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Japanese women ‘defect’ to the West


WOMEN ON THE VERGE: Japanese Women, Western Dreams, by Karen Kelsky. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001, pp. 294, $18.95 (paper)

The pursuit of “things foreign” has become an increasingly common activity of Japanese women in recent decades. Whether it be through study and work abroad, or through romance with Western men, the fascination for and idealization of “the West” has also led to a proliferation of debates about what it means to be a woman in contemporary Japan, and a questioning of why so many young Japanese women attempt to escape or turn away from the life courses expected of them.

In this thought-provoking book, American academic Karen Kelsky explores the historical and psychological reasons behind this attempted escape and questions why Japanese women have idealized and eroticized the West.

Kelsky begins her book by commenting on the precipitous slide in the birthrate in Japan, which plummeted to a low of 1.39 in 1997. She also notes the recent trend toward later marriage, rising to 29 years for men and almost 27 for women in the late 1990s, the highest in the industrialized world. Over a similar time frame, Japanese men, particularly those in rural areas, began experiencing so-called marriage difficulty, as men from urban areas seemed to become more attractive marriage prospects. Since the 1980s, young Japanese women have also been traveling abroad in ever-increasing numbers. In fact, Kelsky notes that by 1990 the number of young Japanese women engaging in foreign travel surpassed that of young Japanese men by a margin of two to one.

This attraction to “the foreign” has increased against a backdrop of profound social change in Japan, and should also be examined within the framework of the growing force of globalization. More and more young Japanese women have access to a world in which women are treated differently, and perhaps more equitably, than in their own nation. In short, they can see what they are missing.

Yet to assume that they are “missing” something is to oversimplify what is a far more complex struggle with self and national identity. In “Women on the Verge,” Kelsky attempts to address this struggle.

The focus of Kelsky’s book is on young Japanese women’s personal and professional investment in the realm of foreign-language study, study abroad, work abroad, employment in international organizations and foreign-affiliate firms and romantic or sexual involvement with foreign men. It is her claim that the 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.

Yet Japanese women’s “defection” to the West is not precisely to the West but to an idea of the West, dominated by an image of America that idealizes the treatment of women in that country. Furthermore, those women who do succeed in finding their feet abroad find their lives back in Japan destabilized by their foreign experience. As Kelsky notes, “behind the ideal of living in two worlds is a parallel danger of being able to live fully in neither.” Japanese women who travel or work abroad find themselves marginalized in both contexts.

The scope of Kelsky’s book is broad. She begins with an inquiry into the antecedents of internationalism, from the mid-19th century through the postwar U.S. Occupation of Japan. This includes discussion of the ways in which women’s narratives concerning their “rescue” at the hands of Americans reflect a simultaneous American understanding of Japanese women as “she-who-must-be-saved,” thereby idealizing and eroticizing the white American male as potential lover and husband. What emerges, Kelsky argues, is a “vocabulary of desire” for the United States and an idea of that country as a site of women’s escape and redemption.

There are obviously a number of practical difficulties faced by Japanese women in this phenomenon of internationalism. The limited availability of jobs and visas, as well as their own personal commitments at home, prevent many from pursuing alternative life courses. In Japan, they also struggle to negotiate persistent social pressures regarding age, marital status and what is considered proper behavior.

In the context of a burgeoning literature on the subject of women in Japan, Kelsky’s exploration of this destabilizing pull experienced by Japanese women between the expectations and demands of their own nation and their attraction to and idealization of the West is a new and timely contribution to contemporary debate. Of particular interest is her questioning of what the foreign experiences of young Japanese women amount to for those unable to remain abroad or unable to make use of their international experience once back in Japan.

Kelsky argues that although many internationalist Japanese women claim to make some kind of peace with Japan, enunciating a “hybrid identity” that challenges both their expected identity at home and the life led abroad, this new sense of self in actual fact forecloses possibilities for widespread social change — it is, in some respects, a kind of resignation to the status quo. At the same time, she claims that Japanese women’s internationalist rhetoric is one of the few options available for women to resist the systems of patriarchal control in Japan. For instance, she notes that English and other foreign languages “are far more than simply professional tools . . . they are the means by which women enter bodily into alternative systems of thought and value.”

Ultimately, Kelsky points to a complex set of conditions that both free and restrict the pattern of Japanese women’s lives. On the one hand, they appear to experience a more autonomous life course than Japanese men. They are not tied to a lifetime system of employment and are free to pursue outside interests and hobbies — yet in many respects this freedom is artificial. For one thing, it relies on the economic support of men. Furthermore, their idealization of Western men and work abroad invariably leads to a degree of disappointment and disillusionment. Their “autonomy” comes at a price. Many find their return to living in Japan extremely difficult and the challenge to undermine traditional gender norms remains considerable.

The effect of reading this book is unsettling. Ultimately, it is unclear whether Kelsky wants to applaud attempts by Japanese women to “internationalize” their lives, since this internationalization is underwritten by an idealization of the West and of Western men she is clearly in despair of. Yet she remains adamant that such internationalization is key to widespread social change in Japan. Perhaps her next academic venture should be one that sets our more clearly how internationalist women might direct their experiences in more effective ways and in so doing bridge the gap between the national and international realms.