Sewing words for thought

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Some words can evoke powerful images, values and stereotypes that have crept into our subconsciousness to sometimes dictate the way we think or behave. For Ruri Clarkson, this is something that needs to be challenged in Japan, and which she does herself with art.

Clarkson explores the impact of words associated with women and their roles in contemporary Japanese society. Her upcoming exhibition in Tokyo, “Imposing words — Contemporary family matters,” will showcase around 10 works that, at first glance, look like traditional embroidered doilies. Featured at the center of each of her pieces, however, are Japanese terms that are not only used in relation to women but also reveal something about Japanese views of women. They are not phrases you’d expect to be used as motifs for decorative mats.

“負け犬 (makeinu)” translates as “loser dogs,” and is used in reference to unmarried women. “婚活 (konkatsu)” means “marriage hunt,” again stressing the perceived importance of marriage for women in Japan.

The juxtaposition of such words with embroidery, a craft stereotypically associated with women, makes Clarkson’s work striking, comical even, and it is surprisingly effective in rendering visual family and gender issues in Japan.

Clarkson, 30, who was born in Japan but has lived in Hungary, the United States and Hong Kong, said she started thinking about the power of words, including “主婦 (shufu),” meaning “housewife,” and “キャリア (kyaria),” meaning “career,” after she gave birth to her son in 2007.

“Before, my friends used to characterize (and describe) me as someone who spoke good English or who was a fast runner,” she said. “But after I gave birth, even my closest friends started saying things like, ‘You look softer since you became a mom,’ and ‘Now that you’ve become a shufu, you cannot go out at night, right?’ I felt as if there were two versions of me — a true self and an idealized feminine self.”

That “feminine self,” she observed, internalizes the values of the society around her. And such social values, she said, are imposed through phrases used by adults talking to kids — for example, “Behave like a girl” — and through long-standing “good women” archetypes in the mass media, such as Sazae-san (the housewife character in the long-running, eponymously-titled TV animation series) and Shizuka-chan (the demure girl featured in another popular anime series, “Doraemon”).

When she came up with the idea of using embroidery, which she taught herself from books, the first word she chose was “shufu.” She stitched it in large, puffy text, then surrounded it with angels. The angels refer to a pun — the “主 (shu)” part of the kanji is also used in Japan to refer to Jesus Christ. She felt that, like people’s views on religion, being a housewife was either regarded with utmost respect or it was dismissed and scorned.

“Words are so powerful that they live longer than people,” she said. “There is no way I can beat the words if I fight them head on. So I’ve chosen to take a side jab, to poke fun at them.”

The works on display, said Clarkson, were created to be touched by visitors. Making them tactile, she said, was a way to allow visitors to treat them casually while they sparked thoughts and conversation about the social commentary of her work.

“We all have stereotypes about people. The way people will think of you if you said ‘I’m a housewife,’ would be completely different to what they would think if you said ‘I work for a gaishikei (foreign bank).’ That’s inevitable,” she said. “But I think we should be aware of our own stereotyped ideas, because if we aren’t, it can lead to misunderstandings and a lack of tolerance.”

“Imposing words — Contemporary family matters” will run at Nidi gallery in Shibuya from March 14-20. Admission is free. For more information, visit ruri.node808.net/images/PR_Ruri_small2_en.pdf.