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Dilemmas of AdulthoodJapanese Women and the Nuances of Long-Term Resistance$

Nancy Rosenberger

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780824836962

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824836962.001.0001

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What Is Long-Term Resistance?

What Is Long-Term Resistance?

(p.1) Chapter One What Is Long-Term Resistance?
Dilemmas of Adulthood

Nancy Rosenberger

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This book examines the nuances of long-term resistance in the lives of Japanese women experiencing ambivalent dissatisfaction from their upbringing in postwar Japan and fashioning adult lives in the globalized and destabilized Japan of the 1990s and 2000s. The study draws on interviews with more than fifty Japanese women over two decades; these women, born between 1958 and 1968, grew up in the heyday of postwar economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s and came of age surrounded by consumption, entertainment, and the spread of global ideas about individuality and women's freedom. This is the era of late modernity, marked by neoliberalism, late capitalism, and postmodernism. The book considers ambivalence, tension, ambiguity, and contradiction as the core concepts of long-term resistance. It explores the ways that Japanese women cope with contradictions externally and internally, their acts of conformity as well as agency or resistance, and how their lives unfold in the space between the perception of risk and personal insecurity and the wish for peace of mind or stability.

Keywords:   long-term resistance, Japanese women, dissatisfaction, Japan, modernity, ambivalence, tension, ambiguity, contradictions, agency

ACULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGIST like me talks with many people, in this case over many years. Her main aim is to give voice to these people’s stories and experiences through a process of listening closely and thinking about them in relation to almost everything else she reads and does. The final result is her tale of these stories, for in their retelling the anthropologist also recounts a tale of herself, of her encounter with these people, and of the meaning that she understands in these encounters. This is truer than ever in this globalized age when these Japanese women and I are influenced by similar ideas and goods. Yet the tale is precarious in the telling. Simultaneously, we all still live in our local histories, knowledge, and behaviors. When I, U.S.-born and-raised, enter wholeheartedly into living in Japan, I feel deeply the differences, even as the similarities increase.

My tale of these stories begins with my own expectations in 1993 when I first sought out these women to interview. I expressly hunted for women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five who were not yet married. I asked friends and coworkers whom I had first met in the 1970s when I taught English for two years in Tohoku (northeastern Japan). I requested introductions from people I had interviewed in the 1980s during my four years of dissertation work in Tokyo and Tohoku. I started with sixty women, half from Tokyo and half from Tohoku, the northern part of the main island of Japan—now famous for the earthquake and tsunami that took place there. The women from Tohoku lived in two places: Morioka, a regional city of almost 400,000, and ten from a small village about an hour away.

I was interested in them because they were “delaying marriage” past the then normative marriage age of twenty-five. Media and government (p.2) greeted them with celebration as consumers, and the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) promised women equality in the workplace. Yet both the government and the elder generation worried about their role as future reproducers of family and nation.

This group of women also caught my eye because they seemed to indicate a trend among Japanese women toward more self-determination. In the story of national statistics, increasing singles, falling marriage age, and a decreasing fertility rate implied that women were resisting the status quo. The government was quite concerned as singleness among women increased. While in 1975, only about 10% of women were single in their thirties, the number started to climb precipitously from 1980. By 1990, 40.4% of women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine and 13.9% of women thirty to thirty-four were single. By 2000, these numbers had increased to 54% and 26.6% (Shakai Jitsujo 2005). By 2005, 32% of women thirty to thirty-four and 18.4% of women thirty-five to thirty-nine were single, with 7.3% of women single at age fifty (Naikakucho 2008, 7). In 2010, the big change was in the older groups, with 23% of women thirty-five to thirty-nine single and 17% of women forty to forty-four single (and never married; Statistical Survey Department 2012).

Ages at marriage and childbirth rose. The mean age at first marriage for women increased from 24.2 in 1970, to 25.9 in 1990, and to 28.6 by 2009. The mean age of mothers at first childbirth also rose from 25.6 in 1970 to 29.7 in 2009—with 22.5 percent of those giving birth for the first time over age thirty-five (Statistical Handbook of Japan 2011).

The government was and is most upset by the plummeting fertility rate: from 2.13 in 1970 to 1.54 in 1990 and 1.37 in 2009 (Statistical Handbook of Japan 2011).1 The nation’s population is not reproducing itself, its economic labor pool shrinking.

In 1993 I began interviewing the women I met with open-ended questions and long conversations about their lives: family, work, friends, entertainment, loves, pressures, and dreams for the future. I took everything down, trying to listen not only for what I wanted to hear but also for their “push-back”—what they wanted to tell me (Rosaldo 1989). As anthropologists do, I formed relationships, using my own self, feelings, and form of interaction as part of the path to understand people in their surroundings.

On one hand their stereotypes of overly strong American women entered into our conversations. They were always surprised, or even shocked, that my husband was caring for my three children or that I left him at home to cook (p.3) for himself. Some doubted my virtue, but most just marveled at how strong American women are to get away with this.

On the other hand I brought my own stereotyped suspicions that Japanese women were stronger in determining their own lives than they had been in the past. I had been raised on popular American mythologies that idealize change toward increasing individuality as progress, and I came of age among feminist ideas that women should determine their own fates and resist patriarchal norms if necessary. I carried with me an interest in individual action, resistance, and empowerment—ideas that appeal to American scholars because of our cultural insistence on individualism and democracy (Ortner 2006).

My prejudices became clear when I asked questions such as what they saw as the advantages and disadvantages of singlehood as well as the advantages and disadvantages of marriage, or whether they felt discriminated against at work. In anthropological parlance, I was looking for agency and resistance: “agency” understood as thoughts for one’s own path and actions by one’s own will in a cultural context (rather like the agency given to avatars in video games); and “resistance” understood as intentional beliefs and practices meant to change the status quo of the larger society.

The Japanese women in this study have had to interact with my underlying assumptions. All the more interesting, then, that ultimately my ideas did not work as I thought they would!

My research grew into a longitudinal study based on my personal situation: I was in the midst of years dense with teaching and raising three children. I could use my research time efficiently, building relationships over time rather than constructing new ones. Longitudinal studies are valuable but relatively rare in anthropology even though we often ask questions about change in people’s lives.2 Following people over time helps us to understand the process of change in individuals’ lives and in the group of which they are a part. This study would enable me to track the process of change among these young women in the context of social change in Japan and show how people have fared in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 1998 and 2004 I contacted these women again and returned to interview them. If they had moved, I followed them south to Kyushu or north to Hokkaido, but lost a few: sixty in 1993, fifty-eight in 1998, and fifty-four in 2004. By 2004, twenty-three were living in Tokyo and thirty-one in regional Japan outside of large metropolitan areas. About half were single and half married by 1998. By 2004, approximately one-third were single and (p.4) two-thirds were married. Five of the nineteen singles did not work; seven lived with parents, mostly mothers. Eight of the thirty-five married women did not have children and three of them did not work. The twenty-seven mothers were all married and were just about evenly divided between stay-at-home and working mothers. They are a highly educated group, and because of that doubly interesting for the questions about self-determination that I was asking. Of the fifty-four interviewees left in 2004, four had MAs, twenty-five had four-year university degrees, eighteen had vocational or junior college degrees, and eight had high school degrees.

Finding the interpretation that fits

In fashioning my tale, however, I became concerned. To what extent could I tell this story in terms of agency and resistance and still be fair to the stories these women were telling me? I spent most of 2007–2008 in Japan leading a group of Oregon study abroad students, teaching at Waseda, a private Tokyo university, and working on my book. During this time I met and talked with two budding anthropologists, both Japanese grad students; I call them Kana and Aya.3 Both were in their early thirties—younger than the group I was studying by about ten years—but involved with analysis of Japanese people as I was.

I remember walking with them down a narrow street in search of the best Indian restaurant around Waseda as I told them of my search for a concept that would fairly represent the experiences of the women I was studying. When I mentioned agency and resistance, Kana did not listen long before explaining: “Those words are hard to translate into Japanese, especially agency. Words exist but they are awkward.” Over Singha beers, we puzzled over the best Japanese words to use for “agency” and “resistance,” words that they were familiar with from studying American anthropological texts. Finally Kana said softly: “I am sorry, sensei (teacher), but these words just don’t fit my sense of Japanese women anyway. It doesn’t fit the women I am studying.”

Aya, given courage by her friend, who knew me better, echoed: “I think so too. They don’t fit my feeling of what it is like to be a woman in Japan now. It’s too hard to resist in Japan.”

Kana followed up: “And agency? The individual, me … I am not strong enough to act clearly on my own without always thinking of social pressures.” I filled their beer glasses once again to commend them for their courage in (p.5) telling me what they really felt! We laughed, but my laugh was a bit more rueful than theirs: What was I going to do now if even these younger women in grad school felt this way?

Kana reminded me about an article that we had read in class. “Remember that woman anthropologist who said Americans have a romance with resistance?”


“Yeah. It’s because Americans have all these ideals about how individualistic they are. They want to see individuals as strong and free. She said resistance tells us mostly about power.4 Like you could say that I am resisting by getting a doctorate ’cause not many women have, but it is really hard for women to get jobs and sometimes professors ask women to do secretarial type of work that they wouldn’t ask men to do.”

“It’s dangerous to be seen as a resister or even as having too much strong will in Japan. People will pull you down,” said Aya.

I saw what she meant, but I was not ready to give up. Between bites of the fried samosas we had ordered, I tried to persuade them that agency and resistance could work to analyze these Japanese women. “Okay, but there are women anthropologists who have modified these ideas of agency and resistance. They realize that women aren’t entirely free to choose, but they adapt the idea of agency. Like, Mahmood who works in Egypt. She works with Muslim women who are really modest—they cover all but their faces and even become second wives. But she claims they have agency because they cultivate themselves with great effort to have spiritual humility. They get together to study and interpret the Koran themselves, which women couldn’t do before. She says that freedom from patriarchal systems is not necessarily the goal of agency all over the world.”5

They both listened politely as they sipped their beer and ate samosas. I was the sensei after all. Kana tried to help me out.

“Remember, we read Ortner,” said Kana. I noticed that both nodded their familiarity. “She sees how ambivalent agency can be. I love that story she tells about the Indian woman who after divorce sues in court for support from her husband—even though the Muslim law says she shouldn’t. So that was amazing agency, even resistance. But then, when she gets the support from the court, she doesn’t take it. I guess all her neighbors and men in the Muslim community were criticizing her and the tension must have been too much for her!”6

“So is that agency or not?” asked Aya.

(p.6) “Ortner says it’s agency but agency with a lot of ambivalence in it.”

Aya sighed, “People are looking in two directions. That’s all we have in Japan, I think. Like have you seen those teenagers who dress up and play in bands and dance in the park? On Sundays they totally flout the norms of Japanese life, but they live with their parents and do their part-time jobs on Monday.”

“A lot of Japanese women like us are like that. They live at home while they work and their mothers cook and clean for them,” said Kana. “I think a woman named Dales writes about it and she thinks they are kind of replacing their fathers as the main workers in the family, but also they are dependent on their mothers, who cook and clean for them. She said they have agency, but it is kind of limited agency.”7

Aya responded. “I still live at home with my father. My mother lives elsewhere for her job, so I cook for my father sometimes. I don’t know if I have agency. I don’t feel like I do. Like my relatives still ask me when I am going to get married. It’s conflicted if it is agency.”

Kana ran with this. “And we want to get married, but we don’t want to just marry anyone and now … We might be too educated! We scare men off! We can’t afford to have too strong an identity or like what you might call agency. We have to fit in, especially over the long term. I could rebel once and go to the U.S. to study, but I can’t keep rebelling or else I won’t fit in with Japanese universities.” Kana laughed her big laugh. We all shook our heads and chuckled with pained expressions on our faces, glad to see the waitress coming with the hot curry and rice to cheer us up.

The heat of the curry impressed itself upon us with a vengeance, and we felt the righteous anger of having been abandoned by the academic literature. What concepts should we use? We groaned and ordered another round of beers. Staring into the amber foam, I saw that I needed to refocus and try again.

“I think Japanese prefer to have more ambiguous identities. It’s safer,” suggested Kana. “Like kids when they study for university exams. They have to study so hard, but it is really tough. I remember from high school that some kids would go out and fool around with friends who invited them, but then their parents would haul them in to make them study. They were kind of glad that their parents came and got them cause they actually wanted to pass the exams, but they also wanted to show that they were cool.”

“Yeah, the same holds true for these kids who are dancing out in Yoyogi Park on Sundays,” followed Aya. “You should go see them. Some girls dress (p.7) like boys and watch boys sing, and then afterwards you can see that they are romantically involved with each other. But they like the ambiguous gender identity that this gives them, I think.”

“Hmm. Okay, I have to think about this.” Chin on fist, I was looking disheartened, and they laughed. “Keep trying! There must be another way!” We were quiet for a bit. I had to admit that they were right. Agency implies individuals full of will and desire, aware of themselves, and able to follow through on their actions.8 But what they were talking about was more like people just wanting to keep a space for ambiguity or difference apart from the mainstream in their lives. Agency seemed to imply movement against people dominating you, but that wasn’t always possible or desired. Even the young people cross-dressing in the park were still dominated. And resistance carried the idea of changing the status quo, or at least trying to, which Kana and Aya didn’t feel that they had the power to do at all. Yet looking at these women graduate students in front of me, I realized that over the long term this very ambiguous resistance they talked of was gradually changing things.

We left the Indian restaurant and went to their favorite late-night haunt, a tiny hole-in-the-wall off the street with bar and stools. Kana mused: “There are places where you can express yourself and places where you can’t in Japan. Like here at this bar people often talk about what they are really thinking. We just have to have different ways of dealing with things. You want us to talk about our real feelings, but our professors want us to think like them and our parents don’t want us to say anything shocking! We have to be a bit ambiguous!”

“Right, you shift,” I replied. “I like the idea that these days people have different ways of belonging in different places, especially with the changes from globalization. Like in Sri Lanka, Gunewardena writes about young factory women who in the factory can’t talk or even go to the bathroom, but outside in the city they use really rough men’s language. Then they go home to the village and show off their jewelry from the city. The younger girls think they are models of success. They aren’t fully conforming to things, but they aren’t completely going against things either.”9

“Different ways of belonging. That fits. So what do we call that?”

“Well, these different writers use words like tensions and ambivalence, conflicted, limited. I like the word you keep using too—ambiguous,” I said.10

“Especially because you are interviewing these people over such a long period of time, they get pulled this way and that. So what if you did something with those ideas—ambiguity, tension, ambivalence?” Kana proposed.

(p.8) Gazing at the bottles lined up behind the bar, I began to see my book taking on a new pattern.

“Let’s see. What are some of the words that these women I have interviewed used? There’s mayotte iru (feeling of being confused or lost)—like when a woman is confused as to whether to have arranged meetings with prospective men like her mother wants her to or to wait to meet some guy she feels a special connection with. Or they feel fuan (a feeling of discomfort and insecurity) like about whether this is the right job for them or not.”

Kana and Aya joined in easily. “Oh yeah, how about nayande iru (worried)?” Aya groaned, “That’s me! And yureugoku (shakily moving, not sure which way to go)—that’s one we use a lot.” I had heard them all in the interviews.

“I also hear people say they are aimai na tokoro ni iru (in an ambiguous place),” I added. “Also people use the phrase nantonaku—like I broke up with my boyfriend nantonaku. What’s the best way to translate that?”

Kana said, “Maybe ‘somehow’ or ‘for whatever reason.’ It’s really vague.”

Aya giggled uncomfortably. “Oh, these are too real!” Okay, I must be hitting on something, I thought.

Komatte iru (in a fix and not sure what to do),” I said. “I hear that and that’s me right now!”

We sipped our drinks for a moment. I tried to reason it out. “All of these are about tension and ambivalence, like people are puzzled, pausing, uncertain which way to go. Maybe it’s about seeing several paths all at once. What do you think? Could these be central concepts for a book about women who are struggling with some kind of vague long-term resistance in their lives?”

“Why not? Long-term resistance in Japan for women will take as much conformity as change. It’s definitely ambiguous.” Kana and Aya were both egging me on.

“You know Foucault?” I asked suddenly.

Both of them hid their faces in their hands at the mention of the French writer, so famous for his ideas on power and resistance, but so infamous for his difficult-to-read books that they had had to slog through. “Sorry to mention him!” They grudgingly listened to me.

“Well he says there are always points of resistance but they never go anywhere.”

“They never really change the system ’cause they are within the system,” parroted Kana. I gave her a thumbs-up.

“That feels like Japan!” said Aya.

(p.9) “Okay, so these other anthropologists took a little footnote of Foucault’s in which he says that even though resistance is ineffective it leaves its mark on people and their relationships. So over the long term, people who act out their will or challenge norms … kind of like you two …”

“Ha-ha, don’t say it. That feels dangerous.”

“They don’t change the basic premises of society …”

“That’s for sure!”

“But just by even a short experience of resistance, they get hammered into a different shape, and so do their relationships. So even if resistance is ambiguous and doesn’t make big changes, it leaves its mark of tension on people. It cuts across individuals and fractures relationships, Foucault says.”11

“Whah!” Kana pantomimed a sword cutting across her abdomen and down between her and Aya. “Yeah, that’s sort of what it feels like to resist in Japan,” she laughed. “That’s heavy. I’ve drunk too much for that! But it’s like ’cause I insisted on going to the U. S., I am hammered out differently and now I get along with Aya but don’t have as much in common with my sister or mother as before. And that’s cool but it is also a tension.”

“Or I am not sure that I want to marry a Japanese man anymore,” said Aya. “That’s a tension for sure!!” We all laughed.

We left the bar and came out into the cool night air, which cleared my brain. “Here’s my plan,” I told them. “I have to give a talk to the other professors in the International Division at Waseda. I’ll use these ideas of ambiguity and tension to think about the way these Japanese women are going about changing things in Japan. They don’t show a strong, intentional agency or resistance, but over the long term it is a kind of slow resistance with lots of constraints. I’ll call it long-term resistance and emphasize the ambivalence in it, and see how it goes.” We all started to bow good night to each other, then laughed and hugged in a non-Japanese way. I walked to my apartment along the busy street and then into the quiet back streets of Tokyo. I felt exhilarated after our conversation, because there seemed to be a way out of my conceptual morass. I couldn’t wait to get back to the stories of these women themselves and see if these new concepts made better sense of the data.

I went back to reading over the interviews in my little Tokyo apartment. Between green tea and walks in the nearby parks, I found that these ideas of ambiguity, tension, and ambivalence felt quite comfortable as tools of analysis. Why not put the spotlight on these aspects of agency and resistance that others had already pointed out as part of the process? It would be an extension of others’ work, a refocusing of the lens on the space in between (p.10) conformity and resistance, neither all negative nor all positive, but real life with its inevitable ups and downs over time.

I set to defining terms. Tension expresses the action or the condition of being stretched to stiffness, taut like a wire between two forces of energy that can be in balance with each other or asymmetrical in strength. A person can be stretched between two balancing forces or have a sense of imbalance causing stress. Japanese have told me that stress can be good or bad, and indeed that tension can be exciting or uncomfortable.

Ambivalence is an experience of two strong forces that are contradictory to each other; people can feel both at once or in fluctuation. Ambivalence allows people the important ability to see in at least two directions at once. It is a dynamic state of thinking or seeing doubly, of acting from two or more different perspectives. But ambivalence can also result in mixed-up feelings of uncertainty and indecision. “Ambivalence confounds calculation of events and confuses the relevance of memorized action patterns,” yet it gives us a vantage point to “take a cool and critical view of modernity” and question the effects of an order so strong that it is intolerant of difference (Bauman 1991, 2, 271).

That brings us back to “ambiguity,” a word that comes from the Latin verb ambigere, to wander. I thought of it as wandering in an area of doubt because the games of life are changing and yet not changing, or maybe there are two games going on simultaneously, or the same game is open to various interpretations (Bourdieu 1990).12 At any rate, these women seemed to be “wandering” in this space between games and also “wondering” how to play in this new situation.

These ideas fit the experience of these Japanese women who often talked about searching for or trying to develop “self” (jibun). Cultivating or polishing self by doing tea ceremony or being a good mother, for example, had a good connotation for Japanese because it meant that you were trying to go beyond your narrow self and connect self with the larger world beyond social norms. But developing self in the new way these women used it meant to develop self according to just what you want to do or in a way that enhances your own possibilities in the world. Would others see choosing a life for self as selfish? These women had to maintain some ambiguity because they were wandering into dangerous territory when they wanted to travel just to enjoy themselves, or keep working and not marry. In a society that honored the cultivation of a larger self, would they themselves someday suffer for having chosen the self-centered way?

(p.11) Along with their generation, the women I interviewed were dissatisfied with the social system available to them and found themselves dancing on the margins of the accepted norms of Japanese society in 1993 by not marrying yet, enjoying themselves, and working. Keep in mind that all of them could have married if they had been willing to have enough arranged meetings with prospective husbands and then to choose one. But this practice has been one of their generation’s main points of contention—a kind of emergent feeling that was forming but had not yet become structured into a norm (Williams 1981).13 They wanted to wait for someone with whom they felt a connection (en) and they wanted to use the time and space left to develop themselves by working, travelling, and taking advantage of entertainment that had been reserved for men.

Thus, in looking at these women’s dissatisfaction and uncertain resistance over the long term, I see a range of acts of conformity and acts of agency or resistance but much uncertain, thoughtful puzzlement as they cast about for a different life from that of their mothers and grandmothers. Their lives unfold in the space between the perception of risk and personal insecurity (fuan) and the wish for peace of mind or stability (anshin), with powerful discourses and people as much a part of them as their own desires and insights.

This is what long-term resistance looks like, I realized. Although they have caused dismay and concern in their families and government, these women’s long-term resistance is full of ambigere—wandering in space and time—and wondering in the ambivalent reaches of their hearts and relationships.

Between the said and unsaid

My research turned up another study of long-term resistance by anthropologists in Africa that fit my own study and gave me some apt phrases to use. It was this study that persuaded me to continue to use the concept of resistance to maintain the meaning of push against the cultural code that I found in these women, but to refer to it as long-term resistance, a term that captures the fragile ambivalence played out over time that nonetheless makes a difference in the long run. Jean and John Comaroff did not trust the term “resistance” entirely either, because it did not ring true for the “murky” thoughts and actions that they witnessed among people in Zimbabwe who were reshaping the religion brought to them by colonialists. The Comaroffs wrote about a tense “middle ground between the said and unsaid” before thoughts are (p.12) organized and spoken, full of silence and unmarked actions (1991, 31). They saw much of what was happening as “tacit”—implied, unstated—expressions that only vaguely confronted the “hegemony” or power of the system that permeated this world. The phrases they suggested resonated with me as descriptors for the sense of the women in my interviews, so I excitedly sent an e-mail to Kana and Aya listing these phrases. When Kana answered, she wrote, “I don’t quite understand these all, but they seem good! Keep trying, sensei!” So I added some definitions of this middle ground and sent them back.

  • tacit accommodation (going along with things without saying much)

  • partial recognition (understanding the unfairness of the system you are facing to some extent)

  • ambiguous perception (sort of seeing the contradictions of your situation and yet not directly expressing it)

  • festering irritation (upset inside over time, but obvious only to others who are close)

  • gestures of tacit refusal (expressing dissatisfaction by just not doing something or avoiding it)

  • sullen and silent contesting of hegemony (expressing dissatisfaction with the power of the system that permeates their lives by sulking and being quiet)

  • creative tensions (feeling tension with the system and using it to spark imaginative thought or discussion as to how to react)

  • experimental practices (actions that you try out to shift or transform objects, practices, or relations in the system) (Jean and John Comaroff 1991)

“These feel right,” she answered.

These phrases capture the ambiguity, tension, and ambivalence of longterm dissatisfaction with the social system, but leave it open as to what extent dissatisfaction will become expressed as intentional agency against domination or as resistance that would change the status quo. The Comaroffs write that this long-term process is the “most critical domain of history” (1991, 31) because understanding is simmering and ideas are cooking, oh so slowly. People themselves are ambivalent about pushing for change, to say nothing of the fact that overt resistance might cause unendurable tension or danger.

(p.13) Taking off from the Comaroffs, I use the general concept of long-term resistance that I understand as occurring in these vague and ambiguous ways, full of tension and ambivalence in mind, heart, and body. Long-term resistance may herald larger changes over the long run (or not) but the factor of time allows this concept to include a range of hesitant steps in the midst of pressures to conform. Because it alludes to an in-between that floats between the “no longer” and the “not yet,” it is a nondirectional stance that can include a loss of hope often cited in contemporary Japan, but also implies hope for a way forward toward something new that has not yet surfaced (Miyazaki 2010).

Dissatisfied with the social system as it has been set up by elders, the women in this study struggle to work out how to live their lives. Among the women I interviewed, the “partial recognition” of their dissatisfaction as a generation coming of age was so uncomfortable for them that it resulted in “gestures of tacit refusal” not to marry just anyone by twenty-five, not to quit a job, or not to do just the research a professor wanted them to do. Their friends were their allies in this. As a result of their “festering irritation” they have experimented with actions such as living in their own apartments, living with boyfriends, or getting PhDs. They let their performances “slip” a bit at the edges of society (Butler 2004),14 but these women are careful in a society that isolates those who do not cooperate in legitimate roles of power. Kana, for example, wanted to be a woman professor in a land of male professors,15 but she lived at a dormitory because she has let her performance as a Japanese woman slip by becoming so educated yet can protect herself by not living alone in the city. Ultimately, it is this ambivalent, long-term resistance in individual lives, embedded in families and social groups, that is the most salient.

Not only do tension and ambivalence fit the data in these interviews better than agency or short-term resistance, they also fit better with the historical sense of self in Japan that is more ambiguous and has vaguer borders than conceptions in the West. The word for self, jibun, literally means “self part,” the self embedded in the whole. This is self according to Confucian ethics (influential in Japan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), wherein the private part of the person is inferior to the public self that devotes itself to society. In Shintoism and certain arenas of Japanese philosophy, the self is heart/mind that is purifed by unification with the natural world. Thus, the self is at times enveloped by, even undifferentiated from, its surroundings (Berque 1992). Japanese self, shifting appropriately within contexts and (p.14) different groups of people, links with various universal energies understood in Shintoism as outer energies of authority and differentiation and inner energies of generative harmony and centralization (Rosenberger 1992). An early twentieth-century philosopher, Watsuji Tetsuro, cited relationality (aidagara, literally, personality of in-betweenness) as the dominant characteristic of Japanese (Borovoy 2005, 71).

The Buddhist sense of maturity that continues in Japanese life in the practice of more traditional hobbies also posits self in a dialectic between the manifestation of separateness in life and the eternal reality of oneness. The Japanese sense of self is one that moves fluidly between positions of outer and inner, front stage and backstage, that are well taught and practiced within Japanese life (Rosenberger 1992, 2001). Despite ideological uses of these ideas in the twentieth century, and keeping in mind that the Japanese self also has arenas in which it withdraws into itself (Lebra 1992), these are strong historical ideas that still work in Japanese life. They convey a sense of approval for ambiguous identity and the ability to bear a double consciousness and live in-between.

But ambiguity, tension, and ambivalence are not limited to usefulness in Japan. These terms also work better for us Western social scientists who historically have worried about the question of to what extent people are free to determine their lives as individuals and to what extent people are determined by the social, economic, and political structures around them—agency versus structure. Scholars have challenged this dualistic division as inadequate to lived experience and emphasized their interaction (Giddens 1984; Bourdieu 1990), but it remains easy to damn people for conformity and praise them for brave attempts to rebel against the dominant status quo. Focus on the ambivalence and tension found in long-term resistance helps us to pay attention to subtle complexities as we place the people we talk to at the crossroads of their lives, with various pathways beckoning them to go this way or that and many unclear feelings within themselves.

My own experience of tension and ambivalence

The terms “tension” and “ambivalence” make sense of my own experience. In those formative years of the late 1960s and 1970s, my own raggedy bell-bottoms, antiwar protests, boyfriends, insistence on a career, and adventures (p.15) in Japan all had appeared as forms of resistance to my parents and more conservative American society. Inside myself, what did I feel? Like the women I had talked with in Japan, I felt more tension between how I had been raised and where I was headed than I experienced a feeling of simple resistance or pure ability to maneuver my actions freely.

Even though my thinking had shifted from past ideals and expectations, I never lost affection for my parents, the church they took me to, the small conservative town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where I was raised, or even, deep down, the flag that used to lead our high school band, me on the trumpet, across the cemetery on Memorial Day.

My ambivalence about career and children has been a constant throughout my life, as it has for many women in my era. My father had urged me to be a doctor, but the young me argued with him, “No, it would be too hard to do that and have children.”

After meeting the first wave of feminism head-on in college, I was imagining graduate school when my boyfriend asked, “Do you want to go to Japan with me?” I was in. It was the perfect solution to my ambivalence—what seemed like daring adventure in northeastern Japan and gradual entry into the institution of marriage. I remember the first summer I was in Japan writing in my journal, “I’ll get married, but I won’t have children.” I was trying to hedge my bets, adjust my internalized norms to a new set of ideas that I was internalizing as a young adult. When we did marry, we did it quickly and without much ceremony in the living room of some missionaries in the northern city where we taught English in Japan (Rosenberger 2001). It was as if we had avoided the tension around our decision by slipping into marriage without admitting we were doing so, claiming we were forced by the circumstances of living in strict Japanese rural society.

After three years in Japan, we returned to University of Michigan for graduate study. When I got pregnant in my third year of classes, having just gained admittance into the anthropology department after a stint in Japanese studies, I wasn’t sure what to do. But I didn’t want to say no to anything—the baby or the career. I was determined to live what seemed like a hard-to-integrate life and sustain both directions. It’s a game that many of us play: trying to stay honest to our desire to mother that stems heavily from our upbringing and to our desires as an adult woman for individual growth and a career. I remember lugging a large pile of books through the library for checkout when I was about six months pregnant and laughing at my junior (p.16) high dreams of knitting little things for my baby while sitting at home with my big belly.

An explanation that worked

Many years later, while teaching a class at Waseda University in Tokyo, I felt tension and ambivalence as I read the essays of the Japanese students I was teaching. The young men wanted a life for themselves as well as work, and the young women, interviewing for high-flying jobs, wanted enjoyment and children someday, but neither knew what the future would hold. The men and women would arrive one day in class with spiked hair, baby-doll top over tights, a chain in the belt, and another day dressed in black suits, white blouses, and shiny black dress shoes.

Most important, these ideas fit the feelings, thoughts, and even bodily ways of presenting themselves that I perceived among the women I interviewed for this study. Contradictory forces pulled them in various directions, sometimes coming together into a temporary equilibrium, sometimes pulling them off-balance and causing stress. I wanted to capture this space in which they floated, saying yes to some things and no to others.

I finally gave my talk to my fellow faculty members at Waseda University. What about this new idea? It seemed to resonate with them in an evening seminar followed by drink, in good Japanese work fashion. Afterwards Japanese and non-Japanese alike avowed: “Ambivalence? Tension? That sounded like me up there!” I laughed and poured them some beer. “What about Japanese women you know?” As they grabbed the bottle to pour for me, they assured me, “Oh, it definitely fits.” Later when I gave the talk in Hong Kong, American and Chinese teachers and grad students again echoed these thoughts: “That’s not just them. That’s just how I feel.” I had struck on a set of feelings that hit a nerve with people in this era of late modernity.


My analytical framework adjusted, I still needed one more building block. How was I going to describe the social context of these ambiguous feelings? That was part of my responsibility as an anthropologist. Again, John and Jean Comaroff’s ideas came to my aid as a framework. The Comaroffs perceived that contradictions permeated the world of these dissatisfied people with (p.17) their murky tensions. They wrote: “Contradictions … between the world as represented and the world as experienced become ever more palpable, ever more insupportable” (1991, 26). In the case of the Comaroffs’ study in Africa, contradictions existed between the world that the colonial masters constructed and the world that the native people experienced.

In the case of postwar Japan, contradictions for women were built into modern institutions such as schools, and then contradictions intensified when the ideas, objects, and practices brought in by globalization permeated women’s worlds as they came of age. In addition, the promises of Japanese postwar institutions fell short with the economic decline of the 1990s. The contradictions became “ever more insupportable” as the benefits of modernity came into question.

The women I interviewed, born between 1958 and 1968, grew up in the heyday of postwar economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s with all its promise of modern progress, rationality, and individuation (Touraine 1995), but with contradictions and ambivalence at its heart (Bauman 1991; Ratansi 1995). Individuation got put on hold as citizens fulfilled prescribed roles for economic growth in schools, companies, and families. Inequalities lurked as rural people, the less educated, and especially women felt “acute discomfort” (Bauman 1991) at being limited by their roles as mothers and homemakers in the modern order.

These women came of age during the growth of consumer society in the late 1970s and 1980s. A Tokyo woman recounted, “I was so excited when MacDonald’s came to Tokyo while I was in high school.” In Japan, the press called them the “new breed” (shinjinrui) that wished to place lifestyle above work and, for women, lifestyle above home (katei) (Sand 2006, 87). How to belong and where to belong became a question (Gunewardena 2007, 41). To further confound their experience, these women were single working women in their late twenties to late thirties when the economic bubble broke in the early 1990s and the long recession set in.

Chizuko Ueno, a Japanese woman scholar a bit older than these women, who has lived a highly successful single life, thinks that Japanese women of this age are caught forever in contradictions (Ueno and Nobuta 2004). They speak from the role-ordered world of their mothers who nurtured them, but they act from the world of fragmented identities that they must nurture for their own survival. This is a classic double bind in which the embodied habits and dispositions people have learned from family and education no longer work well (Bourdieu 1990).16 The dispositions that these women acquired (p.18) as they grew up did not prepare them to play the globalized game of various lifestyles and choices in the 1990s and 2000s. Emerging as adults, they have learned new ways of being, acting, and desiring in this more global world, yet they have never entirely lost the old dispositions, nor the desires of the old ways. For readers with little background on Japan, it is helpful to imagine the contradictory dispositions that these women integrated into their bodies and internalized in their psyches through the disparate socioeconomic contexts that nurtured their growth.

Growing up in modern, postwar institutions

When young, these women grew as girls into a strong sense of belonging to family and school groups and responsibility to exert individual efforts for the group. This was postwar Japan at its height, in which “unique” Japanese psychosocial traits made Japan spiritually superior to the West (Befu 2001, 102) in the forms of cooperation, empathy, and harmony resulting from devoted effort (gambaru), perseverance or endurance (gaman), and mutual psychological dependency (amae). Devoted mothers and sometimes grandmothers nurtured these traits in girls, and schoolteachers softly insisted upon, and later strictly enforced, the skills and responsibilities of being part of the group, whether working hard or playing (Fukuzawa 1994; Tobin 1992).

The bodies and minds of girls, however, usually received different disciplining than boys did at home or at school. Helping their mothers serve brothers, standing in line after the boys at school, caring for younger children, taking tea ceremony or flower arranging, girls received a certain kind of power as individuals who would cultivate selflessness and be patient, caring wives and mothers. Girls’ bodies were well watched, and their minds, bodies, and spirits well disciplined from the Panopticon tower of modernity—a metaphorical tower in the middle of a prison where each individual could be watched and reformed into the preferred kind of individual for society (Foucault 1979).

Parents gave stronger encouragement and more money to boys than to girls to study hard individually and compete their way into excellent high schools and four-year universities that would pave the way to upper mobility. Vocational training for short-term jobs before marriage was enough for middle-class girls who would work only briefly, then quit and marry, or for (p.19) rural and lower-class women who would continue to work at low-level or family jobs (Roberts 1994).

The conundrum of mothers

The young women in this study also inherited the sadness and ambivalence of their mothers, often passed on in private emotional moments. Mothers, caught in the contradictions of postwar modernity, exhibited tacit accommodation with almost-silent suffering,17 but their daughters heard. Out of the interviews emerged daughters’ tales of their mothers’ complaints about fathers who were absent most of the week but were also trouble to take care of when home. Several women knew that their fathers hit their mothers. In the country, housewives suffered under husbands’ constant authority. The daughters characterized their mothers as “old-fashioned … just obeying my father”; as “always sacrificing herself and not thinking about her own needs”; or as simply “resigned” (akiramete iru) to loveless marriages.18 Only a few commented that they would like to have a relationship like their parents.

A past interviewee raising children in the 1970s told how she would go with her children into a closet and cry when things got too bad with her mother-in-law, who lived with them and always expected to be waited on (Rosenberger 2001). Remembering this, I knew that these daughters I was now studying understood the suffering of their mothers in the marrow of their bones. They witnessed the self-sacrifice expected of mothers and did not want it for themselves, nor did their mothers want it for them to this extent.

However, daughters also received the attention, affection, and hope of their mothers. In the interviews, the mother–daughter relationship of childhood for most was a warm memory—an intimacy that they often wanted to reproduce in their own lives. Relationships with children became a place where these daughters saw the chance to be themselves and the challenge to be their best selves (Ezawa 2002).

Mothers gave mixed messages. Mothers sympathized with their daughters’ wishes to enjoy life before marriage and to wait for a person who understood and loved them (Nakano and Wagatsuma 2004), and they warned their daughters of living with mothers-in-law and the trials of elder care. However, in the long run these same mothers enforced the status quo of the modern family—the need to marry and have children in order to find “women’s happiness.” Otherwise, mothers would be denying their own paths in life (Ueno and Nobuta 2004). Raw resistance was tantamount to going (p.20) against the emotional interdependence of the mother–daughter relationship, so ambiguous reactions such as refusing without saying much about it and seeming to slide unwittingly into decisions were the safest course.

Coming of age in late-modern Japan

In contrast to their upbringing in home and school, these women later came of age surrounded by consumption, entertainment, and the spread of global ideas about individuality and women’s freedom. I call this the era of late modernity, but it is also referred to as the era of neoliberalism, late capitalism, or postmodernism.19 The global media market of TV, movies, and magazines has been vital in the disruption of embodied ways of being, feeling, and thinking learned early in life (Winant 1995). A dream for self was born in their generation, revved up with media rhetoric that promised the individuality that modernization had not given their mothers.

As these women grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in Japan, individualized possessions, from beds and desks to Ricah dolls and Power Rangers, captivated the imaginations of children. One interviewee from Morioka tells how she poured over cartoons (manga), both hers and her brother’s, whenever she could. Cartoons in the 1970s and 1980s offered girls heroines who were strong and facing complex questions in their lives. By the eighties, cartoons for both boys and girls offered visions of sex that were sometimes violent—boys and girls, boys and boys; perhaps girls learned to imagine being both the violated and the violator (Thorn 2004).

Media invited this generation of girls to be “Hanako,” the emblematic Tokyo consumers of the marketing world in the 1980s—the working woman with money and the cosmopolitan sophisticate gathering knowledge about stores, restaurants, foreign cities, dating, and sex (Rosenberger 2001). Instead of navy-blue uniforms worn to and from school, now fashion magazines encouraged girls to do the forbidden: wear mini-skirts; go to bars with other women; and enjoy romance in a love hotel on Christmas Eve.

The advertising copy set imaginations afire (Appadurai 1996) with vague messages to express “self,” “individuality,” and “freedom.” Sexual intimacy increasingly became part of the public arena (Ho 2008; Farrer 2010) and thinking about enjoyment and development of self seemed not only okay but was almost mandatory in these “technologies of self” that gave advice on how to be cool (Martin et al. 1988; Rosenberger 2001). Television dramas about single women, love, and work have continued to give media guidance on practices of self (Lukacs 2010).

(p.21) To go back to the metaphor of the Panopticon tower, marketers were watching from the tower to make new kinds of individuals, but now they encouraged people to climb the tower themselves, watch, compare themselves with others, and learn about new appearances and experiences (Morrison 2010). The ability to desire and choose is central to individuality, but this freedom to choose carried its own contradictions. People in this so-called neoliberal era were nurtured to be individual entrepreneurs and consumers, but choices were defined by the marketers, who discarded those who did not fit or could not participate economically or culturally (Harvey 2005). In fact, it was a kind of “Panopticon sort” (Gandy 1993) of winners and losers, as the Japanese say.

The recession of the 1990s accelerated these divisions in Japanese society. Despite the Equal Employment Opportunity Law of 1986, men were hired over women and women found their best possibilities for promotion in foreign companies or freelance work (Rebick 2005). Since the late 1970s, the wage gap between Japanese women and men has widened (Osawa 2002). Neither men nor women could get jobs that fit them, and many quit after several years, becoming the lost generation, sacrificed to maintaining the expensive older men in the company (Genda 2005). Middle-class men’s economic attractiveness as potential husbands decreased, because even qualified men did not get the jobs in large and medium companies that they wanted. As men joined women in their sense of dissatisfaction with postwar roles for men and their economic possibilities decreased, marriage became an increasingly troubled institution, less appealing both socially and economically (Shimodaira 2004).20

Whether married or single, women struggled to make ends meet in an unstable economy. A third of workers were now irregular workers (Honda 2006), some preferring irregular work (Lunsing 2006); from single mothers to homeless people, Japan’s poverty rate was swelling to place Japan third among advanced nations. More than ever, parental social and economic status made a difference in unequal opportunities for education and jobs (Tachibanaki 2006, Aoki and Aoki 2005, Okano 1995). Middle-class women felt more pressures than ever if they wanted to escort themselves or their children to the front of the line and could count on less guaranteed help from elder generations to do so.

With the economic decline, governance through individual responsibility increased in Japan with retraction of assurances of ordered progress and central aid. Responding to the national situation, global trends, and these young women themselves, the government turned to a more neoliberal style (p.22) that governs through monitoring a myriad of experts and demands individualized citizens who must face new risks on their own, as evidenced by the emphasis on lifelong learning, educational reform to nurture independence, and vocational retraining in the 1990s and 2000s (Dean 1999; Ogawa 2009; Miyazaki 2010). In Japan this call for self-responsibility is still coupled, however, with a moral discourse emphasizing “charity, community, moral striving, and the benevolence of the family” (Borovoy 2010:60). Such governance interacts with the evidence in this ethnography. Learning to live with increased uncertainty and disorder, these women must become more independent yet more dependent on experts; in their loneliness they reach out to friends (Bauman 1991). Simultaneously, they are beckoned to become morally mature in their gendered role of caring for others and struggle to translate the older ideal of self-cultivation (Mahmood 2001) and meld it with the new goal of self-actualization. In essence, the ground of long-term power and resistance has shifted under women’s feet as the promise of emancipation and progress through strong institutions has been displaced by a weaker authority that focuses on, indeed requires, certain forms of self-actualization (Dean 2007).

The government blamed women for the decrease in the birthrate that seemed to further threaten Japan’s postwar order, yet the government made some policy changes to seduce women into marriage and mothering if they could continue to work. Although they were dubbed “single aristocrats” and “parasite singles” (Yamada 1999), these women were, after all, part of the purported middle class, and the government had to respond with some flexibility to keep them in the fold (Hall and Jefferson 1976). Policy adjustments were meant to encourage women to have more babies voluntarily: increase in daycare centers for working mothers, local and national payments to families with children (with exponential increase for more children), a system of home health-care workers to help in cases where women are caring for elderly or disabled family members; encouragement for companies to not fire women upon marriage or childbirth; family leave for both men and women; and increased maternity leave (Roberts 2002).

All of these measures do help women, but women still find it easiest to quit work when raising children, because the requirements for long hours of work for men and women have not changed, and because the education competition for children is more demanding than ever. The women in this study felt that the government had not done nearly enough to make policy changes that would make having children in Japanese society easy. To a large extent, the model of the male breadwinner with the woman labeled as housewife (p.23) (though sometimes working in service employment) has not changed in Japan (Rosenbluth 2007, 10). In international comparisons, Japanese mothers earn a proportionately small percentage of the household income (Shirahase 2007, 39).21

Gender differences are the largest and most resilient inequality in Japanese society (Hashimoto 2003). Even in 2010, Japan ranked ninety-fourth in gender equality, particularly because it lacks women at the higher levels of business and government (Japan Times 2010).

Thus, these women that I have interviewed have grown up with ambivalent dispositions toward the world in a context of contradictory forces. Through family and education, they have a disposition toward selflessness, interdependence with the group, sensitivity to others, and faithfulness to roles. Through the experiences of their generation in this globalized, neoliberal era, they have a more self-centered disposition that has been both encouraged and damned. This has created a double bind within them because they are riven at the center, split between two ways of being, their training for one set of social games not completely preparing them for the next set of games, yet they are fascinated by them and must play them. They struggle, bedeviled by old and new desires; but simultaneously they are learning to live in a contradictory world where they can maintain both these ways of being. Living under the watchful eye of two worlds, they have developed a kind of double consciousness and the ability to enact double identities (DuBois 1994). Difficult as it is, they vaguely recognize that in the Japan of this era they must play the game in this way in order to be tolerated as self-actualizing “humans, not just as women.”

The experience of “self” itself gives evidence of this struggle. Positive feelings of new possibilities emerge when women say they are doing things “in the way of self” or “fulfilling self” (jibun nari ni, jibun o jitsugen suru). In the media, among friends, and with me, these work. Ambiguous feelings about themselves in relation to others surface, however, when in the same breath, they say—half-seriously, half-jokingly—that they are doing things selfishly, “as I want to” or “pushing my will” (katte ni, ishi o toosu). The implication is that these same acts are negative for the workings of social groups, and indeed may even put the Japan they were raised in at risk.

One interviewee from a Tohoku (northeastern) village experienced both the costs and benefits of these contradictions. She grew up on a farm and worked locally after school, but broke up with her local boyfriend in 1998 and moved into an apartment in the village. She commented, “I want my own (p.24) time. I don’t have to always be worrying about others (ki o tsukau). I can live by my own money. I can go to the hot baths or shopping whenever I want. It is comfortable.” Then she added, “But I can’t get too comfortable or I might not get married. I still want the warmth of a family.” She was changed for good, yet still harbored sympathy for aspects of the old ways and felt the danger of her flirtation with her more globally oriented self if she were to maintain her happiness as conceived of in the village. As it turned out, she found a local husband who was the male breadwinner while she raised her small children but he helped out when he could and dreamed with her of a more enjoyable future.

In this way, these women make experimental choices and then amalgamate their psychosocial shifts with older institutions. What start as “projects” intended to solve personal struggles accumulate and set off unintended consequences as they become intertwined with relationships and institutions that affect the marrow of how power works (Ortner 2006).

What kind of self?

Given these contradictions that Japanese women of this generation cope with externally and internally, Japanese scholars have engaged in a debate over whether the idea of self that is so important in their generational discourse can stand the test of time and what form it will take. In one corner stands Miura, a male academic, who presents the idea that these women cannot succeed because they have simply taken ad copy from magazines about self (jibun, jibunrashisa) and innocently concocted an impossible generational vision of self as free choice, separate from the norms of being a woman in Japan (onna, onnarashii) (Miura 2005, 108). Miura claims that women imagine self with all the possibilities of being human, including a marriage that fits with self and a job that enhances self.

But they will surely fail, argues Miura, because this media-born view of self is saturated with self-satisfaction and self-love, and is actually shot through with the needs of this fast-changing consumer society (Harvey 1990). Women cannot actualize self because the media have made them imagine life outside the identities or subject positions that Japanese society offers to women. Women want good jobs and promotions, but they are not generally available. Miura argues that free-choice marriage has left women with the main responsibility for home and childcare, dependent on men who are either overworked or underemployed. Divorce is rising but still economically difficult for most. (p.25) Miura claims that these women have simply accrued unsatisfied selves and gotten stuck in a place of “many-layered indecision” (2005, 123).

In the other corner stands Ueno, who has a positive perspective, arguing that Japanese women can live in a “multilayered” way of being that skips among identities. She thinks that women no longer need to concern themselves with maintaining consistent societal identities (Ueno 2005, 29, 35). For her, identities exist as subject positions in the structure of society, but they “flow and twist” over time and space. Women anchor at these locations of identity with “temporary consciousness” (karisome ishiki), suturing and unsuturing over time and space (Ueno 2005, 29; Hall 1996). Ueno actually prefers that no one identity fully define or neatly fit her, and thus thinks that women can have selves apart from certain confining identities.

According to Ueno, one shares part of one’s being with parents, part with husband or boyfriend, part with friends, part with no one else. Identity becomes hybrid and complicated, “crossing the in-between (aida) of fragmented identity” (Ueno 2005, 35). She thinks that this is appropriate to the increasingly multidimensional reality of Japan and does not mourn the loss of integrated identity. Because identities as daughters require feelings and actions at variance with identities with friends in evening entertainment, for example, they are kept separate externally, and even internally. What is required is management of a multiple, compartmentalized, and fluid self-narrative (Asano 2005) in order to escape the suffering associated with the contradictions of globalized, late modern Japan.

Kirishima, a popular writer and model of alternative life for women, gives similar advice, telling women that they should “ride the waves.” Identities, even marriage and motherhood, can be taken on, but always with self-awareness and flexibility so as not to be caged in. Women should not resist gender inequalities and be crushed by them, but enter into identities and relationships such as marriage maintaining the ability to extract themselves. She urges independence in all ways (emotionally, financially, in daily life) so that women can survive as individual human beings who center their lives, not on marriage, but on the part of life they wish (Hirota 2004, 403). As a career woman in my study still living in the rural north said, “I want to marry at least once, even if I get divorced.”

This debate about a generation of women enthralled with the search for self, as either slogging through a swamp of many-layered indecision or nimbly leaping among multiple layers of identities, sets up negative and positive extremes. The academic opinions of Miura and Ueno represent the range (p.26) of powerful discourses concerning the whole question of self for women in recent eras in Japan: Over the long term does the search for self end up in a dead end of either accommodation or meaningless self-love? Or does it open up new possibilities for a multilayered perception of life that lets women ride the waves of identities? Kana and Aya, the graduate students from the beginning of this chapter, would not want to be typified as standing in either corner of the debate; nor can I pigeonhole the women I interviewed in one corner or another. What I want to look at more closely in this book is the many-layered indecision and multilayered flowing and twisting that each of them talks about. The sharp edges of their debate call for a more flexible analytical framework when looking at real lives unfolding over time and space.


My main questions are these: What are the nuances of ambiguous long-term resistance in the transition from modernity to late modernity? More particularly, what are the nuances of long-term resistance in the lives of Japanese women experiencing ambivalent dissatisfaction from their upbringing in postwar Japan and fashioning adult lives in the globalized and destabilized Japan of the 1990s and 2000s. Not all women are equal or alike in Japan or elsewhere, as feminist scholars have noted (McCall 2005, Collins, 1998). In this group women vary by class (income and education) and by urban/rural differences. Thus, I also ask: How do different kinds of Japanese women experience longterm resistance, especially across urban/rural and class differences?

My decision to focus on ambivalence, tension, ambiguity, and contradiction as the core concepts of long-term resistance forms the framework for the book’s analysis. I have expressed this general analytic focus in diagrams that can be found in the Appendix. Set between the extremes of a set structure of norms and limitless agency/resistance, the diagram indicates that people can move along lines or continue toward risk or stability; search for self or institutional conformity; seek difference or homogeneity—or a combination of all of these—over their lives. Important in this case is that this vision of the world implies movement and process over time for people and for social groups, and indicates the struggle between the tight order of modernity and the more chaotic, albeit more tolerant, disorder of late modernity.

To give a map of the book, in Chapter 2, I develop the notions of tension and ambivalence within contradictions, letting the voices and experiences of (p.27) two single women intervene. I explore how these concepts work psychologically and socially, and make regional contrasts. In Chapters 3 through 6, I hone in on the lives of women I have interviewed, grouping them according to themes that have emerged from my study of the data and analyzing their experiences of long-term dissatisfaction through the various ways of talking about personal ambiguity among societal contradictions. I discuss single women in Chapter 3, married women without children in Chapter 4, married women without work in Chapter 5, and married women with work in Chapter 6. The Conclusion returns to the question of what this study has taught us about ambiguous long-term resistance in this era with reflections on Japan in the 1990s and 2000s. In an epilogue, I present a preliminary analysis of the experiences of some of these women in relation to the 2011 earthquake/tsunami/radiation, with particular attention to their reactions to this age of increased risks.

Throughout the book I tell these women’s stories in a fashion that employs the words they used when we talked to each other, giving the reader a sense of what it feels like to talk to them. I keep myself in the picture, for I am part of the story.

My anthropological goals are twofold: to make inductive generalizations about this group from the details of their stories and to understand the processes of thinking and acting through individual case studies, the ethnography of the particular. The first is an attempt to bring order where there is endless variety, change, and uncertainty. The second is an attempt to maintain the nitty-gritty experiences of particular people, living, strategizing, and feeling pain at the nexus of historical, economic, political, social, and cultural forces (Abu-Lughod 2006, 476). This is the middle ground where, very gradually, “new norms emerge in experiments with life” (Das 2007, 63).

Although our meetings have not been frequent, these women have opened themselves to me over the years, perhaps more so because I am outside of their social circles. In this book I hope to convey the richness I feel in each of their lives. They have not told me everything and that is their prerogative. Those with too much to hide have dropped out or simply remain difficult to talk to. I thank them for sharing what they have been able to share. As an anthropologist, my job is to combine their individual stories and convey the tale they are telling as humans in their time and place, while I play the role of mediator between them and the audience for whom I write. As a person, my aim is to communicate their beauty as human beings struggling to live life as best they can.


(1.) In contrast, the U.S. fertility rate in 2010 was 2.1 (Google Public Data 2011), a rate at which the population is reproducing itself. In the United States this depends in part on the high degree of immigration, which Japan does not have. The mean age of women at first marriage in the United States was below Japan at 26.1 in 2010 (Info Please 2011), and the mean age of women at first birth rose from 21.4 in 1970 to 25 in 2006, again well below Japan (Center for Disease Control and Prevention 2011).

(2.) Kaori Okano (2009) has done a longitudinal study of Japanese women high school graduates from 1989 to 2001, tracking their progress in their twenties through employment, family, and relationships, as they seek comfort. The inclusion of people with working-class background and Koreans in Japan adds special interest to her study. Yoder (2004) has done a long-term study of deviant youths in Japan.

(3.) They prefer to remain anonymous.

(4.) Lila Abu-Lughod (1990) wrote that often the resistance that Western researchers track shows more about the various effects of power than it does about resistance. She describes young Bedouin women who have moved into the cities in Egypt. They resist old norms about marriage based on parents’ choices and on social stability rather than love, but as they shop for sexy lingerie to seduce their husbands, they enter a new set of media-led norms about women, sexiness, and marriage based on sexual bonds rather than family and community ties. Similar observations can be made about the use of media as part of resistance in Japan or the United States as well.

(5.) Saba Mahmood, an Egyptian anthropologist, criticizes agency as a Western feminist/liberal idea that is “a synonym for resistance to relations of domination” (2001, 206). She studies the Mosque Islam movement in Egypt and claims agency, but within the self-cultivation and discipline of Islamic norms. It is the religiously based patience and modesty of these women that allows them to deal with social suffering even as they cry about it with a friend. Her definition of agency aids in analyzing (p.188) actions in contexts that are non-Western: “capacity for action that historical relations of subordination enable and create” (2001, 203).

(6.) Sherry Ortner points out that agency and resistance are full of tension between a person’s intentions and socialized norms (2006, 77). Ethnographers should listen for details in people’s narratives in order to hear the ambivalence inevitable in agency because “people are reacting to more than one form of domination and individuals are themselves heterogeneous with internal contradictions and ambivalences” (Ortner 2006, 179). Here Ortner accepts the argument of Shahbono’s multiple identities, but emphasizes that she is “at the low end of every form of power in the system” (Ortner 2006, 56).

(7.) Laura Dales writes that Japanese women have “limited agency … bounded by context” (Dales 2005, 150). Lyn Parker (2005), whose book The agency of women in Asia Dales writes in, uses the term “conflicted agency” for the women in Bali she studies, who want to use biomedical clinics for childbirth because they are safe but often end up with traditional healers because they treat the women more respectfully.

(8.) Talal Asad (2003, 79) attacks the idea of agency as a Western notion that Western scholars cannot give up because they are imbued with the historical idea of freedom. Yet he cites hypocrisy, because the same scholars want a subject who is historically constructed.

(9.) Nandini Gunewardena (2007) suggests that we avoid seeing women as either “wholly antagonistic or fully compliant to the gender norms of the day. … In my long-term ethnographic observations … ambivalence is a far more common response to encounters with power than is wholesale antagonism.”

(10.) Ortner (2006) speaks of agency and resistance in relation to tension; Gunewardena (2007) and Ortner (2006) use the term “ambivalence”; Parker (2005) qualifies agency as conflicted, and Dales (2005) as limited.

(11.) Gupta and Ferguson (1997) take off from a footnote of Foucault’s that claims that points of resistance are earth-shaking experiences. not because they change the era’s truths, but over the long run because they “cut across individuals themselves … fracture unities and make new groupings” (Foucault 1980, 56–57, n.13). They write that experiencing these small points of resistance leaves traces of tension in individuals and relationships that change people in terms of how they are subject to others and how they are linked with their own identities through how they think about themselves (1997).

(12.) “Games” here means the social fields of power that people live and compete in. The rules of social games are complex and strong, but games may change over time, causing dilemmas for some people (Bourdieu 1990).

(13.) Raymond Williams (1981) uses the phrase “structures of feeling” to name this ambiguous arising, and the ideas and practices that take form he calls “emergent discourses.” They are uncertain and may or may not become social movements. (p.189) They vie or combine with other powerful sets of ideas and practices: dominant discourses—powerful in everyday society now—and residual discourses—powerful from social and cultural history.

(14.) Butler proposes that small changes occur in the margins of society as people fail to enact or act differently from certain societal expectations of their identity, especially gender identities. In her story of a hermaphrodite, the courage and risk involved in such “slippage” is clear.

(15.) In 2004, 9.7% of university professors were women, 16.1% of assistant professors, and 22.9% of lecturers. Nearly 30% of students in PhD courses were women (Sodei 2005).

(16.) Bourdieu experienced two games of power in his life, one in his peasant village and another at the Sorbonne in Paris. He knew how to play the village game in his bones because he had been raised in it, but he had to learn, and always felt out of place, in the academic game. He described this as a double bind, which presents dilemmas in people’s lives as they try to adjust (Charlesworth 2000).

(17.) Das (2007) writes of the poignant silences of wives kidnapped by the enemy and sometimes impregnated during the partition of India and Pakistan. These silences are another aspect of agency for Das.

(18.) Ryang (2006) accuses the Japanese postwar economic, political, and social system of making women endure loveless marriages for the sake of the nation.

(19.) I have chosen to use the term “late modernity” in this book after the style of Anthony Giddens (1990). I have settled on late modern as an indication that this is an era that has lost faith in the institutions of modernity as a path of progress. Globalization has increased information and risk, broadening people’s imaginations. Dynamics of consumption and production have changed, but the institutions and values of modernity still have a strong claim on the era (Harvey 1990).

(20.) Meanwhile, single men were also increasing, though more gradually, with the increase starting from 1975, according to the Kokusei Chosa of 2005. Although men tend to marry later than women, single men in the thirty to thirty-four age group were 32.8% in 1990 and 47.1% in 2005. At age fifty, 5.6% of men were single in 1990, but by 2005, this had risen to 16% (Shakai Jitsujo 2011). By 2010, 46% of men were single and never married between the ages of thirty and thirty-four; 35% between thirty-five and thirty-nine; and 28% between forty and forty-four (Statistical Survey Department 2012).

(21.) Japan has the highest proportion of mothers who earn less than 20% of household income when compared with Taiwan, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the UK, and the United States. Taiwan and Italy are more like Japan in having a lower percentage of working mothers with small children. Among working mothers, the United States has a comparatively high proportion of full-time workers (two-thirds), whereas part-time workers are high among working mothers in the UK and Germany (Shirahase 2007, 46–47).