A feminist tackles Japan’s aging problem

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A feminist tackles Japan’s aging problem

Like many feminist scholars of her age, Chizuko Ueno, 58, a professor of sociology at the University of Tokyo and a noted figure in Japanese gender studies, belongs to the generation of “student power.” She went to college in the late 1960s, participating in a global student movement for the New Left. Then, like many other women involved in student activism, Ms. Ueno became dissatisfied with the group’s male-dominant voices. She eventually left her male colleagues to join a new grassroots movement among a small group of women outside the campus, which later turned into a women’s movement in Japan.
The backlash against feminism and gender policies in Japan was a fierce battle in itself, she recalls.
In “Talking at the Edge,” her latest book, which is based on a series of written exchanges with a Korean sociologist, Cho Hae-joang, Ms. Ueno quotes Mitsu Tanaka, a leading feminist activist, who writes that the women’s movement in Japan is “a malicious child born out of the womb of the neoleftist movement” who is blamed for not resembling his parents.
“I had enough reason to be angry at the men of my generation, so I betrayed my male colleagues,” she says, chatting over coffee during her recent visit to Korea to participate in Women’s Worlds 2005, an interdisciplinary congress of women, which took place at Ewha Womans University.
Ms. Ueno’s research lately concerns the issue of “care” for the aging society of Japan. For years, she posed the option of making household work in Japan the state’s responsibility. As a member of the Senior Women’s League, she implemented trial research in Kyushu to train local housewives to work at care-giving facilities for the elderly. The procedure was carried out under Japan’s new plan for an insurance system that allows those over 65 to receive long-term care services.
The law eased the care-giving burdens for families living with senior citizens in Japan, a country facing a major problem with an aging society where, in 15 years, one out of five citizens will be elderly, amid a declining birth rate. But the system has also given thousands of middle-aged women, who are experienced in care-giving duties at home, vast job opportunities, as demands for such services increase. The law required nearly 10 years of preparation since the idea was first conceived, she says, but the result certainly paid off.
“It was rewarding,” she says, referring to her experience of working with the housewives for the care centers. “They knew what they were doing. They had reason to do it. I never lose respect for them.”
Ms. Ueno’s standing among Japanese feminists rose with her book “A Study of Sexy Girls,” a media analysis of modern Japanese women. Several of her publications were translated into Korean, including “Nationalism and Gender,” “Patriarchy and Capitalism” and “Playing Women.”
Despite her theoretical background ― not to mention her established academic position as a professor at Japan’s top institution ― Ms. Ueno doesn’t categorize herself as in the mainstream.
“I get both support and attacks,” she says. “I am not so involved in Japan’s family policymaking process. The government bodies don’t invite me to any committee meetings either. But I am too busy anyway. I just do my part. I write. I speak.”
In a debate over Japan’s concerns about the low fertility rate, which is caused mainly by the increase in late marriages, high housing costs and women’s greater participation in the workforce, Ms. Ueno writes in her book that she is not a bit critical of the phenomenon, saying most politicians and economists who are upset about the situation are too focused on maintaining the country’s national power for fear of losing economic manpower and revenues.
“We are entering into the age of sustainability, not an age of growth,” she says. “There are a lot of small countries in the world that do well without producing substantial economic profits.”
“Talking at the Edge” (the Japanese title of the book was “Could My Words Reach You?”) puts together a series of intense letters between two sociologists on issues of race, nationalism, gender and other matters concerning the experience of women intellectuals in Asia.
The book, which was co-produced by two liberal publishers in Korea and Japan, is a project that transcends any formal collaboration that was done between the two countries in the past.
It delves into the profound history of struggles between the two countries, drawn from the authors’ personal, academic and political experiences of working as cultural outsiders. While the letters frankly explore the tensions that continue to exist between the two countries, the two authors also acknowledge the frustrations and regrets of their differences rooted in their history, almost in the style of an intellectual confession.
In one chapter, Ms. Ueno writes about the difficulties of coping with the repeated criticisms of her position on the issue of Korean comfort women from Korean feminists, who accused the Japanese scholar of tiptoeing between the position of being “the daughter of an oppressor’s country and the sister of a victim’s gender.”
“Of course the question bothers me,” Ms. Ueno says. “It forces me to choose between being a supporter of nationalist thinking and a feminist view.”
The ambivalence she shares with Ms. Cho through their book, however, conveys the potential for two countries to speak beyond their national boundaries, as their title suggests. As Ms. Ueno says in her epilogue, the experience of writing was unique in that both women wrote in their own languages while also being aware of the “outside audience” that doesn’t share the same history or language.
“I can’t choose to be Japanese,” she says. “At the same time, I feel indebted to the responsibility of my government’s military crimes. But we also have to see that some of us are powerless to change the system.”

by Park Soo-mee
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