Home Away from Home: Japanese Corporate Wives in the United States / Edition 1

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Drawing attention to domestic space as the critical juncture between the global and the local, Home Away from Home is an innovative ethnography of the daily lives of middle-class Japanese housewives who accompany their husbands on temporary corporate job assignments in the United States. These women are charged with the task of creating and maintaining restful Japanese homes in a foreign environment so that their husbands are able to remain productive, loyal workers for Japanese multinationals and their children are properly socialized and educated as Japanese citizens abroad. Arguing that the homemaking components of transnational communities have not received adequate attention, Sawa Kurotani demonstrates how gender dynamics and the politics of the domestic sphere are integral to understanding national identity and transnational mobility.

Kurotani interviewed and spent time with more than 120 women in three U.S. locations with sizable expatriate Japanese communities: Centerville, a pseudonymous Midwestern town; the New York metropolitan area; and North Carolina’s Research Triangle area. She highlights the contradictory situations faced by the transient wives. Their husbands’ assignments in the United States typically last from three to five years, and they frequently emphasize the temporariness of their situation, referring to it as a “long vacation.” Yet they are responsible for creating comfortable homes for their families, which necessitates producing a familiar and permanent environment. Kurotani looks at the dynamic friendships that develop among the wives and describes their feelings about returning to Japan. She conveys how their sense of themselves as Japanese women, of home, and of their relationships with family members are altered by their personal experiences of transnational homemaking.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Sawa Kurotani reveals the centrality of women’s domesticity to transnational mobility among Japanese families and families everywhere. She has a fine and affectionate ethnographic eye.”—Karen Kelsky, author of Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams

“Sawa Kurotani’s absorbing study offers new ethnographic insight into a common manifestation of globalization—the social bubbles created by corporate, government, and military families on foreign assignments. She sensitively analyzes how Japanese company wives in the U.S. work hard to maintain Japanese domesticity and how these efforts inadvertently but powerfully forge a new self-awareness. Home Away from Home teaches us a valuable lesson about how the local is constituted within the global.”—William W. Kelly, editor of Fanning the Flames: Fans and Consumer Culture in Contemporary Japan

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822336228
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Sawa Kurotani is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Redlands in Redlands, California.

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Read an Excerpt

Home Away from Home

Japanese Corporate Wives in the United States

By Sawa Kurotani

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8724-4


Domesticating the Global

ON A CLOUDY AFTERNOON in early August 2001, Kawagoe-san and I sat in the living room of her home in a suburban town thirty miles south of Tokyo, drinking a glass of cold barley tea after the delicious noodles she served for lunch. Gloominess outside reminded us of the Midwestern city where we used to live, Kawagoe-san as the wife of a Japanese businessman who was stationed there by his Japanese employer, I as an anthropology graduate student on my first fieldwork project. We began thinking about how we met for the first time. I told her that it was one of those famous yam cha days.

"That was an overly daring move, I must say," said Kawagoe-san. "For the first-timer, yam cha ought to be a bit too much."

I nodded in agreement. "It sure was. I was completely overwhelmed."

The thought of yam cha brought a smile to our faces. I asked her, "Have you done it recently, since you got back to Japan?"

"Not since we left Centerville—it's already been four years! How about you, Sawa-san?"

"Oh, I've been to several," I said grinning. "New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and most recently, Los Angeles. I have to say that New York is the best, closely followed by L.A."

On hearing this, Kawagoe-san folded herself in half and pretended to be in pain. "Aaaah, yam cha shitai [I want to do yam cha]!"

THIS CONVERSATION WAS one of the postfieldwork episodes in our relationship that began in September 1996. I visited her for the first time in her home in a town that I call Centerville in the American Midwest, when she was hosting a big lunch of take-out yam cha (dim-sum, an assortment of Chinese dumplings and other small dishes). It was just several weeks into my first ethnographic fieldwork, and I was anxious, to say the least, to make the first contact with this woman who, I was told, regularly organized social gatherings with other expatriate Japanese wives. Unfortunately, Kawagoe-san was too busy getting the lunch going and was unable to talk to me (or anyone else, for that matter).Takeda-san, who brought me in as her guest, quickly deserted me to help Kawagoe-san. Everyone else seemed to know each other well and was talking loudly and fast all at once. Even though Japanese is my first language, I quickly found the noise of twelve incessantly talking women and their fourteen screeching children entirely exhausting.

We could hear Kawagoe-san's three children, Michi, Mika, and Tadashi, right outside in the tiny front yard, arguing excitedly. The excitement was apparently about some bugs they had just caught. Michi, the older girl, appeared to be trying to convince her unsure younger sister and baby brother that it really would be all right to take the bugs into the house. Kawagoe-san, without missing a beat, yelled out, "Michi, sonnamon uchini motte hairunjanaiyo [Michi, you will not bring such things inside the house]!" Her voice was loud and her tone stern, and as usual, she spoke in an extremely casual and almost masculine language.

There was a brief moment of silence outside, then three cheery voices replied in unison, "Haai [yes]."

"Mattaku mo," Kawagoe-san turned to me with exaggerated exasperation. (Mattaku mo roughly means "Entirely so," a phrase often used to indicate desperation or exasperation.) "Listen to my kids, they are so bratty sometimes! They are always pushing the envelope. Just wait and see. In no time, they will bring those bugs inside."

I knew that, behind this roughness, Kawagoe-san loved her kids to pieces. I had known her and her children a long time, since before Tadashi was born, before Mika could pronounce her own name correctly, before Michi went through her toilet training. Five years later, back in Japan, where we both came from but had never met before, Kawagoe-san did not remember how, when, and where we met for the first time in Centerville. When I reminded her about the yam cha lunch, she recalled it as a particularly large and chaotic event among many similar gatherings that she hosted while she lived in Centerville.

An awful lot of shuffling sounds came from the foyer, and Kawagoe-san yelled out once again. "I hope you aren't bringing in those bugs, or else!" There was no response, but a hushed chuckle.

Kawagoe-san and I looked at each other and burst into laughter. "Mattaku mo," Kawagoe-san said again under her breath.

"Your children are growing up so fast, Kawagoe-san. No wonder we are getting old!"

THE PASSAGE OF TIME and change of location are integral parts of my relationship with Kawagoe-san and other women with whom I became close friends during their temporary residence in the United States. Many of them stay in regular contact, even after their husbands have been reassigned back to Japan or to another location in the United States, with the phone and the fax and now, increasingly, through the Internet. They also try to get together whenever they are back in Japan. In that sense, my meeting with Kawagoe-san was nothing extraordinary, just part of life for many middle-class Japanese women like her. These translocal friendships are one of the most concrete manifestations of gurobaruka, or globalization, that is otherwise abstract and distant for most of these women but that suddenly, and often unexpectedly, becomes real when they are sent abroad, along with their husband, on a kaigai chuuzai, a corporate job assignment in a foreign country far away from home. Most of the Japanese corporate employees who are chosen for foreign assignments are men—not surprising, because the core corporate workforce in Japan, despite some recent changes, remains predominantly male. Therefore, when Japanese women speak of going abroad "on a job assignment," they usually are referring to their husband's (or their future husband's) assignment rather than their own. At the same time, they also know that they have an important role to play during their corporate-driven temporary migration: to create a Japanese home away from home and make a foreign place livable for their family members. These Japanese corporate wives and their homemaking in the context of corporate-driven transnational migration are the focus of this book.

With this ethnographic study, I wish not only to analyze the specific form of globalization that middle-class Japanese wives experience as spouses of "corporate warriors," but more important, to shed light on some key aspects of globalization that have not received adequate anthropological attention. First, we need to consider more carefully how class affects the experience of globalization. Highly mobile transnational professionals and their family members experience globalization in their middle-class positions and from the vantage point constructed through their professions (Hannerz 1998; Ribeiro 1994; Wulff 1998). Previous studies of transnational migration tended to center on underprivileged groups, including labor migrants and refugees whose undesirable political-economic positionings in the home country motivate their movement. The mobility practices of those who are relatively affluent and privileged are expected to differ significantly from those who are not. The fact that they have the means to (and often do) return to their home country, either permanently or on a temporary visit, also changes the significance of transnational mobility. Transnational professionals—who reside abroad for an extended period on a corporate job assignment, government service, or for other professional purposes—often behave more like sojourners than migrants, because they almost invariably expect to return to their home country after a period of residence overseas. The economic and social privileges that these expatriates carry from their home country also allow them to keep a distance from the host society and form their own exclusive community. Thus, we may expect that the Japanese corporate families in posh New York suburbs share some class-specific experiences with South Asian professionals in Silicon Valley and entrepreneurial Cuban émigrés in Little Havana that they do not share with other migrants of Japanese ancestry, including the Japanese Americans who arrived in the Americas in the early twentieth century as labor migrants and Japanese women who married American GIs during the occupation period and came to the United States in the 1950s as so-called war brides.

The domestic space and homemaking practices are another area in the study of globalization that has not received the close analytical attention they deserve. The critical importance of the domestic—an insight explicated by feminist anthropologists and in theories on modern power—has not been fully explored in relation to the process of globalization, as existing studies have tended to focus on the public domain, such as paid labor, consumption, and popular culture (e.g., Appadurai and Breckenridge 1988; Constable 1997; Ong 1987; Pinches 1999; Wilson and Dissanayake 1996; but see Rapport and Dawson 1998). By contrast, the interconnection between the domestic arena and the public interest of transnational capitalismis at the heart of my study. As I argue in the following chapters, the transnational migration and homemaking of expatriate Japanese wives are driven by the specific and often contradictory demands of Japanese capitalism, which makes the homes of Japanese transnational migrants a novel ethnographic site in which to examine the connection between the domestic space and larger social and economic systems.

I also examine the ambivalent outcomes that the global-local articulation generates and consider how the results of my ethnographic study speak to recent theoretical developments regarding modern power and resistance. Despite the conservative cultural roles and social positioning of middle-class Japanese women, the experience of transnational homemaking often has unexpected effects on these women's relationships to their family members, their conception of home, and their own gender and cultural identity. The range of responses that middle-class Japanese housewives have toward corporate-driven transnational migration indicates that intersecting identities of gender, class, and national culture complicate the individual subject's experience of global processes and that the consciousness of transnational subjects always remains split and ambivalent.

Finally, the complexity and hybridity of mobility practices in today's globalizing world urge us to reexamine our conception of mobility itself. Many studies indicate that it is quite common among today's transnational migrants to go back and forth between their home country and host country, or to hop from one host country to another, all the while maintaining close economic, cultural, and personal ties with their origins. Many others have scrutinized the arbitrary distinction between "traveling" and "dwelling" (Clifford 1997; also see Bammer 1994; Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Hannerz 1996) and analyzed the construction of local identity in which transnationality is an integral part (e.g., Levitt 2001; Piot 1999; Tsing 1993). These realizations influence my approach to the study of transnationally mobile Japanese corporate families. Rather than fixing them in an existing category, I analyze how intersecting economic interests, ideologies of nation, class, and gender, and daily practices of homemaking produce a very particular experience of the global for middle-class Japanese women who are charged to manage the impact of transnational mobility on the core corporate workforce, and how that experience may affect the ways those women think of their relation to the global.

In the next several sections, I outline the set of theoretical questions that drive this ethnography. It is a way of placing my ethnography in the context of existing studies and key theoretical thoughts and of suggesting how the study of this particular group of transnational migrants connects with the broader anthropological concerns regarding two intricately related spheres of our experience in the late capitalist world that may seem distant at first: globalization and domesticity.


Economic, social, and cultural changes that characterize the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are often glossed as globalization, in which the increased geographic mobility and the global flows of information and commodities appear to disintegrate national and cultural boundaries, produce a new global culture that is at once hybrid and homogeneous, and make identity formation more fluid with fewer necessary links to a geographic location (Appadurai 1991; Hannerz 1996; Jameson and Miyoshi 1998). Cultural aspects of globalization, such as the development of homogenized global cultural trends and hybrid identities, are considered simultaneously the product of and the impetus for flexible accumulation—or the newly deterritorialized strategies of capitalism—and thus the unique historical phenomenon of late capitalism (Harvey 1989). This materialist-historical explanation of cultural change associated with globalization carries an unmistakable sense of evolution or linear progression, however (Kearney 1995, 550). Such an implication is particularly troublesome for anthropologists, whose disciplinary legacy includes the physical and intellectual distance between the educated cosmopolitan anthropologist and their "natives" who live quaint lives, untouched by the trappings of modernism. To say that formerly discrete cultures have just recently become deterritorialized is to accept the static and geographically bound notion of culture that needs to change only now, in response to the "changing" realities in which we conduct our anthropological research. By contrast, many anthropologists resist the essentializing notion as they focus on hybridity and mobility as always important aspects of cultural development (Hannerz 1996, 4-5). In fact, the notion of a pristine culture itself is questioned through the analysis of historical contacts that various cultural groups have had with others and constant renegotiation of cultural identities through such encounters (e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 1991; Fox 1985; Mintz 1985, 1996; Wolf 1982).

To say that transcultural relationships are an old norm rather than a recent exception fundamentally changes the nature of our inquiries and raises profound questions about the ways we investigate local knowledge and identity (Clifford 1997; Marcus 1998). Whereas earlier thinkers, for example, tended to assume the stability and self-containment of cultures and identities and to assign flexibility exclusively to non-Western selves in contrast to bounded Western "individuals" (Carrithers et al. 1985; Shweder and LeVine 1984; but see Mead 1934; Strathern 1988), current works on alterity and transnationalism challenge us to see all identities, non-Western and Western, as the outcome of negotiation and contestation between self and other, shifting, multiple, and even paradoxical by nature (Battaglia 1995; Bhabha 1994; Rosaldo 1989; Tsing 1993). To extend this insight, we also need to reconsider the category of the local itself that is often positioned against the global (Gupta and Ferguson 1992). If identities are always the outcome of negotiation, then there is no a priori identity of the local to stand in opposition against the global. The local never exists without the global, as it is always already shaped within the world system, and the forces of global capitalism appropriate the uniqueness of places around the world (Dirlik 1999; also see Mintz 1985; Ong 1987). In turn, the global must also become localized, grounding itself in a specific place and taking advantage of its local resources, labor, and social organization, to operate effectively. Furthermore, social actors have to conceptualize and come to terms with globalization in their given cultural and social milieus. Thus, the study of globalization necessarily becomes the study of the local construction of the global, and the study of local knowledge also has to take into account its connection to the global (Marcus 1995).

This complex global-local articulation results in two seemingly contradictory outcomes. On the one hand, the increased global flow of people, ideas, and material objects in the late capitalist world appears to homogenize and generate the possibilities for creative mixture and cultural hybridity in every corner of the world at an unprecedented rate in world history (e.g., Featherstone 1996). On the other hand, as the rise of (neo)nationalism and religious fundamentalism indicates, the attachment to the local—symbolized in real or imagined places of origin, age-old cultural practices, or archaic social relations—continues to be an important constituent of collective identity, despite, or perhaps precisely because of, thedeterritorialized conditions of the late capitalist world (see, e.g., Appadurai 1990; Ong 1998; Ong and Nonini 1997). place-based identity in the globalizing world can become a naturalized and predominant ideology, which in turn gains the power to construct the subjective experience, determines the choices of social actors involved, and affects the ways they view and interact with global forces. The need for careful analysis exists in the production of the local as an ideological construct grounded in a historical and political-economic context, its process of depoliticization, and the function for which it serves. Even in the constantly changing, unsettling conditions of post-modernity, people construct—or attempt to construct—their sense of who they are based on shared beliefs and practices of identity making. They also tend to act according to the collective norms as they perceive them. This is not to say that the boundary around a cultural group is solid and stable, or that no one would challenge the values and defy the norms. Yet, at certain moments and places in history, people tend to uphold particular constructs of identity that are hegemonic, that which is covertly inserted into our understanding of the world as natural and "official," something to be taken for granted and beyond reproach, and thus to be acted on without question. Globalization has not fundamentally changed that. Instead, it has encouraged the development of novel forms and flexible strategies of identity making that often transcend the geopolitical boundaries.


Excerpted from Home Away from Home by Sawa Kurotani. Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1. Domesticating the Global 1

2. Managing Transnational Work 41

3. Homemaking Away from Home 71

4. Playing Her Part 113

5. On Vacation 152

6. Home Again 195

Notes 221

References 225

Index 235

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