfortunately, it is not possibleto capture the nuances of woman’s speech in the space allotted, although it isfascinating to read about. A rough sketch of the essential aspects of thisspeech goes as follows: In the Japanese language, there is an element ofpoliteness that is very difficult to translate into English. This elementvaries according to class, sex, seniority, and superiority (in position). Womenare typically expected to be deferential to men in social situations, but notin professional or intellectual cases in which the woman has more credentials.An example of gendered grammatical is the decision involved in choosing a firstperson pronoun, because “to pick one is to identify oneself by gender, age, andlevel of respect felt toward the listener” (Cherry, 38). The overall effect of woman’sspeech is that it softens opinions, causes the speaker to sound less decisive,dilutes the thought content of a sentence by padding it with modifiers, and increases the distance between men and women by causing the woman to speak more formally than men.

The geisha is perhaps one of the most sensationalized and misunderstood aspects of Japanese culture. For asurprising number of Westerners, the word brings to mind the image of a submissive, exotically made-up prostitute. Kelly Foreman notes in her essay “Bad Girls Confined: Okuni, Geisha, and the Negotiation of Female PerformanceSpace” that “geisha girls”, in America are often “utilized as a symbol ofrepression, passivity, and the inequities that we continue to find unpurgedfrom our own society – “bad” elements that reveal stagnancy in our own socialprogress” (Bardsley and Miller, 33)
The Japanese public reproaches real geisha for following a professional path that eschews family commitments andthe maternal role for artistic self-expression, a decision that is perceived asselfish and immodest. Geisha are strictly performance artists. This misconception exists in part because prostitutes advertised themselves as geisha to American GIs in postwar Japan, and they also used to be frequently confused with high-class courtesans called oiran. It requires years of training in the disciplines of theatre, music, and dance to earn the title of geisha, and in order to fund their expensive education, geisha offer their services as entertainers at parties and other often formal occasions.  Japanese women are just as present in the audience as men. Full-fledged geisha are often enterprising businesswomen who owntheir own bars and have a great deal of individual power over their lifedecisions and how they define themselves. In this respect, being a geisha is a very feminist career.

            Japanesesociety fundamentally differs from American society in its socio-politicalbackground, which unites the nation as a family and honors the role of caretaker and mother, and also fosters amae,which leads to interdependent thinking. The fact that Japanese society largely thinks interdependently means the existentialist ideal of defining oneself asan individual is not compatible with Japanese feminism. For these reasons, it is not correct to suppose that all forms of feminism take the shape of anindependently formed identity, the discarding of all and any social and gender roles, or having goals for individual achievements. Instead, Japanese feminismoften involves broad social aims, such as the right to have an abortion, calling for the disarmament of nuclear weapons (because they are seen as thetrappings of a patriarchal, militaristic society), bringing sexuality issuesinto the public discussion, and many more.
None of this in any way excludesthe existence of Japanese feminists who fight for the right to lead asuccessful, highly paid professional career without having a family and to notbe stigmatized for it, or any other pursuits of individual achievement. Many Japanese feminists are in agreement that serious changes remain to be broughtabout, such as misrepresentation of women in the media, or a publicacknowledgment that the role of woman as mother is over idealized. I mean onlyto show how the “slow progress” and “moderation” of feminism in Japan might beWestern misperceptions arising from the ideal of individualism. One feministthat we have read in class (Linda Kauffman) suggests that American feministsmay overvalue bourgeois individualism. Japanese feminism instead focuses onestablishing equality within the pre-existing social structures, in which beingthe mother in a household implies a tremendous amount of personal power, muchmore so than in America. Perhaps a excerpt from Sandra Buckley's immensely useful Broken Silencecould be used as a supplement to help future classes understand this unique cultural viewpoint and perspective of feminism. Feminism promises that no women will go unliberated, and Japanese feminists, though perhaps working under the international radar, are fighting just as proudly and strongly as their American counterparts. 
Bibliography and Suggestions for Further Reading:
Because I can't do justice to the myriad of issues or the history of Japanese feminism in this paper, here are some great books that are helpful in breaking into on-going and controversial feminist issues in Japan:
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
Bardsley, Jan and Laura Miller, eds. Bad Girls of Japan. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. 
This compendium of Japanese “bad girls” (the title is ironicand deliberately provocative) examines female individuals or groups who havetransgressed social lines and were subsequently stigmatized or ridiculed by the media, and attempts to place them within the larger socio-economic-cultural contexts which helped create their lifestyles or actions in order to preventtheir becoming random aberrations of female misbehavior.It includes an interesting essay about mythical females and how the ancient matriarchal shinto religion was supplanted by patriarchal Confusianism. Reasons for being perceived as a "bad girl" include being highly visible in the public domain, being too assertive about their desires and too open about their bodies, and earning more money than men. This book tends to evaluate the progress of Japanese feminism from a Western point of view.

Buckley, Sandra. Broken Silence: Voices of JapaneseFeminism. Berkeley and Los Angelos: University of California Press, 1997.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to grasp the most contemporary issues of Japanese feminism, including eco-feminism, the politicsof linguistics, Japanese poetry, reproductive technology, sexuality, and thedifferences between Western and Eastern feminisms.  It addresses the question why Japan’s feminism/-ists existso low on the international radar, and covers the “context (historical andcontemporary), platforms, motivations, and priorities” that are particular to Japan. It contains ten interviews with and excerpts from the works of prominentfeminists of Japan, whose sometimes-conflicting views demonstrate the diversityof ideology and thought existing in Japanese feminism.
Cherry, Kittredge. Womansword: What Japanese Words SayAbout Women. New York: Kodansha International, 1987.
This slim book provides a colorful and informative look atJapanese women and how they are perceived in Japanese culture through thewindow of idiomatic expressions and etymology relating to women. While it isnot academic, it is informative and accurate. 
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1952. 
Schalow, Paul Gordon and Janet A. Walker, eds. TheWoman’s Hand: Gender and Theory in Japanese Women’s Writing. Stanford: Stanford UniversityPress, 1996.
Nomi, Takako, and Herman W. Smith. Is Amae the Key toUnderstanding Japanese
Culture? 2000. ElectronicJournal of Sociology. 21 Dec. 2007.
The abstract and introduction of this site is useful inexplaining the concept of amae, and howit is central to understanding Japanese society and culture as a whole. 



jkim's picture

The difference is feminists

The difference is feminists in Asia respect society.

Feminists in the West only claim to when threatened by questions.

Most Asian "feminists" would be considered mild or even treasonous by Western feminists. In the East, nationality and ethnicity are of paramount importance, something that almost everyone knows should not be undermined by ideologies like feminism, even if it raises legitimate issues. One never has to fear that someone who promotes gender equality is using it as a cover to be belligerent, self asserting, or divisive, because Asians place our unity above idealism. We can always assume good faith, and that assumption is usually justified. Despite all the claims to "not hating men", I have very little faith in Western feminism and their actions.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Interesting article

Feminism isn't the same to everybody, there are so many different types of feminism.

To me, gathering from this article there are two basic definitions of feminism: 1) What women do is just as equal in value with what men do (called difference feminism). 2) Women should have the exact same opportunities and careers as men (called radical feminism). What I think the Japanese feminist movement is doing, with in their own context is difference feminism. Americans are still focused on radical feminism, trying to eradicate all forms of oppression, and suppression (where there is no overt oppression, there is a covert suppression in patriarchy). These two basic definitions aren't quite so contradictory, you need to uphold what women have traditionally done as being of equal value to what men and you need to see that women have the exact same opportunities and career options as men.

In absolutely no way does anybody have to agree with me. I feel though when you don't take the point of this article which was to say that we as westerners are looking at Japanese feminism from the wrong angle, our own cultural angle, and call these women fake feminists, then you will only cause more disunity among feminists of different beliefs. Women are individuals, and also product of the culture (as much as men are) that we live in, and by that very nature of being from different life experiences, and different beliefs systems, we are going to view this idea of overcoming patriarchy with different perspectives.

You yourself have a perspective that I myself think is very much okay to have. In fact I agree with your assertion that Patriarchy is Patriarchy. I disagree that we all have to fight this battle the same way.

Maria de Lourdes's picture

sexism is sexism,no mater where and how it is made

Patriarchy is always patriarchy,no matter its country and the excuses given by men and by fake-feminsita taht uses "culture" as excuse.So,in South American,where my country is,some patriarchal stuff would be justified because our culture?

Women oppression are the same,the capacity of women from each culture to see over sexism,unite and react is the only thing that unfortunally differs.