Culture | Gender and the invisible emperor

Visiting professors dish the dirt on Japanese hegemony

Naito Chizuco and Ko Youngran examine the power that media representations can exert on reality – how the representations of groups and events can legitimize forgetting the past and ignoring aspects of the present.

The two young professors flew in from Tokyo last week to present papers at McGill – entirely in Japanese, with English translations projected behind them. And though it was sometimes rough going for the non-Japanese-speakers in the room, the two had a lot to say.

Their papers focused on gender roles and nationalism in Japan and Korea, and the discrete ways in which these concepts are reinforced. Ko’s talk, for example, dealt with the politics behind the decision to make Shin Siamdang, who represents the figure of a “good wife/wise mother,” the first woman to appear on Korean currency. Naito, picking up where Ko left off, pursued the connection between the emperor system and patriarchy in Japan, vis-à-vis representations of female assassins in literature, film, and the news media. She discussed the negative portrayals of Crown Princess Masako after she “failed” to produce a male heir. “The framework that prevents a woman from becoming emperor surely demonstrates gender inequality in Japan,” Naito asserted.

McGill East Asian studies professor Adrienne Hurley decided to bring the speakers to campus after working with them at an Oxford University symposium dedicated to Kobayashi Takiji, a proletarian writer from the thirties becoming increasingly popular with Japanese youth, who, unlike their parents, are not finding lifetime employment. “Youngran engages questions about gender through colonialism and nationalism, and Chizuko comes to questions of colonialism and nationalism through gender analysis,” Hurley wrote in an email to The Daily. “Together, they provide a rich and complex analysis of structures of oppression and differential power relations that impact daily life even in the most unexamined places.”

“There’s a lot of amazing scholarship done in languages other than French and English, and finding ways to make such work accessible to McGill students is important to me,” she added.

The Daily caught up with the speakers and asked them a couple questions before the talk, in an interview simultaneously interpreted by McGill PhD candidate Jodie Beck.

McGill Daily: I’ve read that you’re both part of a literary group called the Mars Club. What are the goals of the Mars Club?

Naito Chizuco: I wouldn’t really say it’s a goal, but as a starting point, in Japan it’s very difficult for female literary critics to have their own space to work on literature, and a lot of that is related to the structure and history of literary criticism in Japan. There are a lot of female authors, female writers, but in terms of criticism it has been very difficult for female critics to have a space to work together – not as individuals but as a group, separate and unique from male critics.

MD: How is the emperor’s presence in society upheld even if people don’t actively find the emperor very important?

Ko Youngran: In my case, I come from Korea, [which was] colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1925. In the case of Korea related to the emperor system, they were sort of made to become Japanese subjects under the emperor system. Of course there were also people who felt that in order to become Japanese, it was necessary to become people of the emperor.

So even now that the colonial period has ended, a lot of people in Japan are trying to forget that time in which, for example, Korean people were made to become Japanese under the emperor system. In various ways, this forgetting also upholds the emperor system…. In my research, what I’m trying to do is analyze this lack of consciousness, this ignoring or forgetting or not looking at this type of history of colonization…. In the Mars Club, what I’m trying to do in my research is to make these things visible.

MD: A lot of your research has to do with media criticism. What role does the media play in upholding certain norms in Japan, and what norms are those?

NC: I think it’s related to what [Dr. Ko] just said, but within the media, like in literature, there are things that even unconsciously people try to hide. As of 1945, the emperor system became only a symbolic emperor system, so he’s there, in the background, but he doesn’t have any real power…. It’s related to the fact that people both remember and forget, and that enables people to pretend to forget. Even though people of course are aware of the colonization that happened and the hurt that was placed on other people in the colonies…they are enabled to pretend to forget what happened through the media’s way of talking.

MD: Would you say it’s in the media’s interest to demonize certain groups?

NC: It becomes a structure in which Japan can be made into a victim, for example in the case of the atomic bombs. So by focusing on Japan as a victim, it takes away from these other things that they may be trying to forget.

MD: Do you think people need constructions like the emperor system?

NC: Whether or not it’s necessary, those type of structures emerge, and what’s important is just to be aware that those structures exist.

MD: How are Koreans treated in Japan today?

KY: First of all, it’s a very complicated question, because when you say “Korean people,” you’re not just talking about one [people]. First there are Zainichi, people who were brought to Japan during the period of colonization and have just continued living in Japan since then. And then since about the eighties, there has been a lot more freedom of movement, so a lot of Korean people have moved to Japan…. That includes me.

The types of things experienced by those two different groups, for example, are completely different. The people known as Zainichi who came earlier – there’s a lot of issues about “Are you North Korean or are you South Korean?” because they came during the Cold War period, when things were very strict. So that became a problem – are you from the North or from the South?

A big part of the problem is that both Japan and Korea allow only one nationality; there’s no dual citizenship. So in Japan, you are Japanese, you speak Japanese. It’s homogenous, or viewed as being homogenous. And it’s the same situation in Korea: you are Korean, you speak Korean – and, you know, everyone can be or should be the same.

So part of the problem is for example, the Zainichi people, who were maybe born [in Japan], raised there, lived there all their lives and plan on dying there, are still viewed as foreigners. They pay taxes; they can’t vote. So they have the responsibilities of living in Japan but not the rights.

MD: Is there a connection between neoliberalism and women’s roles being defined in a limiting way in media depictions?

NC: I think so.

MD: Can you explain why it’s in the interest of capital for women to inhabit a limited role?

KY: Within neoliberalism, the movement of people – of women – has become much easier. For example, one industry that is growing a lot is the care industry, for example for elderly people. So there’s a lot of influx of people from Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines. Or Brazilians who are descended from Japanese people, so they can get visas quite easily. There’s a lot of influx of those types of people who can be paid lower because they will do work that Japanese people are less likely to want to do.

There tends to be an image of foreign women as prostitutes – in particular, Philippine women tend to be viewed [as if] that’s why they’re there, they’re prostitutes. Or Korean women working in dance clubs in Rappongi. The second point is, now there’s all this image in the media of the foreign woman smiling behind the elderly person with Alzheimer’s or something like that. And it creates a view like: isn’t this ideal work for these women, because they also can’t communicate well?…. It comes to be viewed as work that’s appropriate for foreigners.

— Compiled by Braden Goyette.


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