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Feminism in Modern Japan Citizenship Embodiment and Sexuality Contemporary Japanese Society

Feminism in Modern Japan Citizenship Embodiment and Sexuality Contemporary Japanese Society

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Published by Marina TheZan

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Published by: Marina TheZan on Jan 04, 2013
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From around the time when the proportion of immigrant male work-
ers reached 40 per cent, and absolute numbers of both male and female


Feminism in Modern Japan
workers started to increase rapidly, newspaper articles increasingly fo-
cused on illegal immigrants as a problem for economic and labour market
policy. One strand of this commentary was voyeuristic, describing living
conditions, wages and working conditions in fine detail, drawing attention
to the co-existence of disparate groups of people in local communities.
Another strand of reporting concentrated on non-Japanese residents and
their collisions with the criminal justice system, in cases related to visa
problems, theft, assault, or the forging of telephone cards in a desperate
attempt to keep in touch with relatives in their home countries.
Women's organisations and citizens' groups also devoted time to con-
sidering the language used to describe immigrant workers. A popular label
for women immigrants from Southeast Asia was 'Japa-yuki-sarf (women
who come to Japan), a pun on Kara-yuki-san, the women who travelled
from Japan to Southeast Asia in the late nineteenth century, often be-
ing put to work as prostitutes.37

Activists prefer to reject the sexualised
connotations of Japa-yuki-san and have emphasised that these women
are exploited as workers, with much in common with other groups of
illegal immigrants to Japan. Other commentators referred to 'gaikoku-
jin roddshcf
(foreign workers), a label which focuses on 'foreign-ness',
while sidestepping the distinctions between legal and illegal visa status.
Advocacy groups preferred to refer to 'kaigai dekasegi rddosha' (overseas
migrant workers), or 'Ajiajin dekasegi rodosha' (Asian migrant workers).
The Immigration Department categorises people according to their visa
status: legal or illegal.38
Women's groups were critical of popular men's magazines which ini-
tially published 'guides' to the brothel areas of Bangkok, Manila and
Seoul, and later focused on their Tokyo and regional equivalents. One
strand of this reporting attributes a certain amount of negative agency
to the Thai and Filipino women in the sex industry, describing them as
calculating and manipulative, and distracting attention from the struc-
ture of the industry and the groups and individuals who profit from
their labour. Even articles in relatively well-meaning publications often
focused on anecdotes of remittances sent home and electrical goods pur-
chased, rather than on the coercive conditions suffered by many women

Representations of Filipino women also started to appear on television
in the 1990s and in some independent films.40

These films and programs
often included the stereotype of the Filipino woman as hostess (or occa-
sionally as marriage migrant), although Filipinas in Japan were also likely
to be factory workers, domestic helpers, or students.
The claim of stereotyping was a main complaint of Filipinas living in Japan speak-
ing out against the television drama [Firipina oAishita Otokotachi - Men Who Love



Filipinas]. In 1993, Liza Go, senior secretary at the Hiroshima Peace and Human
Rights Center of the National Christian Council in Japan (NCC), led a group of
Filipinas who protested this drama, describing it as 'discriminatory5

. The first is-
sue of the Thinking About Media and Human Rights Group's newsletter outlines
the main complaints of these women: (1) Filipinas are stereotypically portrayed as
deceptive, opportunistic, money-hungry hostess/prostitutes who willingly jump
into bed for their own financial advancement. In addition, the meaner personality
traits of Ruby (the hostess played by Moreno), the main character, may be viewed
as characteristic of all Filipinas .. .41

This focus on labelling and representation reflected a desire to re-
think the status of immigrant workers. Collections of reportage or tes-
timonials from immigrant workers provided a way of challenging such

Although many of these works were filtered through
the commentary of their Japanese authors or editors, they provided lim-
ited space for the words of immigrant workers. The protest against repre-
sentations of Filipino women described above demonstrated that Filipino
women, through their knowledge of English, could have some access to
forums where they could speak back to an English-educated Japanese
audience, at least. This was less likely to be true for immigrants from
Thailand and other countries. Indeed, due to linguistic problems, it is
Thai women who are said to have been subject to the most extreme ex-
ploitation as immigrant workers.
Tomiyama Taeko is a Japanese artist who has tried to find new ways of
representing the struggles of women in Asian countries. Tomiyama was
born in 1921 in Manchuria (which was then under Japanese economic
control), returned to Japan with her family after Japan's defeat, and has
spent much of her adult life documenting the darker side of Japanese his-
tory. More recently, she has turned her attention from those marginalised
within Japan to those who suffer through economic marginality in the
Asian region - those women who are exploited in the sex tourism in-
dustry, and those former military prostitutes who have broken their si-
lence to demand compensation from the Japanese government for war
crimes committed over fifty years ago. Tomiyama's involvement with
these issues dates from 1973 when she joined demonstrations against
sex tourism. Her black-and-white illustrations decorate the pages of the
journal Ajia to Josei Kaiho (Asian Women's Liberation), and she contin-
ually experiments with new ways of disseminating her art. In the 1990s,
she started to produce colourful oil paintings which she then transferred
to slides. Slides provided a more accessible and portable method of dis-
play than static and expensive art galleries, and often formed a feature of
meetings by such groups as the Asian Women's Association. Two series
from the 1990s documented the issue of immigrant labour - 'Let's Go
to Japan', and c

The Thai Girl Who Never Came Home'. The latter was


Feminism in Modern Japan
presented in collaboration with a Thai artist and musicians.43

account of her development as an artist describes the journey taken by
one feminist activist in the last decades of the twentieth century:

I have felt a resistance to being ghettoised by the category of 'woman artist' and
I have painted subjects in the shadows of modernity - paying attention to mines,
the third world, the poetry of Korean political prisoners. When I came to paint
the subject of military prostitution, I could not avoid the representation of sex.
Three taboos - troublesome for a painter - were overlaid with each other - war
responsibility, the Korean issue, and the representation of sex.44

In her art, Tomiyama moved from an engagement with marginalised
mining workers within Japan, and the repression of political prisoners in
Korea, to an engagement with issues which reveal the multiple axes of
gender, class and ethnicity in the interconnected spaces of the political
economy of contemporary East Asia. In finding ways to represent the
women subject to enforced military prostitution, she attempted to find
new methods of artistic representation, challenging taboos on discussing
Japan's colonial history, and taboos on the topics which women could
address in public discourse. Tomiyama also participated in the Asian
Women and Art Collective. Their journal, Visions, provided a forum for
the discussion of issues of gender and representation in the Asian re-
gion. The first edition, which appeared in 1993, was a special issue on
gender and Orientalism. Later editions looked at feminist art theory and
introduced the work of artists from other Asian countries.45

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