electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 8 in 2010
First Published in ejcjs on
30 September 2010

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Private Realms of the State

Female Subjectivity and the Japanese Home in the USA


Noriko Matsumoto

PhD Candidate
Graduate Center
City University of New York

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Kurotani, Sawa (2005) Home Away from Home: Japanese Corporate Wives in the United States, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, ISBN 0-8223-3622-7, paperback, 234 pages plus index..

How does globalization play out at the level of the mundane? Sawa Kurotani's Home Away from Home: Japanese Corporate Wives in the United States raises this question through an examination of the transnational experience of the wives of Japanese husbands on overseas assignments in the United States. The author focuses on the everyday practices of homemaking and caregiving in the context of corporate-driven transnational migration. For Kurotani, the 'home away from home' is of essential importance in considering globalization—the private domain has been hitherto largely neglected, despite its significance at 'the critical juncture between the global and the local' (page 15).

'Kaigai chūzai' (Jap. lit. 'overseas station,' corporate job assignments in a foreign country) developed in the early postwar period and became a commonplace of business strategy for many mainstream Japanese companies by the 1980s. Patterns of kaigai chūzai were connected with national economic interests and Japan's dependency on the affluent US consumer market. Work abroad has played a crucial role in the globalization of the Japanese economy and is an integral part of mainstream middle-class experience today. During assignments, employees and their families typically reside at an overseas location for a period of three to five years. The majority return to Japan afterwards, while some are perpetually overseas at different foreign locations. Once abroad, the women single-handedly devote themselves to the creation and maintenance of a 'Japanese domestic space'—what Kurotani refers to as a 'bubble of Japaneseness.'

Kurotani examines not only how this 'bubble' is produced by social actors but also how it is challenged and renegotiated under the conditions of kaigai chūzai. Kurotani draws on theories of globalization, transnationalism, and, in particular, the theoretical framing of modern power as 'diffused.' The author cites Michel de Certeau's (1984) concept of 'microresistance' (although in disagreement with the characterization of the domestic space as 'sanctuary'); Michel Foucault (1978); Antonio Gramsci's (1971) use of 'hegemony'; and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's (2000) concept of 'Empire,' as a 'deterritorialized form of biopower' (page 220).

Interviews and interactions with over 120 Japanese corporate wives formed the basis of Kurotani's study. Some expatriate husbands were also interviewed and an additional 150 mail-in surveys were conducted, although Kurotani remains largely silent about findings from the survey component of her research. The fieldwork was undertaken at three sites during 1996–2000: Centerville (pseud.), a Midwestern city; the New York tri-state area (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York); and North Carolina's Research Triangle (between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—a center of technology-intensive industrial development). Expatriate communities have frequently been structured around Japanese multinational corporations at these locations, alongside indispensable resources such as ethnic businesses and Japanese schools catering to the expatriate population. As an anthropologist, Kurotani participated in social networks and spent extensive time with her Japanese informants. Close observation facilitated her production of a detailed ethnography of the lifestyles of Japanese corporate wives temporarily residing in the United States.

The introductory chapter lays out the guiding research themes, theoretical frameworks, and characteristics of the sample, methods, and sites. According to Kurotani's research, depending on the location, Japanese expatriates demonstrate a relative internal diversity in terms of age group and socioeconomic status. In auto-manufacturing based Centerville, the expatriates tended to be 'semi-blue-collar' technical workers of varied age groups; in trade- and finance-driven New York metropolitan areas they tended to be white-collar, mostly in their thirties and forties; in North Carolina, the expatriates were mainly professionals in the high-tech industry. Kurotani also surveys the economic and historical background for kaigai chūzai in the United States, providing the wider social context against which to situate her study.

Chapter 2 examines the corporate logic of sending skilled workers and managers abroad and the economic and ideological factors that led Japanese corporations to do so. Here lies what Kurotani designates the 'Japanese globalization dilemma' (page 56): workers are expected to remain 'Japanese' in their demeanor and worldview (in order to fit back into the Japanese corporate environment), while at the same time being flexible, in order to effectively operate in the global market. To achieve such expectations, the maintenance of a Japanese household abroad is deemed essential by the corporation. Appealing to the norms of feminine domesticity, companies encourage women to accompany their husbands, even if the woman's career must be abandoned in Japan. The creation of a Japanese domestic sphere abroad is the prerequisite for keeping male workers productive and a key to the management of transnational male labor.

Marginalization in the public domain has traditionally rendered the home as a women's 'workplace.' In chapter 3, the author's focus shifts to 'women's work'—the creation and maintenance of the Japanese domestic space overseas and the impact of domestic unpaid labor on women's subjectivity. Kurotani employs the Japanese cultural dyad of inside (uchi) and outside (soto) to analyze the boundaries of the transnational household. According to Kurotani, the uchi-soto opposition is a gendered concept. Uchi is traditionally tied to concepts of femaleness and domesticity in Japan. Kurotani observes that during kaigai chūzai, domestic work becomes women's central focus, which in turn reinforces the association of domesticity with 'femininity.' In general, the author found that women identify with the premise that women belong at home; an acceptance which reflects the penetration of corporate ideology. Accordingly, women consider homemaking their obligation and devote themselves entirely to the domestic duties of supporting their husband and children.

Social relationships and the production and negotiation of female subjectivity during residence abroad are the focus of chapter 4. The immediate community for Japanese women is typically made up of socioeconomically similar Japanese corporate wives. The group reproduces the Japanese hierarchical system, based on factors such as age, job type, and rank of the husband within the company, thus structuring the relations of the female members of the community. Such networks have a 'disciplinary mechanism' which keeps women in line in performance of their 'ascribed female roles' (page 137). Those who fail to maintain the standard meet with disapproval or experience the quiet withdrawal of support from the other women. Though experienced at times as restrictive, the women's community is nevertheless vital to its members: it offers a realm of 'play,' support, and friendship—providing respite from the hard labor enacted in the home. The husband's virtual absence from the domestic space and the lack of deep social relationships with American neighbors due to limited English skills contribute to a sense of alienation and emptiness. This further increases women's dependency on the mutual support system of the group.

Kurotani remarks on the use by expatriate wives of the expression 'being on vacation' to describe their transnational life. In chapter 5, she turns to their narratives concerning travel, movement, and change. Even though daily life rarely goes beyond the 'tedious work of homemaking in an unfamiliar place' (page 153), Kurotani finds that Japanese women consistently describe their life abroad as a 'long vacation.' Japanese expatriates are neither travelers nor permanent immigrants but sojourners whose ultimate goal is to return to the home country. Such a status affects the perceptions of agents—their reference point remains Japan and their 'real' life there is left suspended. Temporary life abroad, 'on the move,' is at once privileged and constrained—privileged, because of material affluence, constrained, because of transience and lack of channels for social participation (e.g. paid work). At the same time, Kurotani's informants feel they have become 'less Japanese' by living abroad.

The final chapter draws conclusions about the meaning of corporate-driven migration for middle-class Japanese women and the effect of such mobility on self-identity—as a person, as a woman, and as Japanese. Kurotani analyzes the processes through which corporate wives prepare themselves and their family for homecoming and the different meanings of kaigai chūzai for different individuals. Here, the author addresses questions of agency, contradictory consciousness, and resistance.

According to Kurotani's account, transnational mobility contributes to the reinforcement of a patriarchal ideology of domesticity and femininity. The expatriate Japanese domestic 'bubble' is ultimately a tactic for the successful operation of Japanese global capital: corporations appropriate the domestic space and women's work to ensure 'the reproduction of efficient and loyal [male] labor in the unfamiliar environment outside Japan' (page 42). In this process, homemaking entrenches the dichotomy between Japan (uchi) and the United States (soto) and reinforces the conservation of cultural identity. In the preservation of uchi in a foreign land Japanese women come to assume the role of gatekeeper, materially and symbolically. The link between womanhood and homemaking—on the state's agenda from the beginnings of Japan's modernization (page 127)—led the majority of Kurotani's female informants to internalize beliefs about their role in performing domestic work and in providing comfort and relaxation for their husband and children. The female domesticity that largely defines the transnational experience of Japanese wives thus appears as an ideological apparatus—and one of the corporate conditions for successful kaigai chūzai.

Kurotani argues that homemaking and the construction of female subjectivity in the context of transnational mobility are nevertheless fraught with complexities and contradictions. In the unfamiliar environment, removed from normal life in Japan, the quotidian of middle-class domestic life loses the appearance of innocence and stability—as 'routine homemaking practices become more intentional ... the mundane takes on a new significance' (page 219). That is to say, the uchi-soto binary acquires more complex and ambiguous meanings abroad. Woman, as the caretaker who is central to uchi, attains power by virtue of her increased household responsibilities and as the source of material and mental support not only to her children but also to her husband, who becomes more needy abroad and with whom a mother-child relationship develops (pages 100, 135). Motherhood becomes central to expatriate wives' subjectivity and kaigai chūzai thus dialectically generates female power and authority. In addition, the exposure to American life defamiliarizes the familiar uchi, and women begin to challenge notions taken for granted in Japan. By the enlistment of women in kaigai chūzai, Kurotani argues, Japanese corporations may be inadvertently promoting both women's challenge of the accepted norms of Japaneseness and the destabilization of paternalist relations. In short, while globalization reinforces an ideology of domesticity and femininity among Japanese women, the 'domestic' appropriated by Japanese corporations can be conceived as a space in which social actors exercise agency, undermining or negotiating the structural authority of corporations and patriarchy.

Towards the very end of the book the discussion opens onto certain theoretical constructs—the concept of 'hegemony' and how the domestic space can be 'one of the most critical battlegrounds against Empire' (page 220). The author claims that the absence of the 'domestic' from the revolutionary agenda of Hardt and Negri (2000) is a serious omission, given the politically significant implications of the transnational Japanese home (page 220). Hard evidence of hegemonic subversion in the private sphere, however, is not widely adduced by Kurotani—other than a few examples suggestive of more egalitarian marital relationships, or decisions made by some expatriate families to become permanent immigrants, based on a preference for American lifestyles. To this extent, the author's theoretical conclusions may appear somewhat monolithic and even insubstantial.

The possible variant outcomes of transnational migration on social relations and subjectivity among expatriates might also be explored further. Kurotani indicates that the types of expatriate workers differ according to research site, for example, by levels of education (page 117). Yet apart from a few mentions such as different degrees of interest in international business (greater among white-collar workers in the New York areas and North Carolina's Research Triangle than for technical workers in Centerville), Kurotani does not elaborate on the social implications of such variations. A comparative perspective could help gain insight into how social difference bears on the varying lifestyles and perceptions of expatriate wives and families.

The author's weaving together of empirical data and theoretical interpretation nevertheless offers a stimulating account of the interconnectedness of the domestic and the global. The book fills a lacuna in transnational studies—as an inquiry into the private sphere of a relatively privileged middle-class group. The author redirects our attention to the mundane as a complex, contradictory, and multifaceted site/process, with potentials for resistance and change. A highly readable volume, Home Away from Home constitutes, overall, an eloquent and sympathetic ethnographic account for those interested in issues of gender, globalization, and transnationalism.

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Certeau, Michel de (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press. [Arts de faire, Paris, 1980]

Foucault, Michel (1978) The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, New York: Random House. [Histoire de la sexualité, Paris, 1976]

Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, New York: Lawrence and Wishart. [Selections from Quaderni del carcere, 1929-1935]

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2000) Empire, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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About the Author

Noriko Matsumoto is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She gained an MA (Sociology) from Rutgers, State University of New Jersey in 2002, and an MPhil (Sociology) from the City University of New York in 2006. She is currently conducting research on an ethnic suburb of New York City and its implications for immigrant assimilation and ethnic relations. Since 2005, she has participated in two research projects in Japan, coordinated by Princeton and Harvard Universities, which examine attitudes and trends in postindustrial Japan within the context of international comparative studies.

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Copyright: Noriko Matsumoto.
This page was first created on  30 September 2010.

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