Title: But Why Would Anyone Want to Explain Japanese Gender without Using the Word ‘Power’? Abstract

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Title: But Why Would Anyone Want to Explain Japanese Gender without Using the Word ‘Power’?
Abstract: As an alternative to hypotheses which frame Japanese gender relations as a puzzling power struggle, but which cannot be tested, this paper argues that women in Japan have long been caught in a moderately high level status trap that makes them more important than some men (household heads’ brothers) to the prosperity of the ie, Japan’s corporate stem family. This article develops a cognitive theory of symbolism to understand why some important relationships in the ie (successor and household head, husband and wife, wife and daughter-in-law) have become the focus of extensive discourse while one of equal importance (household head’s wife and brother-in-law) has always gone without saying and so remains undiscussed and unacknowledged.

Why do Japanese gender relations remain so deeply patriarchal and unequal, and yet create such great personal autonomy for housewives, even to the extent of exclusive management of family finances? Or, put concretely, when “Husbands still turn over their salaries intact to their wives, and wives dispense them a monthly allowance,” (Iwao 1993:85) why has the status of women not continued to rise toward much fuller participation in public life? Goldstein-Gidoni (2012:196) documents the many ways Japan is still measured as one of the least gender-equal countries relative to other industrialized societies in all spheres of life, including work, home, and politics.

Ogasawara Yuko, as a young Japanese woman working on her PhD in Sociology at the University of Chicago, was so puzzled by this problem as she confronted her personal knowledge of her own culture when provoked by American acquaintances’ questions, that she formulated her research problem to get at the fact of the matter. Observing that “the Japanese public often claims that once you look beyond the immediately observable, you see that women have the real power over men” (1998:3), she asks, “Are Japanese women oppressed, or not? Are they powerless, or powerful? The questions guiding my research thus emerged” (Ogasawara 1998:2).

This perspective shapes international comparisons as well: as earning and control of money came to be the hallmark of a husband's household position in the rising middle class of the West that maintained women in a position of dependence and subordination well into the 20th century, why didn't this pattern come to characterize Japan's rising white collar class too; or, from the other direction, why hasn't the pattern of women’s autonomous control of household finances given women in Japan today a position more like that of women in Western Europe-derived societies? Lebra writes, “the wife’s complete control of the domestic realm apart from structural content might lead one to conclude that women are more powerful than men in Japan, or that Japanese women enjoy more power than American women” (Lebra 1984:302). Gender relations during Japan’s modernization took a third path they have not yet left.

This hegemonic conception of gender relations in Japan as an ahistorical status competition, a battle of the sexes characterized by deployment of the symbol ‘power’, a power struggle that women might be winning, is a red herring, a distraction that can never be resolved. Power is not a naturally occurring social phenomenon that can be observed or measured or detected by inference, and its use can never lead to testable hypotheses (Author n.d.). Power is a symbol for all that a person might accomplish despite resistance. We use it to explain after the fact why a contest of wills resulted the way it did. The alternative explanation I develop here finds Japanese women in a moderately high-level status trap well before Japan modernized in the late 19th century, more important than some men, less important than other men, and, more recently, unsure that the equality with all men guaranteed by the postwar constitution would be a necessary improvement. Instead of the perspective of striving individuals, this explanation of gender relations in Japan takes “a complex strategical relationship in a particular society” (Foucault 1980:93), namely that of household head’s wife and brother, as the basic unit of observation. This relationship is not marked in any significant way in Japan.

The social logic (Flannery and Marcus 2012:25) of the ie, the Japanese family and household, makes some women – household heads’ wives - more important than some men – husbands’ brothers – in an important matter, the continuity and prosperity of the ie. But while Japanese cultural discourse has long willingly recognized and insisted upon the importance of women’s significant responsibility for the ie and given wives the autonomy they need to discharge that responsibility well, even professionally (sengyō shufu, “professional housewife” (Lo 1990:9)), it still fails to discuss the source of that importance. In addition to the relationship of husband and wife, public discourse focuses on “such other relationships as that between wife and mother-in-law, or the emphasis on lineage” (Ochiai 1994:101). But although finding a household head’s successor and shedding the successor’s brothers are equally necessary in reproducing the ie, the former is discussed endlessly while the latter is not publicly recognized as an issue that requires much if any comment, and is largely taken for granted even though typically handled in ways that are currently illegal. There is no recognition at all of a relationship of strategical importance between a household head’s wife and his brothers.

What has changed significantly since the mid-19th century is the monetization of households within the changing economy. While the status of money has risen dramatically since that time, that of wives has not. The social logic of ie lives on and indeed, modernization has scarcely changed it. Donald Wood (2012:83) writes about a village lately called into being from nothing but central government policy and planning on ground reclaimed from the sea, to be the very model of a modern major rice cultivating community for Japan’s 21st century: “Although it sounds old-fashioned to say so, it is still true in Ogata-mura that once a woman who has married into a farming household produces and raises some children – especially a boy – and also begins helping with the agricultural work in earnest (i.e. making a concrete economic contribution), she can start to assert her independence.” ‘Autonomy’ is preferable to ‘independence’ here (Schlegel 1972), but either way Japanese women are not valued more and do not gain more independence than women in some cultures and less than women in other cultures because they work hard and bear children. Nor do wives gain this freedom by successful assertion.

The following section develops a theory of symbolism that will let us understand important “complex strategical relationships in particular societies” left unrecognized or unacknowledged without using power as part of our explanations. In the final section I apply this theory to explain how the social logic of the prominent Japanese symbol ie hides the source of women’s status in Japan.

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