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Laura Dales

Further information

About the author

Laura Dales lectures in Japanese and International Studies at the University of South Australia. Her doctoral research explored feminist agency and praxis in contemporary Japan. Other research interests include studies of Asian feminisms, NGOs and women’s groups, and gender issues in contemporary Japan. Her publications include chapters in the books Women and Agency in Asia (Parker, ed., Marshall Cavendish 2005), and Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities  in Japan (McLelland and Dasgupta eds., RoutledgeCurzon 2005), and the forthcoming monograph,  Feminist Movements in Contemporary Japan  (Routledge, 2009).
Email: [email protected]

Publication details

Volume 17, November 2007

Feminist Fieldwork in Japan (and Beyond)

The challenge for feminist ethnography, in navigating the waters of relationality and agency, is to attempt to sustain the notion of agency while accounting for the diversity of its enactments in culturally specific notions of personhood. (Joseph 1996: 119)

Suad Joseph observes that feminist ethnographers examining agency face (at least) two challenges: to illustrate the specific ways that agency manifests in different social and cultural contexts, while at the same time acknowledging the ambiguity that diversity brings to the concept.1 The difficulty lies in balancing the specific, in its sharp narrowness, with the general, in its broad clumsiness. Feminist ethnography – and arguably all forms of feminist social research – are bound to twin poles of relativism and universality, particularly in their analysis and account of women’s agency. Through specific examples of women’s empowerment and enablement, feminist scholars endeavour to reveal broader, arguably universal patterns of subjugation and marginalisation. In feminist literature, the capacity of the individual woman is implicitly contextualised within the schema of the disempowered, so that those who are enabled, and the degree of their ability, can only be understood in relation to those who are dis-abled, and the extent to which they are excluded from power. The diversity of women’s abilities, when understood as functions of class, socio-economic status, education and language, is therefore central to feminist discourse, which defines and re-defines itself to accommodate the blurred boundaries of “woman”.

While issues related to diversity among women have featured in (English-language) feminist writing for more than two decades, the dilemmas of representation and inclusivity remain prickly and pertinent for contemporary feminist ethnographers and social scholars. This is particularly so for feminists who conduct fieldwork outside their native society, and in “Other Places”. This paper is an effort on my part to address questions that flow from fieldwork conducted as a feminist and “non-native”, and specifically as a white woman in Japan. It is also a reflection on the ways in which feminist theory influenced my research, on the impact of self on the process and outcomes of fieldwork, and on what might be gained from self-reflexivity in feminist social research. While acknowledging that these experiences echo those of many other social researchers (eg Kondo 1990; Bestor et al 2003; Robertson 2003), this paper is both a personal response to the process of fieldwork, and a critical overview of the literature on feminist research and ethnography I have encountered since returning from fieldwork.2

In my doctoral research I explored questions of feminist identification in contemporary Japan, focusing on women’s groups, government women’s centres and individual feminists. As a self-identified feminist with a long-held interest in both women’s issues and Japan, my project was, in my mind at least, plainly and squarely set on the foundation of feminist theory. While in the field, the certainty of this assumption – that I was engaged in something that could be understood as feminist research – did not fade, even as my findings left me ambivalent. However, the implications of my assumptions, and questions of what a feminist foundation meant to my research, developed increasing significance as I progressed with fieldwork, and lingered throughout my efforts to construct a thesis around my findings.

What are the implications of feminist social research, for researcher and research subject? What do differences, such as age, “race” and language, between researcher and researched contribute to the process and outcomes of the research? These questions draw into focus the fundamental connection between feminist theory and praxis, identifying feminist research as a means by which the fruits of one can benefit the other. In this paper I consider these issues in relation to my own work, and with an eye to contributing to the greater body of feminist literature addressing these questions. Ultimately, while acknowledging the currency and weight of these issues, I suggest that solutions are both less possible and less important than the process of engagement, discussion and debate that arise around the questions.

Studying in different directions in Japan

Straddling the divide between what Jane Caplan calls “the imperialising Subject and the colonised Other” (1991: 321), Japan can be seen as the site of a selective and specific blurring of binaries, and as such represents a challenge to those frameworks – feminist included – founded on the constructs of Similarity and Difference. The literature of borderlands has reflected on the deterritorialising and transformative potential of the border, and on the lives – “bilingual, bicultural, biconceptual reality” – lived by border-crossers (Hicks 1991: xxv; Alarçon 1996; Lavie and Swedenburg 1996). Borders can be seen as “zones of interchange, interdefinition, and mutual contamination as much as lines of separation” (Jackson 2003: 3). Borderlands offer new perspectives on the conceptualisation of lived experience, and suggest new frameworks within which the past, present and future may be (re-)viewed and resisted (Hicks 1991: xxxi; Lavie and Swedenburg 1996: 15). Reflecting a space of resistance against the cultural and economic hegemony of the West (or the First World), the borderlands perspective offers a new framework with which to understand Asian (or Third World) feminisms.

However, Japanese experiences of borderlands are complicated by the historically specific fluidity that renders them variously – and simultaneously – mainstream and marginal expressions. As Mackie has argued, “typicality and marginality are matters of discursive construction rather than numbers”, such that in different contexts, a single term acquires different valence and import (2002: 203). As a mainstream expression, for example when used in discussions of state policy, global economics or international relations, the term “Japanese” obscures internal (that is, domestic) differences of ethnicity, class, age and physical ability. “Japanese” can be used as descriptor of language or culture, implying the homogeneity and consistency of those included in the subject group. It can also be an expression of marginality, most notably in discussions where the west (and specifically the Anglophone west) is centralised, or where the Japaneseness of the subject renders it (or her/him) peripheral or implicitly different. Thus the use of Japanese language in academic fora is given particular meaning when contrasted with the predominance of English, and Japanese becomes a marker of marginality. In this latter use, the import of “Japanese” that arises in discussions of international economics or Asian colonisation is removed, and the implications of hegemonic nationalism – by definition a majority/mainstream movement – are obscured.

Japan as seen in Asia (and/or by Asians) is different to Japan as seen in the West (and/or by Westerners), and the shifting borders of the subject reflect the socio-political negotiations of the moment. Constructions of “Japanese” womanhood must therefore be understood as embedded in specific relational contexts that reflect international relations, including wars and globalisation, as much as domestic social trends and demographics. Western researchers conducting social studies in Japan must navigate this landscape with an awareness of the ways that Japan is situated by, and in, Western academic discourse, and with particular attention to the implications of difference within and between the categories of researcher and researched. Feminist researchers place this awareness centrally, delineating the ways that a study of women and women’s experiences in Japan evokes the various “figure(s) of difference”, including but not limited to, those which mark women from men, Japanese from Asian and Japanese from Western (Caplan 1991: 315).3 One aspect of difference pertinent to this discussion reflects the implications of “race”– what Anthias and Yuval-Davies describe as a biological or physiognomic reference point for marking difference between individuals and communities, constructing and justifying inclusion and exclusion (1993: 2). While this term is long discredited as a scientific tool of physiological typology, it is nonetheless useful in discussions of lived experiences, particularly when differences are marked through obvious physical traits. The respective experiences of a Japanese-Australian researcher, an African-Australian researcher and an Anglo-Australian researcher in Japan are likely to differ greatly. This is not simply because of ethnic differences, for example cultural beliefs and practices. It is also because whiteness is imbued with different meanings to colour, and the assumptions flowing from these meanings affect fieldwork relations. For this reason “race”, along with age/status and language, are understood to be key productive differences encountered in the Japanese field.

I argue that within the context of fieldwork relations, power relationships between researcher and researched are nuanced and fluid, and challenge the neat construction of the researcher’s authority. While it stands that “the Western researcher is inescapably at the centre of the research account”, factors affecting positionality can be seen to alter individual relationships within the microcosm of fieldwork, and may then flow on to shape the overall scope and findings of the research (Ribbens and Edwards 1998: 3). An examination of these relationships in the Japanese context may therefore be fuel for further discussion of the ways that feminist research can challenge assumptions of power within fieldwork, both that conducted “at home” and in Other places.

Relationships of productive difference in the Japanese field

The effect of age differences on positionality in Japan is particularly evident in the workplace, particularly because age is closely connected to employment hierarchy. As an intern at the Spring Centre – a government-funded women’s centre – I was subordinate in age and experience to those in my focus, excepting my two fellow interns. Furthermore, the role of intern, organised via a local university program, demanded attention to workplace hierarchy, explicitly supported by introductory lectures on appropriate language, behaviour and dress in the workplace. As interns – and as age-subordinates to almost all other workers in the centre – we were expected to observe these rules, to demonstrate our commitment to the internship program, and more broadly to demonstrate competent performance of the roles expected of shakaijin, adults (or “members of society”, as opposed to students).

As a volunteer, and particularly as a non-native Japanese speaker, I was not subject to the same power-relations as an ordinary employee (or Japanese intern), and expectations of my conduct and language were no doubt diluted accordingly. In contrast with Hsiung’s (1996) study, my position was clearly distinguishable from that of the factory workers, in that I was treated respectfully and kindly at all times. I was not a rank-and-file employee, but neither was I a free agent, and because my position in the Centre was always defined by my status as a student, rather than as a researcher, in the period of my internship I remained subtly but unmistakeably a subordinate to the Centre employees.

In the internship, I was defined as an intern firstly by the delivery of instructions. My fellow interns and I were given an induction, in which we learn about the Centre and its history and administrative and financial structure; we were advised of the kinds of work conducted in the Centre, and its particular focus on issues related to women. In these discussions, conducted in the formal boardroom, the interns were encouraged to ask questions, but as inductees, our primary role was to absorb the information delivered to us by the senior workers. In this case, my position as an intern and member of a subordinate cohort determined my ability to engage in discussions with senior workers.

The fuzzy boundary between linguistic ability and non-Japaneseness (referenced by physical appearance) renders this a difficult factor to map – at times my Japanese (in)abilities provoked detailed answers or clarifications from my superiors, while at other times it prevented a detailed engagement with complex concepts. On occasions, the negotiation of two positions (intern and non-Japanese/ English-speaker) revealed conflict, producing a ranking that prioritised age/ employment status over language/ “race”.

One example of this situation occurred at the Spring Centre on the day of a seminar, to be attended by several visiting American (non-Japanese-speaking) women’s policy advisers. The seminar was to be presented in Japanese by a Japanese Women’s Studies professor, and a Japanese women’s rights advocate. I had been informed about the seminar by a Japanese friend, Akagi-san, a member of one of the women’s groups in which I was also conducting fieldwork.4 Akagi-san worked casually as an interpreter, and had been approached to act as a “whisperer” (an interpreter who sits beside or behind the guest, interpreting the presentation or speeches into the native language of the guest) to the American guests. As there were to be two guests, Akagi-san asked if I would also act as “whisperer”, and given that the seminar was to be held at the Spring Centre on a day I was scheduled to be there as an intern, I agreed.

Just before the scheduled time of the seminar, I met Akagi-san in the ground-floor foyer of the Centre, where I was waiting with the other interns and my supervisor Yamazaki-san to greet attendees for the seminar. Akagi-san asked me to accompany her to the fourth floor, to meet the American guests, but when I mentioned this to Yamazaki-san, she asked if I had obtained permission from one of the senior co-ordinators of the internship, because “as an intern, (you) have to participate in intern activities”. While the Centre had not organised an alternative “whisperer” for the guests, my responsibilities as intern outweighed my potential usefulness as native-English/fluent Japanese speaker. I was eventually allowed to act as “whisperer” after receiving permission from the co-ordinator, but ultimately was replaced by a more skilled Japanese interpreter.

In this incident, my ability as native English speaker conflicted with my performance of intern duties, and the latter were prioritised. My interaction with Yamazaki-san represented a negotiation between supervisor and intern, specifically reflecting the weight attributed to age/job status and challenging assumptions of the researcher’s power vis-à-vis her informant. This negotiation demonstrates the ways that authority can destabilise power relationships between researcher and informant.

As a member, participant and observer of three non-government women’s groups in Japan, my positionality was constantly shifting to reflect the environment and the nature of the investigations I was conducting on feminism and feminist identification. While the categories of “researcher” and “researched” were therefore accurate and discrete at a certain level – I was the one introduced as a “researcher of Japanese feminism”, I was the one receiving a scholarship to study – the changing import of these categories in different contexts meant that neither category was fixed immutably. Furthermore, the women’s group members’ ownership of knowledge – that is, the perceptions of feminism and the group that I was examining – inevitably meant that the mantle of expertise was not pinned to a single party, and I was therefore free to be constructed as an “informant” by the group and individual members.

In almost all fieldwork encounters, my research was marked by my linguistic abilities as a non-native Japanese speaker/ native English speaker. As Bestor et al observe, linguistic fluency requires more than command of “specialised vocabularies and semantic domains…(as) even the most fluent researcher – foreign or native speaker of Japanese – must learn to evaluate the linguistic environment of a particular topic” (2003: 9). Thus even with a relatively high level of spoken Japanese fluency, my understanding of terms relevant to my research, and more significantly of the use and nuances of these terms, inflected my findings. This was particularly illustrated by my work in a small gender studies group, Benkyō, whose young female members met regularly to discuss feminist theory, gender, and the impact of these on everyday work and life.

The young women Benkyō had all studied gender studies at tertiary level, and three of the group intended to train further to pursue careers in feminist counselling. They had come together to form a “gender studies group” in their own time, and were a highly self-motivated and critical group of young women. After my first meeting with this group, I wrote that I greatly looked forward to the next meeting, because in this group, “I’m not expected to be the gender/women’s studies expert – everyone has experience, and probably more than me” (Fieldnotes 26/11/00). From these women, and as a student, I learned much about feminist psychology, Japanese approaches to domestic abuse and the possibilities and strategies for negotiating work, study and relationships with a feminist consciousness.

Still, when discussing questions of feminist theory, I found that my position as group member conflicted with my intentions as researcher. Before conducting official interviews, I often spoke in the group about ideas of feminism, about what I believed feminism to be and the connotations of the word “feminist” as I perceived them. We discussed the idea of feminist backlash (bakkurashu), and other concepts from the translated English books the group read. To move from these discussions to interviews in which I asked the question “What do you think feminism means?” (which at that time was central to my research), felt extremely un-academic and inappropriate. As a group member I wanted and was expected to be involved in these discussions, but as a researcher I wanted a “pure” source of subjects.

In hindsight, I see these dilemmas as inevitable and integral to the process of fieldwork within women’s groups. First, there is no way to be a part of a group without being a part of the group – in a small-group observant-participation context, observation is unnatural without participation. Second, social research needs to address conflict as well as conflict-resolution, and particularly in feminist research I see a need to explore the cracks, splinters and turbulence of women’s groups. Feminist research must address these micro conflicts if it is to critique the broader social problems intrinsic to gendered inequality, and, most importantly, if it is to offer the potential for re-evaluation and reform. Finally, these dilemmas are the real products of ethnographic engagement with women’s groups, and therefore reflect the complexity of organisations founded on human relationships, and what Hume and Mulcock describe as the “awkward and uncomfortable nature of … fieldwork relations” (Hume and Mulcock 2004: xi).

When I expressed fear of being over-involved (and therefore overly-influential) in one of the groups in which I worked, I was reminded by Akagi-san that, “if people don’t move it, the group is just like a car without tyres”. To my mind, this means that as my engagement with my “subjects” was inextricable, I am therefore bound to identify myself at least as much as any other subject in my research. Further, the ambiguity that such an inclusion of self engenders in a study is inherent to social research, which addresses “the contradictory, inconsistent, conflictual, as well as positive emotional affinity shifts that occur over time and place” (Chalmers 2002: 11).

Within the context of the Women’s Notices English study group, I was introduced as an “Australian graduate student researching Japanese women’s issues”, or sometimes “studying Japanese feminism”. As the youngest member by some years (and the youngest regular attendee of meetings by at least a decade), my status was marked most significantly by my age and inexperience (as a student, I was not yet a shakaijin, or “member of society”). In the space of this group – the meetings and functions they organised – my position appeared to be interpreted by some members along the lines of intercultural study, and an extension of Japanese cultural study. This interpretation was supported by the facts of my undergraduate degree in Japanese, and my enthusiastic and explicit long-term interest in Japanese society. Furthermore, my status as a student in the group could be contrasted with that of other foreigners who occasionally or previously attended meetings. For example, the group sporadically engaged foreign residents in Japan to participate in cultural events, such as group cooking classes, which were opened to the public and held in a local community centre. Additionally, the group had in the past used the (paid or voluntary) editing services of native English speakers resident in Japan, most, if not all, of whom were English teachers or professionals residing in Japan. My status as a student or researcher was therefore underscored by the different status of those other foreigners within the group’s sphere of activity.

At the same time, members assumed a degree of expertise on my part – not around Japanese culture or society, but around social and women’s issues, and on many occasions I was brought into discussions with the question “And what is it like in Australia?” Similarly, the leader of the group would often greet me at the door with a welcoming, “Oh we were hoping you would come, we have something to read”, meaning that the day’s English study material had been chosen because of perceived connection with my research. My identity as “researcher” at times overshadowed my identity as “group member”, and both were bound up with my Australian nationality and English-fluency.5

As a member of this group my material contributions were relatively minor: I translated and checked translated documents and offered my advice and opinions on grammar or spelling when asked. Like other members, I paid membership dues and contributed a paragraph to the editorial of the group’s newsletter. Unlike other members, however, I was only occasionally involved in the hands-on tasks of creating the newsletter – the editing, formatting and assembly of the articles which formed the “Women’s Notices from Japan” bilingual publication. In this sense I was a peripheral member of the group, and my presence effected little authority or power over individual members or within the group as a whole.

I was regularly reminded of the significance of nationality and whiteness as defining characteristics of my self in Japan and in women’s groups. Generally speaking I tried to minimise my “Australianness”, to avoid being stereotyped and the problems of mis-representation. Thus when I was invited to speak on Australia in public, I tried to choose topics that would allow me to identify my own position of privilege. This meant foregrounding my discussion with a demographic breakdown of the population, to illustrate ethnic and linguistic diversity (one lecture was called “Multicultural Australia”); acknowledging the concrete privileges of whiteness, including the substantial gap in life-expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians; and identifying inadequate childcare and sexual violence against women as contemporary social problems. The compulsion to identify these aspects of Australia and Australianness reflected my desire to avoid (re-)construction of the West as “advanced”, homogenous and uniformly white. Sensitivity to the weight and meaning of diversity is not limited to one’s field of study, and my awareness of differing privilege within Japanese society made me reluctant to claim my Australianness as any kind of essential identity. However, in certain contexts and to certain ends, I was encouraged to raise my nationality as if it were a flag to wave in support of women’s issues.

I was involved with a group of women who had been involved with a major national company in an expensive, well-known and long-running sexual discrimination suit. My knowledge of the case came through a member of the women’s support group. The support group was a well-organised national group promoting the case and other inequalities in Japanese labour practices. The member, Ohara-san, who introduced me to the women plaintiffs, was also a founding member of a third non-government women’s group, WWW, which I had joined and was researching. I was introduced to the group as a graduate student of Japanese, studying in Kyoto and interested in women’s issues in Japan. The aspects of my self which were of significance to the cause, then, were the critical, feminist and non-Japanese aspects, which were drawn out in opposition to the apathetic Japanese law courts and discriminatory labour practices experienced by the women plaintiffs.

My involvement in the legal case was marginal. I attended a few hearings, and two protests held outside the Osaka District Court. At all of these I was asked to speak, and at one protest I was interviewed by newspapers in English and Japanese. My knowledge of the case was fragmentary, and there were many dozens of Japanese women there who had been far more involved in the case than I was – and yet I was asked firstly where I was from, and secondly what I thought of the case. Given my lack of knowledge I was reluctant and embarrassed to be singled out, but Ohara-san and others in the group were always encouraging, telling me “Japan is easily influenced by outside” (Nihon wa gaiatsu ni yowai). Implicitly, I was there to represent the outside world, and my judgment on the situation became a gloss for the people (or women) of the world’s view of Japanese gender inequality.

In this case the complex and sometimes contradictory details of self were masked by the magnification of a few aspects. Any ‘authority’ I wielded was not a product of intellectual expertise, socio-economic status, nor even membership in a “dominant metropolitan culture” as noted by Pat Caplan (1988: 9). Rather, I represented a kind of garnish to the display of women's protest, and my capacity to influence the situation related primarily to my whiteness, my nationality, and possibly, my English (and Japanese) language fluency. This uncomfortable reduction of self to the physical and performative disturbs authority created in other contexts, complicating relationships of power between researcher and informants by making them fluid. Similarly, in women’s groups my authority as researcher was countered by my status as student, and in the women’s centre my identity as a professional was undercut by my youth and my status as intern. While my contributions to those researched may have been limited by and dependent on these factors, they can nonetheless be seen as a part of the fieldwork exchange. In this exchange, we offer our selves (our status, language, time and energy) as a way of repaying our hosts for their hospitality and time.

This discussion should not be interpreted as evidence of my “disempowerment” vis-à-vis my informants, nor would I suggest that fieldwork and my resultant analysis were rendered “purer” by this particular power differential. I do not presume that these experiences characterise my fieldwork in any uniform way. While powerlessness in the field has been examined by some social researchers (Kondo 1990; Hsiung 1996), these discussions must be viewed in relation to the specific discourse in which (some) women were cast as native/Other. Quite obviously, the “powerlessness” that fieldworkers experience is not the same powerlessness that is experienced by slaves, prisoners or victims of human trafficking, for example.

Rather, the discussion here should serve as reminder of the subjectivity of the research process, and the effect of this on the outcomes of scholarly production. Without entirely dismantling the categories of researcher/researched, and with attention to the ways that power inequities can be created and maintained in the field, there is nonetheless productive value in identifying transgressions and gaps in these processes. Concession to these divergences allows space to reconsider the implications of the research for fieldworkers and informants, and the existing and potential scope for misuse or exploitation in ethnographic work, during and after fieldwork. For feminist scholars, concession involves marking (our) positionality “at once as the socially constituted “other” and as speakers within the dominant discourse, never able to place ourselves wholly or uncritically in either position” (Mascia-Lees et al 1989: 33).

Shaping the aims, relationships and boundaries of fieldwork, the researcher’s self is both conduit and guide in the process of fieldwork, and in the greater project of ethnographic study. Without English-language fluency, my participation in the English-language study group would have been even more insignificant, and with another nationality (for example, as a Nikkei Brazilian or member of a national/ethnic group marginalised by the Japanese state and/or society), my “authority” as an outside critic in the lawsuit would have been even less notable. Thus my physical self, racialised (white), able-bodied, and with specific linguistic capabilities (native English, fluent Japanese), subtly moulds and informs the creation and maintenance of relationships in the field.

The significance of self

Self-reflexive examinations of “insider outsider” research reveal much about the complexity of fieldwork relations. However, a problem arising from emphasis on self-reflexivity is that the approach inevitably places the researcher at the centre of focus, supporting the marginalisation of the female (Other) subject (Lal 1996: 206). If the research process pivots on a central figure (the researcher), the findings and implications for the research are ultimately bound to that centre, and the ties to the field – to those who feature as “subjects” – are always (and only ever) ancillary. In studies of women and those already marginalised, this paradoxically reinforces the de-centring that feminist scholarship has explicitly aimed to redress.

Acknowledgement of difference, and its significance in feminist research, can too easily be tidied away in an introductory and almost confessional discussion of self-positioning that, as Lal observes, “does not inform an assessment of how such positionings are implicated in one’s analysis” (1996: 197). Thus while a prefacing list of generic biographical categories (white, Anglophone, middle-class, heterosexual etc) explains something of the standpoint from which research is conducted, it is only by attending to the material effects of these categories on the research outcomes that they have meaning or impact beyond the specific study. As Robertson observes, these categories are meaningful in ethnographic scholarship only when their usefulness is articulated, not simply “left self-evident as essentialised qualities that are magically synonymous with self-consciousness” (2002: 791).

The details relevant to my fieldwork in Japan then gathered around the central research themes of feminist identification and praxis. In looking to describe feminist praxis, what does my (relatively) young/middle-class/non-Japanese gaze determine that may not be determined by a middle-aged/working-class/Japanese gaze? In seeking to identify the agency engendered by women’s NGOs, how does my temporally limited engagement with the group delimit my findings? And in seeking to determine feminist identification, how does my English-language-rooted worldview skew my perceptions to familiar categories of feminism? (See Dales 2005b) These questions are salient to the epistemology of the project, illustrating the connections between researcher and researched. While these questions may be answerable only in conjecture, or through further research or comparison with other studies, they nonetheless suggest the difficulty of extricating fieldwork findings from larger webs of experiential and subjective knowledge.

Robertson is wary of overstating the case of positionality, and of the possibility that “self-consciousness can also become an end in itself” (Robertson 2002: 786). The problem with prioritising self-in-research, as she sees it, is two-fold. Firstly, it entails the collapse of “the complexity of (the writer’s) personal and professional lives” and history, into essentialised, fixed categories, which are assumed to be “universally intelligible” (2002: 789). This is arguably precisely what the researcher aims to avoid in depictions of those being researched – an immutable and compartmentalised depiction of an individual. Secondly, Robertson argues that the prioritisation of self as a factor in the process of ethnographic research suggests that those researched are “capable only of reacting to the ethnographers’ presence which, in turn, irreversibly alters their lifeways” (2002: 789). It is clear that “ethnographers are not the only wielders of mirrors” (Robertson 2002: 791).

However, self-reflexivity beyond a confessional preface is necessary precisely because positionality affects what we find, and more significantly, what we seek in the field. Through attention to these details we are able to move beyond dualisms such as insider/outsider, and “on to a more productive engagement with the nature of our relationships with those whom we study and represent, on to questioning the nature of our insertion into the research process and its resultant expectations” (Lal 1996: 200). Self-reflexivity in feminist research can therefore become self-reflexivity in feminist theory, producing a discourse “adept at critiquing its own historical situation and limits” (Ebert 1996: 14).

This need not translate to being “paralysed by self-consciousness” (Jolley 2005: 215). However, it does require attention to the processes of research, the implications of differences between researcher and informant, and acknowledgement of the ways that research is shaped by contextual factors. Feminist attention to “women’s issues” further requires an identified connection between the individual(s) experiencing the issue, and the individual(s) reporting it. This identification connects “researcher” and “researched” expressly by subverting those categories, asserting that both positions are, at least to some extent, fluid and symbiotic. The researcher is only able to research by virtue of the researched’s knowledge, and the “researched” only becomes a research subject because of the researcher’s work. More importantly however, through the process of fieldwork, the researcher herself inevitably becomes the subject of research by those she is studying, and the “researched” is established as an expert and source of knowledge. The former process can be understood as subjectifying the researcher, and occurs through the basic determination of the researcher’s positionality (including age, family origins, marital status and educational background). The researcher’s positionality may in this way be determined initially (or even before fieldwork begins), or gradually, through the everyday engagement that constitutes fieldwork for the researcher and daily life for those living in “the field”. The researcher is studied, her practices, personality and politics are noted, and the provision of knowledge or cooperation by informants is determined by the findings.

While it is ultimately impossible to know exactly how far my research was determined by the relationships I formed, the behaviour of some respondents indicated that the process of research was two-way, and that their knowledge of me shaped their engagements in my work. When members of Women’s Projects presented me with newspaper clippings on issues they thought would be useful for my research, and when members of Benkyō asked my opinion of “backlash” or women’s issues in Japan, I was made aware of two points in relation to my fieldwork relationships. Firstly, that my informants saw me as having a particular (feminist) politics and an interest in the perception of certain (“women’s”) issues, and that these features were flagged by my note-taking, collection of literature, questions, and enthusiasm for discussions of feminist theories. Secondly, these responses illustrated the ways that my research was understood as an aspect of my (white, non-Japanese) self, connected to my interests in Japan, my sympathy for feminism and my life experiences as a young woman. Thus my participation in Women’s Projects would have been less likely had I been a young Japanese woman (there was only one other regular member under 30, and no other regular non-Japanese members), and my inclusion in Benkyō would have been more difficult had I spoken little Japanese, or had no academic interest in gender studies. These examples illustrate the process by which researchers are studied by informants, and the ways that informants’ findings – based in part on the non-academic and personal features of the researcher – allow the researcher to conduct her work.

However, what the academe considers “research” encompasses only one direction of this process, that which defines the traditional “researcher/researched” binary. It is the careful systematic collection of fieldnotes that both embodies the academic value of ethnography and stamps it as the owned experience of the researcher, to be collated, analysed and (re)packaged for academic consumption. Feminists have criticised the power imbalance created by the construction of subjects’ voices into academic artefacts (Mohanty 1991; Ribbens and Edwards 1998: 3). This process of repackaging knowledge for the academe has attracted criticism, because questions of inequity, particularly in distribution of benefit, lie at the heart of feminist critique of fieldwork (Maguire 1987; Patai 1991).

However, feminist conceptualisation of ethnography acknowledges the dual directions of the process, and suggests that the process by which researcher becomes subject may also be understood as significant. Understanding the researcher to be always and also a subject invests the need for self-reflexivity into the process of fieldwork (as well as the writing-up), qualifying both the motivation and the means of ethnographic research, and attempting, at least symbolically, to re-dress the power imbalances wrought by academic status or expertise. Feminist research requires not only that we train our attention to differences as well as similarities among women, but also that we attempt to translate this work into a praxis that acknowledges the process and participants, as well as outcome. Praxis is not limited to the material contributions of financial or political support or policy-drafting: it can also incorporate academic “outputs” such as writing that challenges stereotype and influences popular conceptions, particularly when it is produced for and disseminated in the “centre” of the English-dominant mainstream. Focusing on the concept of agency in groups which do not explicitly self-define as feminist, requires that I clarify my terms of reference, and politics, to reveal the seams between my lived, political experiences and my theory. Attending to the manifestations of feminism in Japan, involves actively challenging popular and academic constructions of Japanese women as subjugated, passive and un (or anti)-feminist.

These practices can mean treading close to a politics which ignores or downplays real and structural inequalities, in favour of championing “empowerment”. They can also mean widening concepts such as agency to make them more inclusive, but less theoretically useful. It could be argued that such a broadened scope challenges the integrity or ‘purity’ of the concept – such that we begin to see feminism and/or agency in even the most banal of everyday behaviour. However, I suggest that a reasonable extension of the boundaries of “feminism” is inherent to the ongoing development of feminism, enabling it to address, explore and deconstruct issues of contemporary significance for current and future generations of women.

Feminist social research

Narayan suggests that, universally, feminism evolves in critical recognition of the way in which “norms, institutions and traditions that structure women’s personal and social lives, as well as the impacts of new developments and social change, are detrimental to women’s well-being…” (1997: 13). To extrapolate on this definition, feminism is founded on women’s experiences of subordination, manifested systemically in culturally specific ways. If it is critical awareness of these issues which defines feminism as a universal, it is the variation in emphasis, objectives and avenues of critique which define feminism as a culturally-bound discourse.

Feminist research can be identified by its critical focus on women, women’s experiences and the often-overlapping hegemonies which impact on women’s lives. This has often resulted in themes of resistance and agency, reflected in discussions of re-fashioned, re-constructed and re-appropriated femininities. Women are depicted as empowered and active agents, and their behaviour reflective of a positively informed and independent will. However, feminist social researchers have questioned the limitations of these depictions, the definitions of “autonomy” and “independent will”, and the extent to which agency and resistance have been attributed to women (Abu-Lughod 1990; Ortner 2001; Parker 2005; Dales 2005).

Wolf (1996: 2) identifies three “interrelated dimensions” of power inherent in fieldwork: the power that stems from differences in positionalities between researcher and researched, including class, race/ethnicity and education; the power that arises from inequalities during the fieldwork process, including exploitation of the researched by the researcher; and the power that develops after fieldwork, most notably in writing-up and representation of the research. Attention to these power differentials demonstrates a sensitivity to broader impacts of power inequalities, to the marginalisation of women, and to the possible, obscured and/or unintended implications of research of women. In this sense, awareness of the inherent power-play of fieldwork is an essential feature of feminist social research, which seeks to highlight, examine and critique the oppression and disempowerment of women.

However, certain assumptions of this model relate to an archetypical relationship between researcher and researched, and are therefore challenged by research that moves beyond this relationship. Most obviously, as Wolf acknowledges, “studying up” may represent a possibility for transgression (1996: 2). As an atypical ethnographic pattern, “studying up” may be of less immediate concern to feminist critiques of power in ethnography, which reasonably focus on the broader and more common practices of social scientists in the field. However, I suggest that the process of “studying up”, and also what Roberts (2003: 298) has termed “studying sideways”, reveal by contrast just what “traditional” ethnography entails, and attention to these processes may offer suggestions for more ethical feminist research.

Broader implications: Some conclusions

There is growing acceptance in the field that feminist and other researchers, then, must self-consciously reflect upon their status within the field site, on how they are situated within social and power relations, and place their work within the changing tides of academic discourse as well (Zavella 1996: 142).

Feminist ethnography requires an attention to specificities of difference: the manifestations, reasons and implications of divergence between women, both within and between categories of researcher and researched. The concept of positionality, in which the researcher both delineates and is delineated by her research, enables this attention to be translated into a practical framework through which difference may be explored, understood and deconstructed. In the context of fieldwork in women’s groups and women’s centres in Japan, this framework – with its particular consciousness of factors such as age, institutional hierarchy, race and linguistic fluency – both supports and de-limits the production of knowledge that flows from my endeavours. In this way, positionality can be understood as a tool for refining and unpacking the process and products of fieldwork, and integral to the pursuit of sensitive and contextualised feminist scholarship.

The potential for power imbalance in research relationships, and the flow-on implications to theory and knowledge, have been thoroughly documented by feminist scholars, and particularly those working on the margins of Western academe, and/or in Other places (Minh-ha 1989; Collins 1990; Mohanty 1991; Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983; Alexander and Mohanty 1997). Negotiation of these power imbalances therefore represents a central concern of feminist social research, and of scholarship that grows from ethnography. Of course, being sensitive to a power imbalance – even acknowledging its existence in our work – does not mean that we are absolved from acting to challenge it. In fact it should mean the opposite: that we are bound to query the relationship by making ourselves vulnerable, or at least available, to those we work with and for. For some this means translating work (our own, from English for our subjects, or theirs for a broader, English-speaking audience), or contributing our time and energy to our subjects’ projects. It can also mean simply making ourselves available to questioning, to challenge and debate – preferably in a language that is not our native one – and open to the discomfort and frustration of being excluded from the centre. Essentially, it should mean that our research is built on humility and engagement, as well as critical theory, rigorous analysis and careful scholarship.

In my doctoral fieldwork, where power imbalances were ambiguous and fluid, my efforts to contribute included conducting English-conversation classes, editing English-language translations, explaining the work of feminist theorists whose (English) work I used, and discussing my research in non-academic forums. In the field I was challenged to clarify and justify my feminist politics, to explain my theories in Japanese, and to make at least some of my work accessible in Japanese, in the form of reports (notably on my women’s centre internship) and presentations to academic and non-academic colleagues and participants. Since leaving the field, I have maintained connections with the women’s centre and some of the group members, and have continued to support their work both practically (again, through translations) and through making my findings public through teaching and publication, the latter an admittedly self-beneficial process. These are all relatively insignificant achievements, and certainly unremarkable among other feminist researchers (see Wolf 1996, for numerous examples).

However, I also see the development of my research methodologies and expectations as a contribution to the field. By illuminating ways that I might further challenge and be challenged by social research, I am better equipped to offer my skills and findings to those working in and for Japanese women, to identify the areas in which further research is needed, and to engage in dialogue with the women whose ideas and experiences build my research. But perhaps most significantly, this process of self-reflection has made me more keenly aware of my limitations in these endeavours.

The problematic of power imbalance that Wolf (1996) outlines – of a First-World woman studying Third-World women – is markedly different to that which I encountered as an Australian woman studying Japanese women in Japan. Linguistic and cultural fluency, the weight of whiteness, and the implications of age in a (relatively) age-hierarchical society, made the process of “studying-sideways” more nuanced than if I had conducted the fieldwork in a more clearly “downward” direction. As I have argued, the process of “studying side-ways” may challenge conceptualisations of power in the researcher/informant relationship. In the Japanese context this can reflect differences in age and seniority, as well as linguistic (in)ability that privilege the research informants over the researcher, even if that privilege is fluid or transient. Studies of such ethnographic processes, and of the ways that research engages those involved on both sides, enable a greater understanding of the ways that feminist researchers engaged in “traditional” studies negotiate the field ethically.

My original primary research goal – to delimit and define feminism in Japan – proved a vehicle for discovering what I did not know, and also what could not be known, within the constraints of being a non-Japanese fieldworker in women’s groups and women’s centres. Ultimately I could not hope to answer the question in its broadness and complexity – but I could address the questions that arose from the process. I now see the original goal as reflecting an expectation of a feminism that promotes a clear and explicit identity with definitive borders, expecting a strong (if not radical) politics, and with a set of fixed, universal ideals at its core. This is a feminism to which I no longer subscribe, and to which I now devote some energy in critique. My findings, in the field and since, have taught me that definition is a process as well as an outcome, and that feminist research needs to be self-reflexive if it is to be useful as a tool for theoretical and practical engagement with the world.

Feminist research makes all women “part of the problem to be understood and ‘read’ – in an interconnected series of points upon the earth, not only reflecting but becoming objects of reflection” (Morris-Suzuki 2000: 22). Debates around difference, positionality and the impacts and limitations of ethnographic research contribute to the development of feminist discourse, challenging feminist researchers and contextualising the research processes and products they/we engage in. In the process, such debates contribute to one of the critical aims of feminist research – to seek understanding of the different ways that women experience and negotiate their worlds and lives, and to find, as feminists, scholars and women, “ways of understanding and living with our differences” (Jolley 2005: 214).


1. I would like to thank Katherine Hoggett, Lyn Parker and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive and insightful comments on the draft of this article.

2. This paper draws on and reproduces some material contained in the unpublished thesis, "Feminist Agency and Praxis in Contemporary Japan", 2006

3. It is therefore imperative to avoid conflating the experiences of ethnic Japanese women with women Othered by Japanese society, such as Anglo-American women, Filipina women or zainichi (long-term resident) Korean women in Japan.

4. All names of individuals cited in the case study are pseudonyms. I conducted fieldwork in Kansai (western Japan) 2000-2002, collecting data for my doctoral thesis on feminist agency and praxis in contemporary Japan.

5. On two occasions I was invited by Women's Notices and Women's Notices members to give presentations on Australia at local cultural centres, once on the general topic of "Australian Society" and the other (more interesting for me) on "Women and young people I have met in Japan". The flier for the latter featured the promotional blurb: "Laura Dales is in the middle of researching Japanese women's situation. We will be able to hear lots of unexpected stories, so please come along", along with an example "quote" of Australian trivia: "In Australia, you can be fined if you don't vote".


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