Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace

Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace

by Dorinne K. Kondo

ISBN: 9780226450445

Publisher University of Chicago Press

Published in Politics & Social Sciences/Sociology, Business & Investing/Women & Business

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Sample Chapter


The Eye/I

A walk down the streets of the Tokyo neighborhood where I lived would impart to the casual observer the impression of bustling, noisy, yet somehow comfortable chaos. The main thoroughfare is usually clotted with traffic, congested to a degree surprising even for Tokyo, for cars, trucks, buses, and bicycles must defer to the electric trolley, the last of its kind in the city, as it slowly wends its way through the crowded intersection. A subway line connects the neighborhood to the cosmopolitan downtown areas of the Ginza, the Diet Building, and the financial district, luring new residents to the area. The infusion of newcomers has spawned the usual cluster of business establishments: several banks, two pachinko parlors, and a variety of fast food restaurants, from stand-up counters where you can have a quick bowl of noodles to MacDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Lining the streets are innumerable kissaten, or coffee houses, where the price of a cup of coffee entitles you to sit as long as you please, perhaps chatting and laughing with friends, or—if you are in a more contemplative mood—reading a novel or a comic book, stopping occasionally to stare out the window as the passing crowds emerge from underground.

The main street is a covered arcade shading a long row of small specialty stores. Merchants pool their resources to buy decorations for each of the lampposts, from which they suspend a plastic branch representing the flower of the season. The bright, artificial colors add a festive touch to the urban scene: shocking pink cherry blossoms in the spring; the silvery green willow fronds of summer; autumn's scarlet and golden maple leaves; and in midwinter the auspicious New Year symbols of pine, bamboo, and plum blossoms. Sheltered in the shadows of the plastic boughs are a bewildering variety of shops, among them the capacious tea store, a resplendent example of commercial prosperity. Always crowded with customers, it was for me a place of endless fascination, where you could pass many pleasant moments desultorily inspecting the rows of shelves stocked with special teas and the arrays of ceramic pots and cups, some of delicate porcelain painted in brilliant hues, others rough, asymmetrical, and somber.

A little closer to the subway stop, beckoning customers as they walk home, are the sparkling windows of the Sato confectionery, offering to passersby the soft, plump rice cakes and elegant French pastries we made in the factory across the alleyway in back. I worked there as a part-time laborer for a year, along with thirty-odd other employees. Together we made and packaged the delicacies gracing the gleaming display cases. Around the corner, on the second floor of a modern three-story building was the beauty salon where I also worked for a month or two part-time, acting as occasional receptionist, helper, floor sweeper, and laundress for Yokoyama-sensei and the younger women who worked in her salon. Even on this part of the main thoroughfare people are usually hurrying here and there, though they will sometimes stop to chat or to murmur greetings as they pass. The atmosphere vibrates with bustling commercial activity.

A turn down any of the side streets reveals settings of a somewhat different sort. The houses lining the narrow, asphalt-covered roads are crammed so close together that they touch, and the fronts of the houses themselves abut directly onto the street. A few potted plants and flowers placed outside the front doors give the otherwise muted grays and browns a splash of occasional color. Early in the mornings on sunny days, housewives put out their futon to air, hanging them out the windows, folding them over poles, or—an especially ingenious method my landlady used—draping them over the family car. The local elementary school is not far from the main street, and when children play in the schoolyard, their exuberant shouts and laughter offer a welcome contrast to the sternly institutional concrete facade. At the corner candy shop, the neighborhood senior citizens often gather to trade tales.

When I am reminded of everyday life in the neighborhood, it is often a sound that jogs the memory. Turning the corner on the way to my apartment, I would always hear the clanking of the metal presses in the distance, as they stamp out parts for heavy machinery or cut out food containers, belt buckles, even Snoopy medallions from sheets of plastic. Most of these puresuyasan, as they are called, are one-or two-person operations, where the machines beat out their insistent rhythms in a room adjoining the main house. Our days were punctuated by the relentless pulsing of the presses. If you were to venture beyond the bounds of the neighborhood and take a walk to the station, other sounds would provide accompaniment. The whine of machines at the neighborhood shoe factory deafens passersby, and a penetrating aroma—glue for the soles, I was told—emanates from the open windows and doors, assailing the nostrils. And mornings I associate with the cool, metallic ring of a bicycle bell as it slices through the air, a signal that the sake shop's delivery man is making his rounds. He would stop in at the houses of his regular customers to take orders, exchange a few pleasantries, and deliver bottles of sake, beer, and soy sauce. No ordinary apprentice, this—rumor had it that he and his wife were well-to-do landlords of an apartment building in a part of Tokyo about five stops away on the Yamanote electric train line.

The sounds of urban life signaled busy activity, and in my immediate neighborhood, almost every house seems to be filled with people working. Around the corner live the tatamiyasan and his helper, who patiently weave their plaited mats, allowing the fresh, grassy fragrance of rushes to waft through the open windows and transport the passing pedestrian momentarily to a more rustic setting. Just a few doors down the street, a woman stands all day, tending a machine that does nothing but sharpen pencils. She feeds in the pencils, the machine buzzes as it hones the lead into a point, and she in turn carefully stacks the pencils as they emerge from the sharpener. Fujimoto-san, who owns the dry-cleaning shop directly across from my apartment, listens to the radio blaring as she irons piles of shirts. She has the reputation of being unusually dedicated to her work, for even when she was exhausted and ill to the point of collapse, she insisted on sweeping the floor of her shop before she would allow herself to be taken to the hospital. "My God, what can you do?" her husband says, shaking his head. "That's just the way she is." He himself is a former executive with a famous multinational trading company, who quit the corporate grind in order to become the boss of his own machine shop.

Appearing quiet from without, even the most conventional-looking residences house workshops of one kind or another. On the corner, in a house indistinguishable from others on the street, sits a craftsman. After going to the elementary school for the 6:30 A.M. broadcast of radio exercises on the school loudspeaker, he comes home to his small workshop at the front of the house, where he makes hand-carved umbrella handles from cherry and camellia wood, sculpting them into intricate shapes: renderings of classic patterns, or of animals and flowers. Just a few doors away from him lived Mr. Tanoue, a sixtyish craftsman who worked all day making trays and wooden accessories for restaurants specializing in soba, Japanese noodles. The fresh, pungent fragrance of Japanese cypress—hinoki, the most durable and precious of Japanese woods—greets the visitor to his workshop. Mr. Tanoue would sit among the clean, white shavings as he put the finishing touches on his trays. From here, he piled them onto the back of his son-in-law's pickup in order to deliver them to the middlemen, the people who painted the trays with black and red lacquer. Akebono, dawn, I found especially beautiful, the crimson deepened and burnished by its undercoating of black. In the old days, Mr. Tanoue says, he used to stack the trays and containers on the back of his bicycle, twenty or more at a time, and pedal to Shitaya, some miles away. The truck, he laughs, makes life easier for an aging body. After many coatings of lacquer, his handiwork eventually finds its way to the finest soba restaurants in the country.

Within five minutes of my apartment were a host of family-owned factories. In the soap factory down the street, an unfortunate incident a year or two earlier had created explosive tensions that still underlay the seeming cordiality of neighborhood relationships. A fire had started under a vat of melted tallow and lye, threatening to spread to other houses. The wrath of the neighborhood descended on the Sekiguchis as they were condemned for their "carelessness." Badly burned and still bandaged, the husband and wife walked from door to door, apologizing to all the people for whom they had "caused so much trouble." On another corner was a garment factory that made uniforms, mostly—as my landlady and I discovered when we headed over for their annual sale. Every day, women would deliver bundles of the piecework they had sewn at home, balanced precariously on the handlebars of their bicycles. In a slightly larger factory, several middle-aged women ran machines that stamped out plastic accessories, while men carried in new materials and took out the finished products, gingerly stepping over the snappish Yorkshire terrier who guarded his territory near the door. The boxmakers, who—among other things—made the boxes for the confectionery where I spent my days working, were tucked away from the street at the end of a cul-de-sac. Sheets and sheets of cardboard leaned against the factory walls, and I could often discern the high-pitched drone of the lathes as I walked past. The owner was a ruddy-faced, kindly-looking man, one of the officials in the local "block association" (chonaikai) along with the grandmother of the Hatanaka family, my neighbors and landlords.

All around me was a community alive with people at work.

The "Setting" Trope

A jumble of unfamiliar buildings when I first moved in, the Tokyo neighborhood where I lived began to take on increasing familiarity and significance as impersonal facades gave way to homes populated by friends and acquaintances. It is this sense of increasing familiarity I think anthropologists invoke when we begin our ethnographies by describing the "setting," where we lay out the map of "our" country, "our" community, and retrace the journey that brought us to those communities. We try, I think, to recapitulate our experiences of primary disorientation and of trying to find our feet in a place where our own common sense assumptions about the world take us exactly nowhere. I would suspect that many of our first journal entries highlight sensory impressions, superficial descriptions, and feelings of the strangeness and mystery of a place. But "the setting" eventually becomes populated with people you grow to know, sometimes to love, sometimes to dislike, almost always to respect. The gray house down the street was not just any gray house; it was Tanoue-san's home, where I might be invited to have a cup of tea and have a chat, if I happened by at the right time. The cardboard-cutting factory I used to pass on the way to my tea ceremony lessons turned out to be the home of dauntingly energetic Sekine-san, who regaled me with tales of her family's history and insisted on serving me a bowl of her handmade noodles, garnished with the scallions the vegetable seller personally delivered. And the Sato factory, initially to me just the place that supplied the delicious sweets I would buy as gifts for my relatives or bring home for dessert, turned out to be my world of co-workers and friends during the year I spent there as a part-time worker.

Consequently, the setting trope—a narrative convention both shaping and shaped by experiences of fieldwork—is one of a journey, more or less linear, where order and meaning gradually emerge from initially inchoate events and experiences. Sometimes, as other anthropologists and I have argued, order and meaning can be imposed when you have left the field, in a sometimes violent attempt to recover meaning in the flux and chaos of everyday life (Crapanzano 1977; Kondo 1986). The narrative convention of the "setting" thus compels, even as I strain to avoid it, precisely because it evokes the experience of fieldwork by locating the author and the reader in a world that is initially strange, allowing the author to render that world comprehensible to the reader just as it became familiar to her in the process of doing research. Through the act of writing, complexity is inevitably simplified and assimilated to the familiar, often unconsciously reproduced conventions by which we have learned to make sense of that complexity. In this case, the "setting" trope recalls not only the conventions of ethnographic writing but also those of realist fiction—as I discovered, to my surprise and discomfort, upon rereading Balzac's Eugénie Grandet.

Mine is a (totalizing) story of emerging order, then, and of epiphanal moments of understanding sparked by particular events. Consequently, the theoretical/rhetorical strategy I deploy is to begin evocatively in the form of vignettes—settings and events that lead us into a world. Evocation establishes a mood and calls up images (cf. Tyler 1986, 130–1). My strategy of evocative writing is also designed to call attention to itself—not only through self-consciously reflexive passages such as this, but through an intentionally overwritten quality of the descriptions I offer. The evocative language I use should suggest or call forth a world, but I deploy it in order to problematize it, indeed to problematize the notion of "description" as the transparent inscription of reality on the blank page.

So I begin with the unfolding of this story, of this book: how the shape of experience, the questions I asked and the responses I received, even the writing of the ethnographic text, occupy a space within a particular history of a specific ethnographer and her informants as we sought to understand each other within shifting fields of power and meaning. To begin evocatively highlights the complexity and richness of experience. And to examine that complexity and richness in its specificity leads toward a strategy that expands notions of what can count as theory, where experience and evocation can become theory, where the binary between "empirical" and "theoretical" is displaced and loses its force. So I tell the story of how I came to center my project on notions of identity and selfhood, through an "experiential" first-person narrative I deploy in order to make several "theoretical" points: first, that any account, mine included, is partial and located, screened through the narrator's eye/I; second, to emphasize the processual and emergent nature of ethnographic inquiry and the embeddedness of what we call theory in that process; and third, to argue that the liveliness and complexity of everyday life cannot be encompassed by theoretical models which rely on organizational structures, "typical" individuals, referential meanings, or invocations of collective nouns like "the Japanese." Rather, my strategy will be to emphasize, through shifting, multiple voices and the invocation of the "I," the shifting, complex individual identities of the people with whom I lived and worked, and the processes by which I became acquainted with them.

Excerpted from "Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace" by Dorinne K. Kondo. Copyright © 2013 by Dorinne K. Kondo. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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