Language Learning, Gender and Desire: Japanese Women on the Move

Language Learning, Gender and Desire: Japanese Women on the Move

by Kimie Takahashi


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Language Learning, Gender and Desire: Japanese Women on the Move by Kimie Takahashi

For many Japanese women, the English language has never been just another school subject. For them, English is the tool of identity transformation and the means of obtaining what they passionately desire – mobility, the West and its masculinity. Language Learning, Gender and Desire explores Japanese women's passion for learning English and how they negotiate identity and desire in the terrain of racial, sexual and linguistic politics. Drawing on ethnographic data and popular media texts, the book offers new insights into the multidirectionality of desire and power in the context of second language learning.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847698537
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 12/15/2012
Series: Critical Language and Literacy Studies Series , #16
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Kimie Takahashi is Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand. Her research interests centre on gender, second language learning and social inclusion in the context of transmigration. She is co-founder of the sociolinguistics website Language on the Move (

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Language Learning, Gender and Desire

Japanese Women on the Move

By Kimie Takahashi

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2013 Kimie Takahashi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84769-856-8



1.1 'No Gossip, Please. I'm a Researcher!'

In July 2001 I was an enthusiastic new doctoral student who was going to do a PhD about language anxiety and the motivation of Japanese learners of English in Sydney, Australia, and I was just beginning to collect data at a university-affiliated English language school. I first headed down to the busy school canteen to look for Japanese students during the lunch break. Although there were over 100 students having lunch and chatting in various groups, locating those from Japan was unproblematic. One after another, these young Japanese students were happy to introduce me to more Japanese students. After a few visits, I knew almost all the Japanese students at the school. This trouble-free beginning to my fieldwork was reassuring, and being Japanese was a great advantage for a researcher new to ethnography, as I was at that time.

Slowly but steadily, however, I began to feel puzzled about what I was learning from these students – particularly the female students. Back then, I was still formulating my specific research questions and, in order to do so, I asked very basic questions of both male and female Japanese students. These were: 'Why are you studying English?' 'Why did you want to come to Australia to study English?' 'How do you find learning and using English in Sydney?' The responses to these questions were noticeably different between the men and women. Male students were more or less straightforward and practical: English was necessary to get into an Australian university and an overseas qualification would be useful upon their return to Japan. They were concerned that lack of progress in English would be fatal to their chances of getting onto a university course.

By contrast, female students' responses were 'colourful'; they would often start with their childhood akogare (desire or longing) for English and Western countries. These responses usually extended to their encounters with Western men either in Japan or in Sydney. For example, their akogare, many enthusiastically told me, came from watching Sesame Street, Hollywood movies and Western pop/rock stars. Others professed to be in love not only with Western culture and lifestyle and Western male stars, but also with the idea of one day finding a gaijin (foreign) boyfriend. Sitting down in the canteen, these female students would giggle as they related their experiences of meeting a kakkoii (good-looking) Western man on the street or at a party, and how they regretted not being able to have a proper conversation in English or to get his phone number. Ichi (all names are pseudonyms), who later became one of the main participants in this study, for example, excitedly told me in detail about her quest to form a romantic relationship with a particular Australian man. She showed me all the text messages that they had exchanged in organising a date, extensively commenting on his good looks and the coolness of his manner. I was also becoming a sort of counsellor for another female student who was in a rather difficult intercultural relationship with a Korean schoolmate. She confessed that, although she felt comfortable with him, his accented English was not authentic enough, and she was worried that this might be a bad influence on her English.

At that time, all these narratives seemed naïve to me. I considered the student's akogare confessions and their desire to meet Western men as irrelevant to English language learning (ELL), which was the central theme of my research. I even began to think that I needed to change my approach to the female students from that of a friendly fellow-Japanese woman to an authoritarian researcher, telling them, 'No more gossip, please. I'm a researcher!', so that they would stop gossiping about their girlish akogare, and instead start taking my questions more seriously. A few weeks went by without my being able to gain what I then saw as relevant data from female students. My frustration was growing. A short conversation with a female student, however, changed my perspective on the whole akogare discourse.

1.2 'I Need a Man!'

In August 2001, I was waiting for a Japanese student whom I had scheduled to meet in the canteen. One of the female students that I had briefly met previously came to greet me. Kaori was a university graduate in her late twenties and was planning to apply for entry into a master's program at a university, paying for tuition with her own savings from Japan. In anyone's eye, Kaori was a serious student: she socialised very little and used all her time to study English. Thus, what she said on this particular day caught me by surprise.


Kaori: Kimie-san, I need a man.


Kaori: @I told you that I have been studying in the uni library before and after the class here. I have been studying by myself for six months since I came. But you see, my English hasn't been getting any better. I finally got it, though! it's really a man. I need a native-speaker boyfriend so that I can practice my English with him. (f13aug01kaori)

As she rushed off to her classroom, I remained in my seat, absorbing the meaning of her declaration. Did she just say she needed a man to improve her English? It was not something that I had never heard of; I knew of the popular discourse of 'pillow talk' as a means of learning a foreign/second language. In my limited imagination, however, it was entertained only amongst thegaijin groupie Japanese women, described as 'Yellow Cabs' in the 1980s in Japan, and Kaori certainly did not fall into this stereotypical, socially stigmatised group. Moreover, what was striking about her comment was her strong sense of conviction about it: she was not joking, but talked about 'the man' in the way that language learners might when they debate different types of learning strategies, such as the best way to memorise vocabulary.

In light of Kaori's seriousness about the need to find an English-speaking boyfriend, the romantic gossip of the Japanese women I had met suddenly also made sense to me. Indeed her comment allowed me to see what I initially thought was irrelevant gossip – that is Japanese female students' akogare narratives of English, the West and Western men – in a different light. At the same time, however, as a beginning PhD candidate/ethnographer, I was not sure if Japanese women's romantic idea of the West would be considered a legitimate doctoral thesis. It was in fact one of my supervisors, an experienced ethnographer, who urged me to be true to my 'ethnographic instinct' and take on the topic of akogare as it was emerging from the data – a fundamental principle of ethnography. As I will discuss below, reading the post-structuralist work on identity, desire and power in general and the work of three researchers, Karen Kelsky, Bonny Norton and Ingrid Piller in particular, further assured me that an ethnography of Japanese women's akogare in relation to second language learning (SLL) and use could be an important research endeavour.

1.3 Identity, Desire and Power

The American anthropologist Karen Kelsky (1996, 2001, 2008) investigated the phenomenon of akogare (desire) for, and increasing engagement with, the West among educated, internationalist, middle-class Japanese women. Although Japanese women's social status and experiences are changing, educational opportunities, social relations and the labour market in Japan are still largely characterised by rigid, traditional gender stratification (Bailey, 2002). Kelsky (2001) found that many women were attracted by the allure of the foreign realm and associated activities such as: foreign language learning (particularly English); studying overseas; working for a foreign-affiliated company, non-government organisation (NGO) or non-profit organisation (NPO); or romance with Western men. All these activities, Kelsky argues, provide 'a foreign-inflected vocabulary for a sustained critique of Japan's gender relations, as well as the means to circumvent or reject them' (Kelsky, 2001: 3).

At the same time, akogare for the West and Western masculinity is not a recent phenomenon. Kelsky's detailed historical account of Japanese women's akogare for the West includes many records of Japanese women's romantic, if not sexualised, contact with Western men since the mid-19th century, many of which attracted significant media attention and at times caused a national outcry. For instance, the pan-pan phenomenon (Dower, 1999) was sensationally reported by the media, when Japanese women were increasingly seen with American GIs during the Occupation period in the 1940s. The etymology of the word pan-pan remains unclear. Folk etymology suggests that the term originated from Japanese soldiers who clapped twice to call sex workers serving military bases in China, Korea and southeast Asia during WWII. The term was used as an insult to Japanese women who provided sexual services to foreign servicemen in the aftermath of the war (Gerteis, 2009). The Japanese Government recruited thousands of young, poor women as prostitutes for the Allied troops to protect 'good' Japanese women from them. By 1946, there were reportedly 668 registered brothels which exclusively catered for the Allied troops in Tokyo alone and approximately 8000 Japanese women worked in them (Gayn, 1946; cited in Johnson, 1988: 75). These sex workers and other women who intimately associated with the American GIs came to be called pan-pan, becoming symbolic figures of Japan's early years after the defeat (Leupp, 2003). It was not only their intimate contact with the foreign men that became the focus of social scrutiny; the type of English they spoke was socially ridiculed. To communicate with the American GIs, these women developed and capitalised on their English proficiency, and their English, characterised by its mixture of a prostitute's rough Japanese and a GI's unsophisticated English, was given a derogatory term, 'Panglish'. The stigmatisation of these women and Panglish, however, reflects Japanese men's growing insecurity at that time as 'hundreds of thousands of men were also struggling to survive by dealing with the conqueror in the conqueror's tongue' (Dower, 1999: 135).

Several decades later, Japanese women's sexual engagement with Western men was once again at the centre of media attention; this time they were called 'Yellow Cab'. The nickname came from yellow taxis in New York which were easy to 'get into' and 'out of', and was introduced by Ieda (1991) in her controversial 'non-fiction' book, Yellow Cabs. Drawing on their strong financial power (backed by the increasingly strong Yen in the midst of Japan's bubble economy), these women allegedly sought out sexual encounters with Black and White men in metropolitan cities such as New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles. It was later reported, however, that the 'yellow cab' phenomenon was largely fabricated by the author. Some consider that the male-dominated Japanese media simply used the criticism as a surveillance tool to control young Japanese women overseas (Ma, 1996; Toyota, 1994). Nevertheless, the notion of 'yellow cab' quickly spread, creating societal uproar. It was increasingly used to describe any Japanese woman who ever associated with foreign men, while at the same time stigmatising her attempt to study English in Japan or overseas. In sum, women's romantic akogare for the West in general and their contact with Western men in particular have been a subject of immense contestation in Japan (Kelsky, 2001).

Although I found Kelsky's work to be enormously informative, language learning was not her main focus. Questions were forming in my mind: How does akogare for the West and romance with Western men intersect with the ways in which Japanese women learn English? How exactly does their akogare for the West link up with learning English and going overseas? Once in Australia, how do Japanese women interact with English-speaking men, and would they actually go with anyone from a Western background for the sake of improving their English, as the media would have us believe? If they in fact find an English-speaking partner, could it really be good for their English, and in what way?

With my initial fieldwork, these emerging questions and Kelsky's work in mind, I revisited the literature from the field to which my research primarily belongs: second language acquisition (SLA). I found that Japanese women's akogare had neither been explored in the field of SLA, nor had gender been adequately theorised in relation to L2 (second language) motivation (Pavlenko & Piller, 2001). The traditional notions of motivation and identity, which SLA had to offer back in 2001, did not seem adequate for my study, either. Motivation and identity had been treated as a given, unitary and fixed entity and there had been very little regard for the effects of gender, romance or sexuality. Moreover, from a traditional SLA viewpoint, success in SLL was all about achieving linguistic competence or native-like fluency, having little to do with the role of gender and gender ideologies in the way learners consider what success is.

My work forms part of a growing trend in SLA, which had taken a social, political and gender turn in the 1990s through the work of several poststructuralist theorists (in particular, see Pavlenko et al., 2001). Poststructuralism emphasises the centrality of language to social organisation, power and subjectivity (Weedon, 1997). In this view, language is not just a tool to express human individuality, but rather is a site where possible forms of identities and social relations are produced, performed and negotiated. Poststructuralism thus moves away from the essentialised notion of identity (people 'have' a core identity) and instead embraces the view of identity as something we 'do' and something that is historically and socially constructed in and by discourse (Weedon, 1997). This implies that identities are always in the process of change across time and space, as we constantly construct, negotiate and contest who we are in relation to other social actors and social structures. Norton's (2000) work with immigrant women in Canada was a landmark in this regard. She challenged the earlier essentialist notion of identity and motivation, and advanced the concept of investment (based on the work of Bourdieu (1991)) that regards the language learner as having a complex social history and a wide range of desires. She argued that, in social contexts, language learners were not simply practising their L2 with target language speakers, 'but they were constantly organising and reorganising a sense of who they are and how they relate to the social world' (Norton, 2000: 11). As such, an investment in a L2 needs to be understood as an investment in the language learner's identity which, in turn, is fluid across time and space.

Although Norton's (2000) work was useful for my gender-focused research, her concept of L2 investment, being concerned primarily with economic and social advancement, could not fully explain the romantic and sexualised akogare phenomenon that I had observed up to that point. A few years later, Piller (2002) introduced the concept of language desire. Based on her ground-breaking work, Bilingual Couples Talk, Piller (2002: 6) argued that language learning or gender relations cannot be reduced to 'questions of economic and social power' and that 'the sheer "sex appeal" of certain languages for some people has been widely overlooked'. Based on data from the study which forms the basis of this book, Piller and Takahashi (2006) conceptualised language desire further as a bundle of desires – desire for identity transformation, for a mastery of a desired language, and/or for friendship/romance with a speaker of the desired language – all of which intersect with one another.

Piller's and Takahashi's (2006) approach to language desire was inspired by the work of Cameron and Kulick (2003a, 2003b, 2005) and Kulick (2003), which have brought a new level of interest to the notion of desire in the study of language and sexuality (Ahearn, 2003; Bucholtz & Hall, 2004; Eckert, 2002; Kang, 2003; Kiesling, 2002; Rumsey, 2003; Valentine, 2003). Although desire is widely considered in Western academia as originating in unconscious, inner processes (the key tenant of psychoanalysis), Cameron and Kulick (2003) argue that 'desires are not simply private, internal phenomena but are produced and expressed – or not expressed – in social interaction, using shared and conventionalized linguistic resources' (Cameron & Kulick, 2003: 125). Based on the work of Deleuze and Guattari (1996), Cameron and Kulick (2003) also stress that desire is not necessarily always bound up with sexuality, and that it does not have a single origin but has multiple sources and workings.

The notion of language desire (Piller & Takahashi, 2006) is a response to their call that the study of language and desire need to go beyond theories of 'inner states' to explorations into the ways in which a variety of desires are discursively constructed and enacted (Cameron & Kulick, 2003). In this book, therefore, I seek to explore the dialectic relationship between public discourses and subjective agency in shaping Japanese women's private desires and how these desires mediate their approaches to learning and using the desired language.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vii

Transcription Conventions ix

Series Editors' Preface xi

1 Introduction 1

1.1 'No Gossip, Please. I'm a Researcher!' 1

1.2 'I Need a Man!' 2

1.3 Identity, Desire and Power 4

1.4 English Language Education and Ryugaku 9

1.5 An Ethnographic Affair in Sydney 11

1.6 Japanese Women on the Move 15

1.7 Summary 19

2 Language Desire 20

2.1 Introduction 20

2.2 Media Discourses of Language Desire 20

2.3 Dreaming of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt 36

2.4 Summary 40

3 Ryugaku 43

3.1 Introduction 43

3.2 English Ryugaku in the Media 43

3.3 Australia as a Destination 46

3.4 Summary 61

4 Desired Interlocutors 63

4.1 Introduction 63

4.2 Desires, Images and Realities 63

4.3 Western Men = ELL Success 67

4.4 Desirability of Interlocutors 72

4.5 Summary 88

5 Agency 90

5.1 Introduction 90

5.2 Home as an ELL Opportunity 91

5.3 Work as an ELL Opportunity 98

5.4 The Choice to Work in the L2 Context 105

5.5 Summary 108

6 Going Home 111

6.1 Introduction 111

6.2 Hybridity and the 'Cultural Supermarket' 112

6.3 Media Images of Japanese Women Returning from Ryugaku 114

6.4 Ambivalence 116

6.5 Hybridity and Global Mobility 121

6.6 Hybridity and Intercultural Relationships 130

6.7 Summary 137

7 Conclusion 138

7.1 Introduction 138

7.2 Japanese Women on the Move Revisited 138

7.3 Language Desire Revisited 143

7.4 Implications 153

Appendix: Description of Secondary Participants 164

References 169

Index 178

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