• Enter search term(s):


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.



Recent Posts

“Gender-free” and the conservative backlash against feminism in contemporary Japan

Date: July 3, 2007

This past weekend, I attended the annual meeting of National Women’s Studies Association at St. Charles, Illinois. In case you are wondering, St. Charles is a hellhole in the middle of nowhere. We were told that it was one hour from downtown Chicago, but it took well over an hour and half even though there weren’t any traffic congestion anywhere.

I only attended one day, Saturday May 30th, to present a panel about the backlash against feminism in Japan with Tomomi Yamaguchi (University of Chicago, will be at Montana State University this fall) and Masami Saito (University of Toyama, Japan), plus Norma Field (University of Chicago) as a discussant.

First, Yamaguchi-san spoke about the history of the term “gender-free,” which was first adapted by Tokyo Women’s Foundation in 1995 and quickly became widespread among state-subsidised feminist education projects until it became a focus of the well-orchestrated conservative bacaklash in around 2002. Those affiliated with Tokyo Women’s Foundation claimed that the term came from the article, “Should public education be gender-free?” by Barbara Houston, Professor of Education at University of New Hampshire, but Houston actually critiqued gender-free principle in education, calling instead for gender-sensitive approach that takes into account that the society in which students live is a male-dominated one, which affects boys and girls differently.

Japanese scholars, however, introduced the term as the “next step” for gender “co-participation” after legal and structural inequalities have already been eliminated, that “gender-free” would promote changes in people’s minds and attitudes. As Yamaguchi-san points out, it is no surprise that the well-meaning bureaucrats found this concept appealing: if legal and structural inequalities have already been resolved, then it’s no longer the responsibility for the government to make any changes; any existing inequalities could be blamed on people’s attitudes. Nonetheless, since 1995 many mainstream feminists, especially scholars working with bureaucracies, embraced the term.

One of the ways these “gender-free” feminists justified replacing older term, danjo byodo (literally translated “men-women equality”), was to suggest that “danjo byodo” could be interpreted to permit “different but equal” rhetoric. In other words, one could say that men and women are fundamentally different and therefore should have different, sex-segregated roles to play in the society and in families, but they should be respected as equals nonetheless. But Yamaguchi-san points out that grass-roots feminists have successfully used the term “danjo byodo” to counter such arguments in the past, and it is simply not true that “danjo byodo” was vulnerable to “different but equal” argument.

Then in around 2002, conservative media took notice of the proliferation of “gender-free,” and made it a central theme of their campaign to distort and discredit feminism. “Gender-free” position denies the existence of any difference between male and female, they argued. Many ridiculously false allegations were raised, such as “gender-free” would require boys and girls to change in the same locker, or those promoting “gender-free” education would abolish any and all traditional festivities specifically for boys or for girls. Further, all feminists were presumed to be in support of “gender-free,” despite some grass-roots activists had protested the top-down paradigm of “gender-free.”

In 2004, Yamaguchi-san wrote an article in a small feminist publication that exposed the fact that Tokyo Women’s Foundation’s use of the term “gender-free” was based on a careless misreading of Houston’s original paper. Many mainstream feminists reacted defensively, one even alleging that Yamaguchi-san “misunderstands” feminism, without offering any specific criticism. Even more disturbingly, a conservative newspaper owned by the Unification Church (Moonies) praised Yamaguchi-san for exposing the fallacy of “gender-free” ideology, distorting Houston’s call for “gender-sensitive” education as the recommendation that education must be respectful toward boys’ and girls’ innate biological differences (on the contrary, Houston was urging educators to be sensitive to boys’ and girls’ different life experiences under a male-dominated society).

Saito-san presented about the gender discrimination in school lunches in the city of Toyama, where she lives. Several years ago, it was brought to national attention that public schools in Toyama, for some bizarre reason, served differently sized portions of bread and rice for boys and girls: boys’ bread are made from 100 grams of wheat while girls’ are made from 70 grams; when rice is served, boys eat 120 grams, while girls are served 100 grams. The board of education of Toyama justified the practice as based on biological differences between boys and girls: boys need more calories than girls do, they insisted.

When parents and feminists criticized the practice as sexist, many conservative public officials defended it, arguing that “gender-free” doesn’t apply to this case, because differently sized portions are not about social biases or attitudes, but about bona fide biological differences. In the midst of the rampant backlash against “gender-free,” even those complains that had nothing to do with “gender-free” were thus dismissed as conservative public officials were convinced that anything feminists say or believe was about “gender-free.” Ironically, it was “gender-free,” not “danjo byodo,” that created a room to justify “different but equal” treatment of males and females.

My presentation was about the role Western “experts” played in the similarly convoluted discourse surrounding “gender-free,” in particular through John Colapinto’s book, “As Nature Made Him.” The book tells the story of David Reimer, or the “John/Joan” child, who was born male but lost his penis to a circumcision accident, and was raised as a girl under the direction of psychologist John Money. Money had believed that children were born without a fixed gender identity, and that any child could be raised to become a man or a woman as long as they are surgically and hormonally transformed into the designated sex, and receive consistent socialization as a member of that sex. He sought to prove his theory by following up on the child’s development, but he continued to report the success of his gender assignment experiment even after it became evident that the child did not conform to female gender assignment. Eventually, the child chose to go back to living as a man; Money reported that the case was lost to follow-up, even though the patient lived at the same address.

In 1997, reproductive biologist Milton Diamond investigated Money’s claim, and reported the facts of the case. Three years later, John Colapinto published the book “As Nature Made Him,” which for the first time described David Reimer’s life from his own perspective at length. The Japanese edition of the book was published in the same year through Mumeisha, which went out of business the next year and consequently the book quietly went out of print. But in 2004, conservatives began arguing that Money’s theory of gender neutrality at birth was the primary basis for “gender-free” ideology and hence the entire feminist movement, and its failure doomed feminism and “gender-free” education as fraud. They further hinted that there was a conspiracy of the feminist-leaning liberal media establishment behind the disappearance of “As Nature Made Him” from the marketplace.

The Moonies newspaper (Sekai Nippo) interviewed Milton Diamond in February 2004, in which the interviewer–I will not dignify him by calling him a reporter or journalist–asked Diamond for his opinion of Chizuko Ueno, a prominent Japanese feminist scholar, who continued to rely on Money’s “John/Joan” case to support her position in an article that was published in as late as 2002, two years after “As Nature Made Him” and five after Diamond’s initial report. Diamond of course criticized Ueno for intellectual dishonesty, or at least intellectual laziness.

The problem is that the article the interviewer was referring to was actually written in 1995, and it did not rely on the “John/Joan” case at all. It is actually a chronology of how the concept of gender has evolved in the latter half of the twentieth century, and while it does discuss Money’s formulation of gender (in today’s language, what Money dealt with would be more appropriately called “gender identity”), it did not even mention the existence of “John/Joan” case.

But the interview fueled an online petition seeking the return of “As Nature Made Him,” and in May the second edition of the book was introduced by Fusosha, which also publishes the notoriously revisionist history textbook that whitewashes Japan’s war crimes during the second world war. This edition included a 10-page introduction for the Japanese readers that was written by Hidetsugu Yagi, then-president of the revisionist Japan Association for History Textbook Reform. The group had earlier focused on removing references to “comfort women” and other colonial and wartime crimes of the imperial Japan, but had shifted its focus to “gender-free” after being unsuccessful at getting its textbooks adapted by schools and its membership began to shrink.

I was astonished to witness these developments, as I had known both Diamond and Colapinto, author of “As Nature Made Him,” to be individuals committed to promoting the greater acceptance of non-traditional gender identities and expressions. So I began to intervene through my Japanese blog as well as in print media. First, I called up Diamond and found out that he was commenting about Ueno based on the only thing he knew about her, which is what the interviewer told him, and did not intend to discredit her. He further stated that he supports “gender-free” ideas in education, such as merging gender-segregated roll of students or allowing children to play with toys that are not traditionally associated with their sex.

I also contacted Colapinto, who was shocked to hear how his message was being distorted by the publisher. He told me that he believed that readers are free to interpret his work in any way they choose, or as he put it, readers have the right to stupid interpretations. However, this case was different: the stupid interpretation was being packaged and sold as part of the book, as Yagi claim that the book completely contradicts decades of feminist movement and scholarship, and proves that the laws promoting gender equality must be abolished.

While this intervention was somewhat effective at changing the course of the national debates over “gender-free” ideas, I felt that it still did not challenge the authority of foreign, white male experts as somehow more credible than Japanese feminists. But who cares what Diamond or Colapinto think? They are not the experts about the gender relationship and hierarchy in Japan, the Japanese feminists are. I also feel that throughout the debate surrounding “gender-free,” we remained reactive rather than proactive, and we’ve somehow relinquished the power of agenda-setting to the conservatives. I concluded my presentation with these thoughts.

More from the NWSA2007 coming soon…

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply