En/gendering in Rural Japan

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A study of rural depopulation on Hokkaido Island, Japan (2002)

Imagining the particular forms of family and community that complement the state is part of the repertoire of the construction of citizenship in all state formations. —Veena Das and Renu Addlakha, “Disability and domestic citizenship: voice, gender and the making of the subject” 


The problem

From 1999 to 2002, I studied at Hokkaido University (Sapporo) and conducted ethnographic research in three rural towns of Hokkaido. Investigating the politics of gender in the process of the depopulation of the Japanese countryside enabled me to ask and challenge well-established and widespread views about the grounds for gender related policies. Universal theories of empowerment and resistance, I argue, conceal the diverse relational fields of social transformations and cultural shifts that take place through a complex production of knowledge and practices of gender. They cannot account for the multiple effects of the overlapping and conflicting forms of gender identities characteristic of contemporary Japan.

Three case studies

Gender relations are indeed paradox and conflicting in rural areas. This is not necessarily a result of the often criticized “premodern/traditional” and static forms of patriarchy but rather of the multiple impacts of post-industrial society and women’s changing life-course in it. I presented three case studies in Hokkaido, in which young women are (1) encouraged and supported by various institutions to learn (in a ‘ladies farm school’ in Shintoku town), (2) start a new life (through a rural matchmaking program in Furano), and (3) work (as independent day laborers in Aibetsu) in the countryside. All of these initiatives project to develop a secure environment free of gender bias in an attempt to make their rural community more appealing to young women.

My argument

I built my own analysis around anthropological understandings of subjection and biopolitics so as to illuminate how gender is contested and constructed by seemingly progressive changes in women’s social status; how pastoral organizations of empowerment are reproducing the existing social world of gender inequality in contemporary rural Japan. The argument I make here is that we reconsider the problem of gender inequalities and the sexual division of labor as modern embodiment of gendered knowledge, instead of interpreting them simply as universal cultural patterns.

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