Theory Teacher's Blog

Tokyo Diaries 6: Race, Class, and Gender in the “Experience” of Japan

In my last post “Things Not Blogged,” I listed some of the experiences that I had in Japan but did not have time and/or inspiration to blog about. And some of my friends and family told me they hoped I would get around to narrating those experienes, but what about the experiences that I didn’t have? Aren’t the experiences I didn’t have just as important (or even more important) than the ones I did? I think it’s all too easy for tourists, students, and business people to take their experience of a foreign country as a true experience, and to come away from it full of judgements and summary characterizations. Even such visitors who are self-conscious enough to realize the many epistemological and social limits of experience will still form generalizations about a place based more on their experience than on a sociological study, a history book, or even a novel. Sometimes such limits are obvious; for instance, when one spends a few days in a posh, beach-side resort in Mexico, one knows that this isn’t the “real” Mexico, but in contrast, when one goes on a study-abroad trip to Japan and makes an effort to study the culture and spend time with ordinary people there, one can come away with an overestimation of one’s sense of things.

And this is why concepts such as race, class, gender, and Other, among others, are still useful for critically evaluating the limits of one’s experience and of one’s perspective. But even more useful might be a novel that explores those categories of existance and the parts of Japan that no tourist would ever experience. So, on the airplane back home to America, my students and I read one of my favorite novels: Out, by Natsuo Kirino. The novel was first published in 1997 — shortly after the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble and during the Asian financial crisis — about the same time that I arrived in Japan to begin a two-year position as an English conversation teacher at a Japanese prep school, and it was later made into an award-winning movie in 2002, and finally published in English in 2003.  Comparisons have been made to some of my favorite American crime novelists such as Walter Mosley [here] and James Cain [here].

The novel is about four women who work the night shift in a factory that makes obento (boxed lunches) for convenience stores. The setting is the outskirts of Tokyo — an area of poor neighborhoods and old, abandoned factories which it never occured to me to visit during my two years living in the center of Tokyo. While most of the part-time employees at this factory are women, most of the full-time are Brazillian immigrants, some of whom have Japanese ancestry. When one of the women kills her absusive, philandering husband, the rest come together to help and are all transformed by what happens next. Over the course of the novel, Kirino comments on relations of gender, class, and race as the four women and one of the immigrants seek liberation from the drudgery of their lives. Needless to say, this is not the Japan that I or any of my students encountered, except in form of the cheap obento that we all frequently bought from convenience stores.

While reading this novel, I also read an essay on “The Spirit of Productivity: Workplace Discourse on Culture and Economics in Japan” by Christena Turner, which is included in the 1993 collection of essays, Japan in the World. In it, Turner focuses her attention on the famous motto of post-Meiji-era Japan “wa kon yo sai” — or “Japanese spirit / Western learning,” and her argument opposes the simplistic theories in the mainstream media that locate the source of Japan’s economic success and productivity in a “mysterious cultural ability” or “Japanese spirit.”  Instead, she analyzes three different work environments to see how workplace identity is socially constructed and observes a range of factors including how national and regional identities are imagined in contrast to various cultural and economic others. Such identities, she argues, are fluid, heterogenous, and contested rather than homogenous and determinate. Since much of Kirino’s novel was about relation between the factory life and home life of these four women, I thought reading this essay alongside the novel might be interesting.

What is missing in Turner’s analysis, but which is carefully shown by Kirino’s depiction of the daily lives of her characters, are the desperation and loneliness of the workers, the presence of immigrants whose cultures are obviously excluded from the “mysterious cultural ability” of the iconic Japanese worker but nevertheless contribute to the success of the company, the welfare system and child-care support that some of the characters relied upon, the forms of education available to the workers’ children, and the legal system for managing debt at a moment of national financial crisis. Perhaps most trenchantly, the condition of women when they are abused or abandoned by men and the condition of immigrants who are socially excluded and ignored by a still racist Japan. Kirino doesn’t just show how the various social forces sometimes bring women together in solidarity with each other (and in solidarity with their immigrant co-workers); she also shows how those forces can pull women apart from each other.

Considering that this novel is set during Japan’s financial crisis, and considering that we are now experiencing America’s financial crisis, it might be a timely and illuminating read.

How does all of this relate to my experience of Japan? Is it simply the case that the novel by Kirino and the essay by Turner are about the Japan I did not and could not have encountered? Or was I simply unaware of the true nature of what I was encountering?

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May 31, 2009 - Posted by | Japan

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