The Nancho Consultations

Chizuko Ueno

Nancho Lite
Lady Chizuko

NANCHO ADVISORY: Armed with scholarly achievement, grassroots credentials, popular influence and a scalding wit, Chizuko Ueno has captured the high ground of gender equality and challenged Japan's authoritarian patriarchy on every front. Her ground-breaking works on coercive Asian gender stereotypes and the trivialized commercial exploitation of sensuality have helped foster a new , independent-minded and politically active generation of Japanese women unwilling to accept the drudging subordination of the past.

- Verbatim Excerpts -

Nancho: Over the last ten years you've become one of the most prominent and internationally recognized spokesmen - sorry, "spokespersons" - for Japanese women's rights. How were you baptized into the cause?Z

CU: Well, I'm sort of a product of the '60's and of the New Left movement of the time. We got very excited back then about the anti-war movement, about human rights - women's rights were still not an issue at the time - and social revolution. We were really going to change things - make society more fair, more humane and egalitarian. Men still ran most things, of course, and we women got the worst jobs. But it was a "revolution" and we were all in it together we thought, and we were willing to sacrifice. Well, when it became clear that things weren't going to change so easily, that the revolution wasn't about to happen, the men just took off! They went back home, or back to university, or into some company and there we were. The women. We couldn't believe it. Many of us had broken with our families, some of us had babies, some were pregnant and we just looked around at each other and woke up. That, I think, was the real beginning of the women's movement here. There had been radical women's organizations here before, of course - like the pink helmet types, but this post-60's disillusionment was the real beginning of the serious work it took to build the broad based movement you see today. I myself was just sort of worn out and I decided to go study sociology at Kyoto University's graduate school.

Did you intend sociology to be of tactical use in the women's movement?

CU: [laughing] No, no, not then. Sociology at Kyodai [Kyoto University] hadn't even discovered women yet. There were a number of female students, of course, but they were all herded into Family Sociology. They ended up spending all their time doing surveys, charts and complicated statistical analyses to find out things everybody always knew. Women's study courses or women's sociology just did not exist then. That's one of our biggest gains, I guess. Everybody takes women's courses for granted now but they are quite a new thing. Anyway I wanted to be perverse, and specialized in theoretical sociology and semiotics. I was the only woman in half my classes.

How did your male classmates react to your feminist sociology?

CU: I never really put women's issues and my theoretical work together then. I sort of kept feminism and sociology in separate boxes. I didn't bring them together until 1972 in my first book Sekshi Gaaru no Daigaku [The Great Study of the Sexy Girl]. It was a kind of semiotic analysis of what made girls "sexy" in this society, especially looking at media images. The research was serious but I meant and wrote it somewhat ironically. It backfired occasionally, though. Students would sometimes come up and tell me how the book had helped them be more feminine! And some of my most enthusiastic readers were advertising and marketing people. I don't even want to think how it helped them. But at least it was one of the first times many of these analytic techniques were used to look at women's situations here. After that I wrote on a lot of other things - labor organization, family history, theoretical things... and it really wasn't until 5 years ago or so that I academically returned to feminist issues and really put the two boxes together.

How would the sociological eye assess the state of Japanese feminism today?

CU: Oh, we've made some undeniable gains. But if you look objectively at the women's movement here today, one of the first things you see is that it is aging. Most of the active people are in there 40' and 50's, some in their 30's. But it's not a young movement anymore. The members are veterans - women who have fought their way through. They have struggled to balance family and work or outside interests, have faced discrimination, have known bad times. Well, it's not like the battle is over and we've won or anything, but they know how important the issues are and they've worked to make things better for themselves and maybe for all of us. But there's a big generation gap. The younger women and students don't know what their mothers have gone through, are going through. Or they don't care to know. They take the gains for granted and don't really see what the movement means to their lives today. Part of it is probably our fault. The movement has focused a lot on older women's immediate problems - employment opportunity, working conditions, community attitudes. Things have actually improved in many ways but we haven't reached out to the young so much and helped them understand how much has been done and how much is left to do. Or how important it all is. So a movement that can't pass on its values to the young - no matter what short term gains it makes - it's not going to last. And that's a big, big problem.

But inside or outside "the movement" women still seem to be much more visible and active. In the citizens' movements and reformist politics, especially, they seem to be the driving force...

CU: They are much more active today - partly, I think, because they have the time and closer ties to their immediate communities; and partly because of their concern for the world their children will be handed. But it's not all it appears to be. For example, in the recent local elections many women stood for office and many in fact won. But I don't know how much we can expect from them in office. I have a lot of friends who were involved with those campaigns and many told the same kind of stories. Men ran almost all the campaigns and very few treated women as equals. Men treat campaigns like military contests, you know, and you're supposed to give your whole life to the battle 18 or 20 hours a day. Well, women weren't going to give up their homes or families just because that's the way men like to play politics. Most of them said they would campaign from 9 to 5 or whenever their kids got home and that was it. The men couldn't say much because women were so vital to the campaigns but because they worked differently men sort of looked down on them. But the worst part is that when the men who were directing these campaigns chose women candidates, they often did it as a PR gimmick to attract the women voters or just get attention. So they didn't look for leaders. They tended to pick docile and obedient women - the kind they could use and order around. So having more women in the local assemblies may be good for our morale, but if they don't have ideas and agendas of their own, what is going to change? They'll just be puppets for the same old people.

In Japan you've been one of the few women's issue theorists, one of the few theorists of any kind in fact, who has tried to find a larger pattern in social problems. You've related old peoples' difficulties, industrial pollution, militarism, family breakdown, and a host of other problems all to the corporatist system here...

CU: Well, the important thing is to define the main enemy, the main and common enemy of people in a variety of situations. Partly so groups working on different problems can cooperate and don't end up, like some of our discriminated minorities, competing with each other; and partly to just get better ideas on how to defend ourselves, how to survive.

One problem is a shortage of new models and analytical tools. That's why lately I've become more interested in Marxist feminism. So far Marxist feminists have been accused of merely introducing Marxist economic terminology into family and women's issues - which is basically what they have been doing. But simply by introducing Marxist terminology into these fields they've generated a lot of new categories and concepts, new research ideas and findings. This approach may also just prove again I'm a product of the late '60's New Left. We were all familiar with Marxist analysis - though I personally was very disappointed with the male-headed Marxist movements then too. But at the same time I still kind of hope that by adapting and changing the traditional Marxist jargon we can view women's issues in a new light. But this approach is sometimes called economism. And I've often been accused of being too heavily materialist or economistic. I've had to face a lot of criticism, for example, for sometimes referring to kids as "economic products" or "economic resources". But it's not really fair, for one thing because these terms are taken out of context and for another I'm not personally materialist or economistic. The problem is the entire situation or the entire social system is itself so heavily materialistic and economistic. And therefore, I think, we can better see and understand what's going on in this society by using materialist concepts. That's why I still believe Marxist feminist points of view can be useful tools. Actually, though, when I met Marxist feminists in London recently a lot of them were deeply disappointed with responses to their analyses from the socialist side and many have almost given up on the future of Marxist feminism in the movement.

Practically speaking, though, what countermeasures are there now?

CU: Earlier we talked about Galbraith's idea that for self- protection small groups might have to organize together til they became as big and powerful as the corporate system - well, that just seems like a terrible bad dream to me. But on a large scale I really don't know what to do yet, though, so I am still concentrating on women's issues and finding 'nukemichi' - I don't know how you say it in English, maybe 'niches' - in the system that we can live in and survive. Even though this is primarily a corporate society it's not yet a monolithic society. And we can see in the case of venture businesses, for example, that there are still many pockets of opportunity in the system. This enables some newly developed or alternative businesses, like housewives' businesses and cooperatives, to grow.

Of course we understand that right now it's an almost impossible dream to replace the present corporate system with something else, something more humane. But while we are waiting for better ideas we can make up a kind of alternative underground society, underground community to survive. For instance, I've been in contact with a guy who is organizing a movement for kids, school drop-outs. In Japanese they're called "school-rejecting kids", but he just calls them "deschooled" or "deschooling kids" and he is organizing a shelter for them. He is saying that these kids, though they're not great achievers in the school context, are really quite able and talented. And if you can encourage them to do something they often show amazing power and energy. So by organizing appropriate activities, economically self-supporting activities like businesses, for them and ourselves - well, we can't take up the entire GNP, but we may be able to take up some portion of it. Maybe eventually 5%, or even 10% of it, to circulate things among ourselves. This doesn't mean we are setting up an autonomous or segregated community, of course. We are inevitably integrated in the wider community. But at the same time, if we can pool or circulate 5 or 10% of our resources through this underground economy we can support alternative lifestyles and even alternative institutions for ourselves. And that's the way we are trying to organize some kinds of women's businesses.

We are now in the second stage of the women's movement here. The stage of consciousness raising is pretty much over and women are starting to feel more powerful and confident. Now they feel the need for resources, for institutions, for places to organize their activities - all to gain some independence, which of course means money and economic independence. So in many places here and there - including among those "deschooled" kids - you're seeing people organize alternative, grassroots businesses. I'm personally connected to one of those businesses, a cooperative, which was started by five housewives last year. Previously none of them had ever earned money or worked outside their homes but they wanted to make a cooperative that would somehow help the movement or the cause of feminism. I've been working with them, helping to train them and it's going pretty well. The next stage is we're trying to develop a network among all these alternative institutions. It's very slow but at least it's clear we are beyond the talking and consciousness-raising stage. We are finally doing something.

What is the status of Kyoto as a center of women's activities today?

CU: Well, of course Tokyo is supposed to be the center of the women's movement, but there is a difference between the field of women's studies and the women's movement. In terms of women's studies there are two nationwide associations. One is located in Tokyo. The other is located in Kyoto - the one for which I have been working. And actually the activity level and the level of results is much higher in Kyoto than in Tokyo. Mainly we say this is because of the authoritarianism of Tokyo people [laughs]. But they do actually have a strong hierarchical relationship among each other. And the major or leading members of that association are the established academicians and their main purpose seems to be to catch up with the male standards in academic disciplines.

We in Kyoto don't agree with that. We are trying to create alternative disciplines - not just chasing down established male paths. And that makes us a lot more flexible. So it is said - and I mean it's not just me saying it, OK? - so "it is said" [laughs] among people in women's studies that there is a 'seiko tote' in Japan - which is a meteriological term for when the air pressure in the West is consistently higher than in the East. In terms of women's studies it just means our contributions have been more vital, I think. But as for the women's movement, of course Tokyo is the center of the political scene.

For example, a some years ago when the Japanese Diet was about to pass the anti-abortion law, the most active movements opposing the law were among Tokyo people. So politically there's actually some lag or delay between Tokyo and Kyoto which I can't deny. But for some reason, perhaps just the geographical reason, Tokyo people are always complaining it's more difficult to network among themselves, because Kanto is so vast. But here the Kansai community is much tighter. You can say everyone knows everyone else and it's easier for us to attend meetings and events together, and to network...

What do your Japanese women's studies meetings currently focus on?

CU: Well, the main focus is of course invading academia to get more posts, more status, more research money [laughs], more institutes. First of all, we need more employment for women.

OK, but after the academics have been taken care of what strategies do you have for reaching out?

CU: There's no consensus but if I can tell you my personal opinion and about what I am trying to do - it's about time to spread the idea of women's studies below the high school level. And actually I"m trying to make a network among high school teachers, among secondary school teachers. They are now organizing themselves to prepare women's study courses among high school girls. For instance, although I am teaching at a women's college, in a way it's almost too late to tell them about the idea of women's studies. Because, you know, that now, at the age of eighteen, it's about the time most Japanese kids are choosing their life course. It's almost too late to introduce a new set of ideas. So now we're trying to prepare textbooks and curricula for high school students.

I am working in two ways. One is organizing some voluntary networks among the high school teachers themselves, helping them and telling them what kind of resources we have. And the other way, since I'm finding myself more powerful on the political scene, I'm trying to put pressure on the local Boards of Education. I don't know whether I can do it or not, but I am asking them to look at the discrimination problem and to start to re-educate the teachers, the primary and secondary school teachers - to introduce them to women's courses early on. Otherwise, what they're doing in everyday life at school is they are discriminating against girls without even being aware of it. It's always impressed me when, after listening to my lectures at schools, many girls come up and complain how they have been discriminated against by their male teachers, especially when they went for counseling about their higher education. It's just been very interesting how many have asked me how to defend themselves and oppose their teachers in such cases.

So you do recognize your influence - particularly you're growing political influence...

CU: Oh, it's so little, really. It's still just a kind of tokenism. You know, for example, for some reason I don't quite understand, Kyoto City picked me as one of their advisors on women's issues. And once a year we meet and hold consultations with the directors of all the major departments. And at the meeting all the directors come up and give us reports on what they've done regarding women's issues in their own department or in their own field. And on each of these occasions I say to the person from the educational committee that they have to have these re-education courses for the school teachers. Of course the position gives me such opportunities but I have no chance to follow how or if these suggestions work. We meet once a year! When I asked the chairwoman how these meetings were supposed to affect local politics she said, "Well, considering the average effort other cities are putting out for women, we are doing pretty good just meeting at all."

As these roles and responsibilities continue to pile up, how are you keeping it all together?

CU: Well, I have three strategies, you could say, or three ways of behaving. The first, or the first two, are for the public. The last is with regard to my personal life. Of course I'm aware that I am now a public figure. I sort of represent some kind of feminist image or the widening interest in women's issues. So I have to behave differently on different occasions. If, for example, I have to make a public speech and the audience is not mainly feminists, I usually feel right presenting myself as a representative, an advocate of women's interests - that's actually the reason they invite me. But I make a distinction between speeches to non-feminist audiences and speeches to feminist audiences. I am very conscious about this. For the insiders and the activists and the people in the movements who have interests in common with me, I am more honest, more realistic. For a non-feminist audience, though, I make more positive statements and even take the role of a feminist propagandist. I try to take whatever advantage I can of the situation to try to make women's issues more visible, more important in peoples' minds. This causes me a lot of psychological conflict, however. I know what these groups want of me, but personally I'm not, how can I say, I'm not an actual representative of "the women's movement". There is such a diversity within the women's movement. And I'm just one of the members, one of the many active people. And, as you may know, there are many people who oppose me and my views, though we're all in the same "movement". So I don't really like people taking my standpoints as representative of Japanese women. I think this is very important because while I'm going out to represent "women's interests" before non-feminist audiences, it always should be stressed that I'm only the...well, I'm only myself, not any kind of official representative. I mean, the starting point of the whole feminist movement is that women are not a homogenious category. Women can be, and are, quite different from each other. And our common starting point is: "I want to be myself." So I will advocate women's interests to various groups "as a representative", but at the same time I will betray their expectations by insisting that I, too, am myself, not a representative, and that "women" are so many different people.

But among the insiders of the women's movement, I want to share my thoughts on the common problems we are facing. And as I've picked up some influence in the movement, fortunately or unfortunately, my voice is louder than others', carrys farther than others'. So I have to deal with the everyday authoritarianism among the feminists themselves. They tend to follow too much, and to follow my voice rather than others' voices. So I find myself forced to fight against this feminist authoritarianism which my influence is ironically reinforcing. It's a very difficult, and annoying problem. So this is part of my second strategy.

Thirdly, as for myself, you know all those public images and social identities are of course quite different from my own personal identity. And I haven't yet managed any happy harmony between them. Like everyone, I have a lot of aspects. Of course I'm interested in women's issues but I'm interested in other kinds of issues as well, issues that have nothing to do with women. Acting as a feminist spokesperson all the time can really stereotype you, make you appear very one-dimensional. Besides, I think it's a very unhappy situation for the movement to have such a limited number of representatives. And I'd rather stop taking this role. The most desirable way of demonstrating feminist ideals is to raise more women to visibility. And actually now a growing number of younger feminist scholars are starting to speak out. Individually they're not as prominent as myself yet, but individual prominence is not that necessary. If you have a large group of people who are speaking out in different ways but all respectively in favor of women's interests, well, this would be a lot more desirable than having only one or two prominent women. The present situation just isn't good for women or the movement. But for now I have to do it. So this personal aspect is the most difficult part of my "strategy" - because first of all I have to survive, have to survive this situation as a real person. It's a real balancing act.

How's it working?

CU: Oh, it's difficult, really difficult. For instance, in the last couple years since I've been ask to represent the women's movement so often I've felt obliged to show up in public as a kind of model or ideal "women's speaker". And I like to think that so far I've done it pretty well. But it's a kind of moralistic role, and very tailored to these situations. And I got very good at upsetting men [laughs], at criticizing them, and so forth. But actually this role disadvantaged me, you could say, because it makes it harder to see the reality of women in an unbiased way. Previously, as a writer and researcher, I could put some distance between myself and, say, for example, housewives. They live a different life from my own. And although I can say I have sympathy with them, my lifestyle is completely different. I can't share their everyday lives or emotional realities with them. So this distance has allowed me to see them more realistically. And I have been able to study and look at their lives more objectively, in fact in a very critical way. But in the last couple of years I've felt increasingly obligated to put more stress on saying "something in favor of women", for strategic reasons or whatever. And I've been able to do this too pretty well. So I can do both. But if I lose my sense of balance I could end up as simply a feminist ideologue, without seeing women and their situations realistically. And I definitely don't want to become just another optimistic ideologue feeding them fantasies and dreams. You see what I mean?

Yes, but on the other hand you still have to give them hope.

CU: Well, there's always some tiny hope in our movement. Although we don't have hope in the future in ten years, we can have hope for something a couple of days or a week ahead. So I encourage them to do something in everyday life, something immediate, without worrying about things ten or twenty years from now. You know, if you realistically look at the future of this society, you can't be optimistic about it at all. You cannot. And my experience this summer, meeting progressive feminists in Britain, gave me an even more pessimistic image of Japan's future. Actually, you know, this system is half decaying. As you can see, since last year, with this boom in stocks and land, there is growing disparity between the state of the corporations and the people of the nation. And what I saw in Britain too was that the mass of people are completely left behind. And with the prosperity and growth of the corporations the worst hurt are the very workers who sacrificed to make that success possible. And it was terrible, almost hopeless, to see how so many British people are living. But, you know, the stock market in London was booming and is still continuing to grow. And as long as you are watching the growth sectors, you don't see anything of the Britain in decline. And that whole upper level is growing at the sacrifice of the workers below.

You see that happening in Japan, too?

CU: Yes, of course. Very much so. As this corporatization process proceeds there are of course a number of people who will occupy the upper positions and become very successful. There's no question about that. But it's also obvious there is a growing gap between the top and the bottom. It's all too obvious, and we cannot stop it. At least I don't see how we can. And I certainly can't be optimistic about it. And if you look at the future of this society, ten or twenty years ahead, you can't deny the inevitability of this gap increasing, of greater inequality between th few on the top and the many on the bottom. You can see it already happening among women. And that's why I can't be optimistic about the women's movement either. Women just can no longer be looked at as a group that shares the same basic interests. There's already a big gap between successful women and the mass of women. And you can see it growing...

So what keeps you going?

CU: In Japanese we have an expression "Daihikan ni shorakkan". It means a small optimism within a large pessimism. I think it's the way most activists are now living. If you look clearly at the future of this society or this system, well, it appears almost hopeless. But if you want to keep up your energy and activity in the movement you have to be optimistic in the short run, no matter how bad it looks down the line. We all need hope to survive and enjoy our days, and often short term hope is enough, especially when it's all you've got...

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