Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

Reconfiguring Boundaries:
Expatriate Japanese Women in Shanghai

Eiko Hasegawa
  1. Since the 1990s, the economic and trade relationship between the People's Republic of China and Japan has become closer and more intense than ever before. China became Japan's biggest trading partner in 2004, replacing the United States for the first time.[1] There are as many as 4,500 Japanese companies with operations or branches in China. In accordance with this increasing Japanese corporate presence in China, the number of Japanese expatriates in China has also soared in recent years.[2]
  2. In this paper, I explore the migratory experiences of Japanese women in Shanghai, as well as the shifting meanings of China in the eyes of these women. I identify the processes that lead these individuals to pursue employment opportunities in China and situate these processes within the context of shifting images of urban China in Japan. I argue that urbanisation and opportunities associated with rapid economic growth in China, as well as growing economic ties between the two countries, are central to the migration processes of Japanese women in Shanghai. Non-economic factors, however, also play an important role. More specifically, I place emphasis on how these Japanese women construe the space of the city as a place that provides them with a variety of choices, lifestyles and opportunities. The literature on migration studies has so far paid little attention to the migratory processes of skilled female migrants within the Asia-Pacific region, particularly from Japan to other Asian countries.[3] In order to fill a gap in the existing literature on transnational migration, I examine the phenomenon of contemporary migratory flows of Japanese women to China. Moreover, this analysis will contribute to a better understanding of population mobility in the Asia-Pacific region and of the agency of individuals to (re)negotiate the boundaries which are defined by the narratives of the nation-state.
  3. In this article, a brief review of Japanese emigration is followed by a discussion of the nature of gendered flows of emigration from Japan.[4] These flows are situated within the scholarly context of gender and migration research. It has often been pointed out that Asian women tend to be portrayed and represented as women who possess a docile Asian femininity.[5] Accordingly, it is also important to draw attention to the contemporary migratory processes in which Asian women may also occupy professional spaces, although their economic or social status might differ from the existing image of expatriate males who tend to dominate the imagined landscape of the global city.[6]
  4. Secondly, I focus on Shanghai as an emerging global city in Asia in relation to expatriate Japanese communities. In particular, I examine some of the reasons why Shanghai attracts working Japanese women in terms of changing Japanese perceptions of urban China, as exemplified by their recognition of rapid urban development in Shanghai. I discuss the reasons why Japanese women regard it as a good opportunity to work in this city, despite the existence of a number of political problems that characterise the Sino-Japanese relationship in the present.
  5. Thirdly, I explore the shifting meaning of boundaries in the context of increasing flows of people, capital and goods in the Asia-Pacific region. In this context, I emphasise the socially constructed nature of borders and boundaries and suggest that these shifting meanings of boundaries shape the migratory processes of Japanese women to Shanghai. More importantly, however, these women also take part in the reconfiguring of boundaries through their migration. In this regard, I argue that they are not passive recipients of transnational processes. Rather, they are active participants in the dynamic processes of place-making and the constitution of borders.
  6. This article is based on my fieldwork research in Shanghai in 2004 and 2005. I conducted in-depth interviews with twenty-three expatriate Japanese women. Within this context, migration flows are gendered. Japanese men frequently migrate to Shanghai as a result of corporate transfers. Consequently, the majority of expatriate men, as some of my interviewees put it, live and experience the city as if they are living in Japan; they live inside the Japanese community in Shanghai, and it is often possible for them to live their daily lives without interactions with—or interest in—the local people. By contrast, Japanese women in Shanghai are more likely to migrate of their own accord.[7] As a result, the majority of Japanese women come to Shanghai with different expectations, motivations and perceptions. In light of these differences, I was interested in why women, conventionally perceived to be closely tied to the private sphere[8]—and often conceptualised as the boundary marker of the nation[9]—chose migration. In particular, female migration to China—a country with which Japan has had complicated relationships both in historical and contemporary terms—draws attention to the increasingly multifaceted aspects of contemporary migration in the Asia-Pacific region.
  7. In order to approach potential interviewees, I attended the regular meetings of the Association of Japanese Women in Shanghai in July 2004, January 2005 and April 2005.[10] By attending these meetings, I was able to introduce myself as a researcher and to obtain contact information from those Japanese women who attended these meetings. Subsequent to these meetings, I contacted women individually about the possibility of interviews based on questions I had prepared in advance. Depending on the availability of the interviewees—as well as on the different experiences of migration of each interviewee—I asked additional questions which I thought to be relevant to each specific situation. As for the place of interviews, I left it entirely to my interviewees. As a result, these meetings often took place in fashionable cafés or local restaurants chosen by the interviewees.
  8. The interviewees include locally-hired Japanese women as well as those who were transferred from their companies in Japan, Hong Kong or Europe. The age of my interviewees was quite diverse, ranging from early twenties to late sixties. Nevertheless, reflecting the basic pattern of Japanese women's migration to Shanghai—whereby they study Mandarin in China after several years working in Japan and then seek employment in Shanghai—most of the women were in their late twenties or thirties. The majority of the interviewees were single, although four of them were married to local Chinese men and one to a Japanese man also working in Shanghai. Their educational levels also varied, but the majority were university graduates who had attended some form of language course in mainland China. Reflecting the growing Japanese presence in the city, as well as the importance of Chinese manufacturing and markets to Japanese firms, most of my interviewees were employed in Japanese-related business in Shanghai.
  9. Floya Anthias points out that migration research has tended to focus on migration from developing countries to developed countries to illustrate the push and pull factors of international migration, thus perpetuating the image of a migrant who crosses national boundaries for economic reasons.[11] Yet recent scholarship on migration has provided new insights by pointing to non-economic factors to explain diversified forms of transnational migration in the present.[12] Until recently, the scholarship on the migration of women in the Asian region has tended to focus on a relatively narrow range of sectors such as domestic work and sex work, creating and reifying the dominant image of Asian migrant women.[13] Furthermore, little research has been done with regard to the investigation of the flows of skilled migration from Japan to other countries.[14] Therefore, it is vital to provide a better understanding of skilled female migration from Japan to China, as well as to draw attention to the non-economic factors in their decisions to migrate.

    In search of opportunities: gendered flows of emigration from Japan
  10. Conventionally, Japan is considered to be a country that mainly imports labour from other countries. Reflecting this assumption, the bulk of migration research on Japan has tended to focus on labour immigration from neighbouring countries to Japan itself. Little research has been done on the phenomenon of the emigration of Japanese citizens to other countries. In terms of emigration, Harumi Befu points out that there are three phases of the Japanese 'diaspora'.[15] The first wave of Japan's human dispersal is said to have began toward the end of the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, Japanese trade ships were frequenting China and Southeast Asia. This trend was accompanied by the emergence of Japanese communities, or 'Japan towns,' across Southeast Asia.
  11. The second phase began in the late nineteenth century, when Japan was in the process of advancing its territorial ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as enhancing its political influence abroad. Japanese emigrants from the Meiji period (1868–1912) to the end of the Second World War migrated not only to the continents of North and South America, but also to Southeast Asia, China, Taiwan, Sakhalin and Micronesia. These waves of migration were part of state policies to alleviate the domestic population problem and to establish ethnic Japanese institutions in its colonies and occupied territories.[16] Those who emigrated during this period were usually of poor economic background who tried to find economic opportunities not available in Japan.[17] Female migrants to other Asian countries such as China or Southeast Asia in early modern Japan were called karayuki-san (literally, karayuki means going to Kara—China—but the term came to refer to any overseas migration).[18] Karayuki-san refers primarily to those impoverished women who sought work in China or Southeast Asia during the Meiji and Taishō (1912–1926) periods. It has been pointed out that most of these women were sold into prostitution in these places. The amount of money they sent back home contributed to Japan's economic modernisation and laid the foundations for its expansion as a colonial empire.[19] Their stories of displacement and sufferings indicate that women's bodies were appropriated for the strengthening of the nation in early modern Japan. In this regard, their economic contributions to the homeland, as well as their presence in places where Japan had strategic interests, were closely connected to Japan's emergence as an imperialist power.
  12. This period is also significant in that the national project of modernisation involved a reinterpretation of borders between Japan and the rest of Asia. In 1885, Fukuzawa Yukichi, a leading politician in modern Japan, stated that Japan could not wait for its neighbouring countries to modernise; instead, Japan needed to cut itself free from its 'bad companions' in Asia and align itself with the civilised nations of the West. Japan should deal with China and Korea, Fukuzawa advocated, in the same way that Westerners did.[20] His argument, known as Datsua-ron, or 'Abandoning Asia,' illustrates the extent to which the reification and renegotiation of boundaries between Japan and Asia—the construction of binary distinctions between Japan as 'us' and Asia as 'other'—was integral to Japan's modernisation project. Moreover, as Joël Joos points out, Japan's modernisation signified to a considerable extent a 'de-sinification,' which represents a dissociation from China.[21]
  13. The third phase of emigration unfolded in post-war Japan. In this period, Japan recovered from the devastating effects of the war on the country and saw major economic growth. This economic recovery and growth was accompanied by the growing economic presence of Japanese firms and Japanese citizens overseas, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Most significantly, the rapid growth in other Asian economies—in particular China's integration into the world economy—has impacted considerably upon the Japanese population movement, bringing about increases in the number of Japanese in major cities throughout Asia.
  14. At the same time, Japanese perceptions of Asia have changed significantly over the past decade. The media and popular culture have played significant roles in this change in perceptions. As Iwabuchi Kōichi points out, since the 1990s media interactions among East Asian countries have surged and the flow of popular culture from other parts of Asia into Japan has also increased.[22] Sandra Buckley also points out that in media and official rhetoric, the 'Asianisation' of Japan gained tremendous significance in the 1990s.[23] As well as the changing perceptions of Japan as an Asian nation, these media interactions with other Asian countries have contributed significantly to alter the old assumptions about Asia as stagnant and undesirable. Instead, they have opened up a discursive space in which more positive and vibrant images of Asia are both created and negotiated.
  15. It is in this context of shifting terms of engagement with Asia that those Japanese women who are interested in exploring the new economic, social and cultural developments in other parts of Asia have started moving to Shanghai. The majority of these women, as I have already indicated, are in their twenties or thirties. Although women in Japan have a multitude of differences based on class, educational background and ethnicity, Japanese women who belong to this generation tend to share an enthusiasm for travelling and living abroad as well as having great interest in higher education in order to achieve further advancement in their careers. In 1999, the number of Japanese women living abroad exceeded men for the first time since the Japanese Foreign Ministry started its annual survey of Japanese expatriates in 1976. As an official of the ministry's Consular and Migration Affairs department points out, in the past, most Japanese women living abroad tended to accompany their husbands on overseas assignment, but in recent years there has been a growing number of women who choose to go overseas alone for their own work.[24] Furthermore, as Ono Hiroshi and Nicola Piper point out, women form a large proportion of Japanese students opting for studying abroad. They suggest that this phenomenon is closely tied to persisting gender inequalities within the Japanese employment system, as well as the social conventions and traditional lifestyles prevailing in Japan. Thus, Ono and Piper argue that these female students choose to invest in higher education overseas as a strategy to overcome their disadvantages or to resist conforming to a more conventional life path.[25]
  16. Ono and Piper's findings suggest that the contemporary patterns of Japanese women's migration are different from those of Japanese men; Japanese women tend to migrate on their own accord or independently, whereas men, if they go overseas, tend to go on overseas transfers from the companies to which they belong. I suggest that this difference contributes to the formation of the gendered experiences of migration for Japanese women and men, a formation which has implications for the sense of belonging to the place(s) to which they migrate, their societal and economic status in their particular destinations, and their future prospects. The contemporary gendered flows of emigration from Japan suggest that the analysis of contemporary migratory patterns of Japanese people needs to take account of gender as a starting point. It also indicates that traditional ideas about migration and mobility which view men as the agent and women as dependants who follow the male head of the family are not sufficient to explore the growing cases of female emigration from Japan.
  17. Scholars of migration research point out that the traditional literature on migration, as well as the popular image of a migrant, has placed emphasis on men as international migrants, neglecting the roles of women.[26] In order to challenge the overwhelmingly gender-neutral accounts of migratory movements—and to provide a more accurate picture—attempts to 'add women' into existing migration research began in the early 1980s.[27] This 'add women' approach was subsequently replaced by more sophisticated and nuanced analyses of gender. Over the past three decades, feminist geographers have contributed both to the scholarship of geography and to feminist migration studies by pointing to the gendered social constructions of spatiality and to the roles that gender and other differences play in shaping migratory processes. Thus, scholars in the field of feminist migration studies have been concerned with understanding the social and spatial dimensions of mobility associated with gender, citizenship, race, class, nation, sexuality, caste, religion, and disability.[28]
  18. In the case of Japanese women who emigrate from Japan, however, little research has been done. There are a few studies on the social position and experiences of single female Japanese expatriates in Singapore.[29] Ono and Piper, for example, examine the dynamics of Japanese women's migration to the United States as MBA students. These findings indicate that the marginalisation of Japanese women within the Japanese employment system is the driving force for them to pursue careers or overseas study.[30] According to an article which appeared in the Japan Times, an increasing number of women in Japan believe that working abroad, especially in China and elsewhere in Asia, could be the solution for the problems they face in male-dominated Japanese companies bound by the seniority system.[31]
  19. Going overseas, however, does not necessarily mean that they become free from marginalisation. As Eyal Ben-Ari and Yong Yin Fong Vanessa point out, for example, Japanese women are 'twice marginalised' in Singapore.[32] They are marginalised in relation to both the host country and to the expatriate Japanese community represented by the privileged position of Japanese males and their accompanied families. This could equally be applied to the situation of Japanese women in Shanghai. Expatriate Japanese women occupy a marginal position in Shanghai; they do not belong to the mainstream of Chinese society, nor do they identify themselves with the world of Japanese expatriate males who generally enjoy higher privileges and status within the Japanese community.[33]
  20. Yet there is another dimension to which we should pay particular attention in terms of the migratory processes of Japanese women. We need to consider the citizenship issues which determine, to a considerable extent, the mobility of individuals to other countries and the differentiation and stratification of women's status as migrants in their destinations. In terms of transnational mobility, Japanese women do not face difficulties in going through borders between Japan and other Asian countries, including China, due to their status as Japanese citizens. In contrast, narratives of border crossings by women from other Asian countries (such as the Philippines or Thailand, for example) to Japan suggest that asymmetrical border control regimes, as well as differentiated levels of economic development in countries of the Asia-Pacific region, affect individuals differently based on their citizenship status, facilitating and privileging the mobility of certain nationalities over others.[34] In this regard, Japanese women are located in a relatively privileged position in so far as their citizenship enables them to travel to most other Asian countries without severe restrictions. Moreover, the differentiation of migrants based on skilled/unskilled categories tends to confine the majority of migrants from certain nationalities to the category of the unskilled, which impacts on discriminatory practices in their destination countries. These asymmetrical dimensions in the implementation of immigration policy structures need to be taken into account to further understand the diversified flows and nature of migration in the Asia-Pacific region.

    The rise of Shanghai as a global city: Shanghai as a desirable place
  21. Leng Leng Thang, Elizabeth MacLachlan and Miho Goda point out that the 'Japanese women work in Asia' boom first began in Hong Kong, after the autumn 1993 career seminar on Hong Kong conducted in Tokyo and Osaka by a recruitment agency.[35] In the early 1990s, Hong Kong was viewed as a vibrant Asian city and as a good place for Japanese women who felt constrained by the roles assigned to them in the workplace and who wanted to fulfil their aspirations as career women. Yet after the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997, the demand for Japanese office staff substantially decreased partly due to the rise in local unemployment, which affected the prospect of Japanese women finding employment opportunities there. In addition, obtaining working visas in Hong Kong has become increasingly difficult since the mid 1990s.[36] Since then, cities such as Shanghai and Singapore have become popular destinations among Japanese women who seek employment overseas and regard Asian cities as a site of opportunities that they find hard to obtain in Japan due to the economic recession which has occurred since the early 1990s and the limited career prospects in the workplace. In particular, reflecting the image of rapid economic growth in China that circulated in the Japanese media and growing economic ties between China and Japan, the city of Shanghai captured the attention of some Japanese women interested in taking up new employment opportunities as well as living abroad. In this regard, the shift in the dominant image of China in Japan, as well as regional economic dimensions within the Asia-Pacific region, appears to have had considerable impact upon women's decisions to seek employment opportunities in Shanghai or other cities in China which was almost inconceivable a decade ago.
  22. The year of 2005 turned out to be very eventful in terms of the development of the Sino-Japanese relationship. As demonstrated by a number of anti-Japanese public demonstrations in major cities in China in April 2005, the two countries face numerous issues in their bilateral relationship. These issues include the controversy over Japanese interpretations of history, former Prime Minister Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni shrine which commemorates Japanese war-dead, and territorial disputes over a chain of islands between Taiwan and Okinawa (called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese). In March 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused a diplomatic controversy by questioning whether wartime 'comfort women' were coerced into sexual slavery and was criticised by other Asian countries for this comment. These issues have soured the official relationship between China and Japan, which is also complicated by China's rising status in international affairs. The rise of China in economic and political terms in particular has intensified the political rivalry between the two nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite all these political developments, the deepening and widening of the economic and cultural ties between the two countries, accompanied by China's rapid economic growth, have resulted in a significant increase in the number of Japanese residents in China, particularly Shanghai.
  23. China's rapid economic growth has captured the attention of neighbouring countries. China has established itself as the fastest-growing economy in the world, and has strengthened its links with the global economy through trade and direct investment since the 1970s when it adopted a reform-driven open-door economic policy. Moreover, it has achieved an annual rate of high economic growth averaging almost 10 per cent over the last two decades.[37] It is in this context of rapid economic growth and the policies that sustained it that the city of Shanghai has received extensive support and incentives for its development since the early 1990s. In 1990, for instance, Deng Xiaoping offered extensive support to the city, calling for rapid development of the Pudong New Area project in the eastern part of the city, which was followed by a number of preferential measures in terms of urban planning and development.[38] Today, with a population of more than 16 million, Shanghai is viewed as an economic centre of China and competes with Hong Kong for the role of financial hub in East Asia.[39]
  24. The shift in the dominant image of China in Japan appears to have had considerable impact on individual decisions to seek and take up employment opportunities in Shanghai, as I have already indicated. Since the early 2000s, there have been frequent references to how fashionable Shanghai has become in Japanese women's magazines, as well as in television programs on rapid urban and economic development in Shanghai.[40] In the Japanese media, the development of Shanghai as a global city has often been emphasised through the image of the urban built environment. A feature of this coverage is the dominant attention paid to—and frequent representations of—the growing presence of skyscraper buildings throughout the city.
  25. In view of the positive representations and reinterpretations of Shanghai as a cosmopolitan and fashionable city, a number of Japanese women, who are interested in Chinese or Asian cultures and economies, have undertaken studies in Mandarin and have sought employment opportunities in China.[41] This new image of Shanghai has replaced previous Japanese views about China as a 'backward' and 'pre-modernised' country.
  26. The rapid urban development in Shanghai appears to be one of the central motivations for moving there among those Japanese women who work in the city. One of my interviewees, Sara, who is in her early forties and works as a general secretary at an accounting consulting firm in Shanghai, explained that her decision to work in Shanghai was prompted by her short visit to the city in December 2001, when she was very impressed by the rapid urban transformations of the city.[42] Another important factor was her conviction that China would become the centre of Asia, which would add to the significance of her knowledge of Mandarin as well as of her business experience in China.[43]
  27. Shanghai's rising status as a global city is reflected by the growing population of expatriates in the city. One of my respondents, Miwa, who is in her early thirties and teaches Japanese at one of the language schools in Shanghai, emphasises that one of the positive aspects of Shanghai is that there are many opportunities to meet various people from different cultural backgrounds.[44] In this regard, Ien Ang points to the way in which 'the transnationality of the global city is characterized by intense simultaneity and coexistence, by "territorial togetherness in difference".'[45] Miwa adds that having this sort of transnational experience is very difficult in Japan.[46]
  28. The majority of my interviewees in Shanghai share the view that what makes Shanghai a good place to work is that the city provides a suitable environment for working women, particularly working mothers. They take note of the fact that the modest cost of living expenses and hiring domestic workers in Shanghai help them to focus on their work as well as to enjoy their lives at a reasonable cost. Along with these advantages, they mention that higher expectations attached to women in the workplace contribute to a better sense of fulfilment in their job responsibilities. One of my interviewees points out that the political system of China, having been a socialist state for more than half a century, is conducive to putting emphasis on the importance of gender equality in the workplace.[47]
  29. Along with the rapid urban development and the advantages of living and working in Shanghai, as mentioned above, the role that the city plays in the economic development as an economic centre of China captures the attention of Japanese women and affects their migration choices to the city. Tomomi, who is in her late twenties and works as a senior associate at a British accounting firm in Shanghai, points out that Shanghai's status as an economic centre of China means that working there enables her to take part in big projects, giving her broader scope and horizons in her career development as a professional accountant. Tomomi, who spent most of her life overseas because of her father's overseas assignments and education, worked in London for three years before coming to China. Yet she notes that London has already developed enough as a city and suggests that a city like Shanghai, which is going through rapid transformations as the Chinese economy grows, attracts her much more than major cities in the west. To Tomomi, the west appears to have reached the saturation point in its urban development in comparison to cities in Asia. After she came to China, she first studied Mandarin in Dalian, a northeastern city in China, and then moved to Shanghai to work. She adds that Shanghai, compared to a more regional city such as Dalian, offers much more in terms of work prospects, activities and entertainment because it is an economic centre of China.[48]
  30. In addition to increasing Japanese corporate interest and investment in China, the rapid urban development and Shanghai's central role in the Chinese economy means that there are diverse opportunities available in Shanghai compared with the already developed and ageing economy of Japan. Another of my respondents, Tomoyo, who is in her late twenties and works for the Shanghai branch of a Japanese textile company, reflects that since everything has come to a stage of completion and more growth opportunities seem unlikely to emerge in Japan, it is difficult for someone like her to embark on a new challenge there. She adds that the enormous power of organisations over individuals in Japan is one of the main reasons young people find it difficult to envision new hopes for the future and that many firms in Japan tend to regard female labour as disposable. By contrast, she points out that there are a variety of new opportunities available in China and the sheer possibility of taking up these opportunities makes a city like Shanghai attractive to her.[49]
  31. Most importantly, the majority of my interviewees indicate that Shanghai is a city that provides them with a variety of opportunities. Their representation of urban space in Shanghai suggests that urbanisation and its associated opportunities are central in their decisions to move to work in China. In her account of the relationship between women and the city, Elizabeth Wilson argues that the city might be a place for freedom and liberation for women.[50] One of my respondents in Singapore, Tami, who is in her early thirties and had the experience of working in a small provincial town in Hunan Province in China before coming to Singapore to work in marketing, recalls that her experience in a small city in China was very 'frustrating'.[51] She adds that 'honestly speaking, I do not want to live in China again.' By contrast, when she came to Singapore after finishing her term as a Japanese teacher in Hunan province, she found it to be a 'sophisticated version of China' and decided to come back to the city-state for work next time she leaves Japan.[52] Her contrasting remarks about China and Singapore suggest that it is not just China itself that motivates Japanese women to move to the country and stay there. Rather, the growth of Shanghai as a global city, which includes diverse forms of entertainment, the increasing availability of Japanese goods and food at shops, the improvement in infrastructure, and the safe environment for women at night are significant aspects of Japanese women's choice to migrate to China. In this regard, one of my interviewees, who is in her early fifties and works as an administrator for a Japanese school in Shanghai, points out that there is a need to 'differentiate Shanghai from the rest of China.' As Satomi, who is in her late twenties and an employee at a recruitment agency points out,

      I think that I can live and work in Shanghai because it is a big city, which enables me to go to a Japanese restaurant sometimes and to buy Japanese food and goods at shops whenever I want them. I simply cannot imagine myself living in other places, for instance, in the countryside in China where I do not think that I would be able to maintain the same lifestyle as I am enjoying in Shanghai.[53]

  32. It has often been pointed out in Japan that rural areas or regional small- and medium-sized cities have been sacrificed in terms of urban development and human capital capacities for the development of major cities such as Tokyo or Osaka.[54] Due to the scarcity of good employment opportunities in these areas, many young people have moved to big cities, while others have chosen to move overseas. Teruyo, who is in her late thirties and works for a Japanese publishing firm in Singapore, points out that her move from Niigata Prefecture in Japan to Singapore was 'just like moving to Osaka from Tokyo.'[55] In other words, for individuals like Teruyo, migration from Japan to other Asian countries today is construed as a similar process to moving domestically. Similarly, Tomoyo, the interviewee mentioned earlier, originally comes from a city in Hiroshima. She told me that her place of birth did not offer good employment opportunities.[56]
  33. The response of these women to the urban-regional dichotomy in Japan reveals the importance of placing global cities in transnational contexts, as well as the regionalisation of economic processes in East and Southeast Asia. National boundaries are rendered less significant in these women's accounts of migration. Instead, the availability of a variety of opportunities is central to their migratory processes. In this regard, they reconfigure the borders in accordance with the current regional processes of economic globalisation in Asia. In contrast to divisions based on national politics and security agendas, this process of reconfiguring borders has the possibility of transforming boundaries between nation-states, reconstituting them as more porous and flexible than those visible on a map. This process points to the reconsideration of borders or boundaries as social constructions. As David Newman points out, borders are 'as much perceived in our mental maps and images as they are visible manifestations of concrete walls and barbed-wire fences.'[57]
  34. The boundary between Japan and other parts of Asia, re-established and strengthened during Japan's modernisation, has gone through significant transformations in meaning and operation, paving the way for shifting perceptions and representations of 'other' places. Expatriate Japanese women in Shanghai take part in this process of reconfiguration of boundaries though their trajectories of migration from Japan to Shanghai. These transnational processes urge us to shift our understanding of borders and boundaries as embedded in state-centric definitions of security and an 'us'/'other' dichotomy toward more inclusive and broader understandings of the reconstruction and reinterpretation of boundaries as social processes.[58]

  35. In this article I have discussed a number of factors and reasons why Japanese women find it attractive to live and work in Shanghai in terms of their shifting perceptions of urban China. The growth of Shanghai as a global city, as well as opportunities associated with this urban development, have been crucial to the shaping of their migratory processes. I have also considered the importance of non-economic incentives for these processes.
  36. My interviewees' positive evaluation of Shanghai as a city of opportunities suggests that a variety of opportunities, which are made available in a global city, are crucial to the understanding of women's migratory processes. The term 'opportunities,' in this regard, implies a multiplicity of meanings. It might indicate opportunities to experience a changing urban landscape in China as the country goes through rapid social changes, opportunities to interact or socialise with people of different cultural and ethnic origins, opportunities to undertake exciting projects in the workplace, opportunities to travel safely to work and play, opportunities to move from a country with rigid organisational structures, and opportunities to explore the possibilities of a different setting. Their choices to migrate to China are therefore not driven solely by economic or business opportunities associated with the rise of China. Rather, non-economic factors—including, for instance, the opportunity to experience the dynamism of an emerging global city in Asia—play central roles in their migratory processes.
  37. Moreover, these women's identification of Shanghai as a place of opportunities suggests the possibility of reconfiguring the established political map of divisions between China and Japan that places the rivalry between the two nations at the centre of bilateral relations. Thus, the phenomenon of migration from Japan to China highlights the need for integrating the economic and the social into analyses of border-crossings and the highlighting of 'transnationalism from below' which is not bound by state security agendas and practices.[59] Furthermore, this phenomenon sheds light on the growing significance of Asian women as skilled migrants, as well as of female autonomous migration, in theorising international population movements within the Asia-Pacific region.
  38. The significance of the availability of opportunities in these Japanese women's accounts of their motivations for moving to Shanghai highlights that their migratory processes are inextricably interconnected to changes in the economic and urban landscapes of China, of which their spatial mobility is understood to be a constitutive part. By crossing boundaries between China and Japan, they negotiate the multiple meanings of borders between the two countries, borders as inclusion and exclusion, and the border as a point of negotiation between the national, the local, the regional and the global. Rather than conforming to the increasingly dominant Japanese political view that China poses a threat to Japan's national security[60] —or to the previous assumptions about China as underdeveloped and undesirable[61]—these women migrants, being active participants in the dynamic processes of negotiating borders, reconfigure the constructed borders between China and Japan. In doing so, they seek to create a different mapping of East Asia through multiple attachments to places, exchanges and interactions with the people they encounter across the borders.


    [1] 'China now Japan's top trading partner,' in the Japan Times, 27 January 2005, online:, site accessed 29 January 2005. An earlier version of this paper was presented at a workshop on gendering governance and security in Australia, Asia and the Pacific, held at the University of Technology, Sydney, 25 September 2005. I would like to thank Vera Mackie and Harriet Evans for their thoughtful comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank the two anonymous referees for their valuable comments.

    [2] According to an article in Nihon Keizai Shimbun citing Ministry of Foreign Affairs statistics, the number of Japanese residents in Shanghai as of 2004 was 34,122. It accounts for 34.4 per cent of the total Japanese population in China. This figure, however, does not include those who do not register with the Japanese consulate in Shanghai. Therefore, the actual number of Japanese residents in Shanghai is estimated to be much higher than this official figure. Moreover, Ministry of Foreign Affairs statistics do not provide any information as to the proportion of females in relation to the total number of Japanese residents in Shanghai. 'Shangai shi demo kaihi ni kenmei,' [The city of Shanghai is making every possible effort to prevent anti-Japanese demonstrations from taking place],' in Nihon Keizai Shinbun, 14 April 2005, p. 9.

    [3] Parvati Raghuram and Eleonor Kofman, 'Out of Asia: skilling, reskilling and deskilling of female migrants,' in Women's Studies International Forum, 27 (2004):95–100, pp. 95–96.

    [4] In this paper, I use the term 'gendered flows' of migration to indicate that there exist a number of differences in the type of migratory forms (e.g. men tend to move to other countries by the transfer orders of their organisations, while women are more likely to move of their own accord) between Japanese men and women.

    [5] Hasmita Ramiji, 'Engendering Diasporic Identities,' in South Asian Women in the Diaspora, ed. Nirma Pawar and Parrati Ragharam, Oxford: Berg, 2003, pp. 227–41, p. 228.

    [6] For a discussion of the gendered nature of global spaces, see Petra Weyland, 'Gendered lives in global spaces,' in Space, Culture and Power: New Identities in Globalizing Cities, ed. Ayse Öncü and Petra Weyland, Zed Books: London, 1997, pp. 82–97.

    [7] Eiichi Shinozawa, Makoto Matsuoka and Tomohisa Kato, 'Women head to China in search of a better life,' in the Japan Times, 1 October 2002, online:, site accessed 3 May 2003.

    [8] For a geographical review of the association of women with the private spheres of home, see Mona Domosh & Joni Seager, Putting Women in Place: Feminist Geographers Make Sense of the World, New York: The Guilford Press, 2001.

    [9] In particular, this perception of woman as the boundary marker of the nation is expressed strongly in times of wars and conflicts with other nations. In this context, issues of territoriality and national sovereignty are closely tied to the idea of 'pure' womanhood that is not contaminated by 'undesirable others.' For a review of the relationship between woman and nation, see Nira Yuval-Davis & Floya Anthias, 'Introduction,' in Woman-Nation-State, ed. Yuval-Davis & Anthias, Macmillan: London, 1989, pp. 1–15.

    [10] The Association of Japanese Women in Shanghai was established in the mid-1990s to foster exchanges and interactions among Japanese women who are working in Shanghai. They hold three to four regular events a year, such as a lunch, a seminar, or a musical concert, to facilitate these interactions. Presenters of their seminars include expatriate Japanese women and men as well as local Chinese.

    [11] Floya Anthias, 'Metaphors of home: gendering new migrations to Southern Europe,' in Gender and Migration in Southern Europe: Women on the Move, ed. Anthias and Gabriella Lazardis, Oxford: Berg, 2000, pp. 15–47, p. 18.

    [12] Nicola Piper & Mina Roces, 'Introduction: marriage and migration in an age of globalization,' in Wife or Worker? Asian Women and Migration, ed. Piper & Roces, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003, pp. 1–21, pp. 2–3.

    [13] Raghuram & Kofman, 'Out of Asia: skilling, reskilling and deskilling of female migrants,' pp. 95–96.

    [14] Hiroshi Ono & Nicola Piper, 'Japanese women studying abroad, the case of the United States,' in Women's Studies International Forum 27 (2004):101–18, p. 102.

    [15] For a detailed description of these three phases of Japanese emigration, see Harumi Befu, 'Globalization as human dispersal: from the perspective of Japan,' in Globalization and Social Change in Contemporary Japan, ed. J.S. Eades, Tom Gill and Harumi Befu, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2000, pp. 17–40.

    [16] Befu, 'Globalization as human dispersal: from the perspective of Japan,' pp. 20–21.

    [17] Harumi Befu, 'The global context of Japan outside Japan,' in Globalizing Japan: Ethnography of the Japanese Presence in Asia, Europe, and America, ed. Befu and Sylvie Guichard-Anguis, London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 3–22, p. 6.

    [18] For an account of Karayuki-san, see Tomoko Yamazaki, Sandakan Brothel No. 8: An Episode in the History Of Lower-Class Japanese Women, trans. Karen Colligan-Taylor, M.E. Sharpe: Armonk, 1999.

    [19] Befu, 'Globalization as human dispersal: from the perspective of Japan,' p. 23. To learn more about Karayuki-san' see Yamazaki, Sandakan Brothel No. 8; Masanao Kurahashi, Kita no Karayuki-San [Karayuki of the North], Tokyo: Kyōei Shobō, 1989; James F. Warren, Ah Ku and Karayuki-san, Prostitution in Singapore 1870–1940, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    [20] Cited in Karen Colligan-Taylor, 'Translator's introduction,' in Yamazaki Tomoko, Sandakan Brothel No. 8,, p. xxii.

    [21] Joël Joos, 'A stinking tradition: Tsuda Sōkichi's view of China,' in East Asian History 28 (2004):1–26.

    [22] Kōichi Iwabuchi, 'Nostalgia for a (different) Asian modernity: media consumption of 'Asia' in Japan,' in positions 10 (3) (2002):547–573, p. 555.

    [23] Sandra Buckley, 'The foreign devil returns: packaging sexual practice and risk in contemporary Japan,' in Sites of Desire, Economies of Pleasure: Sexualities in Asia and the Pacific, ed. Lenore Manderson and Margaret Jolly, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 264–91, p. 284.

    [24] 'Expats hit record high; women outnumber men,' in the Japan Times, 21 May 2000, online:, site accessed 25 May 2003.

    [25] Ono & Piper, 'Japanese women studying abroad, the case of the United States,' p. 102.

    [26] See Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller & Cristina Szanton Blanc, Nations Unbound: Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States, Amsterdam: Gordon and Beach, 1994; Debra L. Delaet, 'Introduction: the invisibility of women in scholarship on international migration,' in Gender and Immigration, ed. Gregory A. Kelson & Delaet, New York: New York University Press, 1999, pp. 1–17; Gabriella Lazaridis, 'Filipino and Albanian women workers in Greece: multiple layers of oppression,' in Gender and Migration in Southern Europe, ed. Anthias & Lazardis, pp. 49–79; Patricia R Pessar & Sarah J. Mahler, 'Transnational migration: bringing gender in,' in International Migration Review, 37 (3), (2003):812–45.

    [27] Katie Willis & Brendah Yeoh, 'Introduction,' in Gender and Migration, ed. Willis & Yeoh, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, 2000, pp. xi–xxii.

    [28]Rachel Silvey, 'Geographies of gender and migration: spatializing social difference,' in International Migration Review, 40 (1) (2006):64–81, p. 65.

    [29] For detailed analyses of single expatriate Japanese women in Singapore, see Eyal Ben-Ari and Yong Yin Fong Vanessa. 'Twice marginalized: single Japanese female expatriates in Singapore,' in Japan in Singapore: Cultural Occurrences and Cultural Flows, ed. Eyal Ben-Ari and John Clammer, London: Curzon, 2000, pp. 82–111; and Leng Leng Thang, Elizabeth MacLachlan Miho Goda, 'Expatriates on the margins—a study of Japanese working women in Singapore,' in Geoforum, 33 (4) (2002):539–51.

    [30] See Hiroshi & Piper, 'Japanese women studying abroad, the case of the United States,' p. 103.

    [31] 'More Japanese women pursuing careers overseas,' in the Japan Times, 14 January 2003, online:, site accessed 4 October 2003.

    [32] See Ben–Ari & Yong, 'Twice marginalized,' pp. 82, 110.

    [33] It should be acknowledged that those Japanese women who are married to local men in Shanghai appear to be more integrated with, and accepted by, local people there due to their familial ties with Chinese men through marriage. In this sense, it becomes significant to make a distinction between single Japanese expatriate women and those married to locals in Shanghai in terms of their different perspectives concerning their migration experiences. Moreover, there is an increasing number of Japanese women who enjoy the same privileges and status as Japanese men in China, though the majority of Japanese women are still locally hired on a contract basis, which means their salaries and associated benefits are much lower compared with the majority of Japanese expatriate males who are transferred from their companies in Japan to work in one of the branches of their companies in China.

    [34] See, for example, R.S. David, 'Filipino workers in Japan: vulnerability and survival,' in Kasarinlan 6 (1991):9–23.

    [35] See Thang, MacLachlan & Goda, 'Expatriates on the margins—a study of Japanese working women in Singapore,' pp. 541–42.

    [36] See Thang, MacLachlan & Goda, 'Expatriates on the margins—a study of Japanese working women in Singapore,' pp. 541–42.

    [37] C.H. Kwan, 'The rise of China as an economic power: implications for Asia and Japan,' in Japan and China: Cooperation, Competition and Conflict, ed. Hanns Günther Hilpert and René Haak, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002, pp. 12–32, p. 12.

    [38] See Shahid Yusuf & Weiping Wu, 'Pathways to a world city: Shanghai rising in an era of globalisation,' in Urban Studies 39 (7) (2002):1213–240, p. 1216.

    [39] Zhongguo Didu Chubanshe and Zhonghua Diduxueshe (eds), Shanghaishi Shiyong Diduce [Practical Map of Shanghai], Shanghai: Zhonghua Diduxueshe, 2005.

    [40] For instance, Le Figaro Japon, a Japanese women's magazine which usually covers and emphasises western cities as fashionable places, published a special issue on Beijing and Shanghai in September 2002 and introduced a number of cafés, restaurants and shops in these cities to its readers.

    [41] It should to be noted that a series of anti-Japanese protests which took place in a number of cities in China in April, including Shanghai and Beijing, considerably tarnished the general image of China as these protests, which included vandalism against the Japanese consulate and other Japanese facilities, were widely reported in the Japanese media. The impact of this media coverage of anti-Japanese protests on the future migration of Japanese women to China remains to be seen.

    [42] To protect the privacy of my respondents, all of the names that appear in this paper are pseudonyms.

    [43] Interview with Sara, Shanghai, 9 April 2005.

    [44] Interview with Miwa, Shanghai, 22 October 2005.

    [45] Ien Ang, 'Beyond transnational nationalism: questioning the borders of the Chinese diaspora in the global city,' in State/Nation/Transnation: Perspectives on Transnationalism in the Asia-Pacific, ed. Brendah Yeoh & Katie Willis, Routledge: London, 2004, pp. 179–96, p. 191.

    [46] Interview with Miwa, Shanghai, 22 October 2005.

    [47] Interview with Sara, Shanghai, 9 April 2005.

    [48] Interview with Tomomi, Shanghai, 18 April 2005.

    [49] Interview with Tomoyo, Shanghai, 24 April 2005.

    [50] See Elizabeth Wilson, Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder and Women, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991, pp. 7–8.

    [51] Interviews with expatriate Japanese women in Singapore were conducted in the period between 2004 and 2006. I included my interviews in Singapore in this article because they are relevant to the experiences of my respondents in Shanghai.

    [52] Interview with Tami, Singapore, 21 February 2005.

    [53] Interview with Satomi, Shanghai, 20 April 2005.

    [54] Personal conversation with a Japanese postgraduate student studying in Australia, 3 February 2006. Coming from Okayma prefecture in Japan, he told me that there are growing tendencies among young people in his region to prefer to move to big cities. This tendency has social and economic impacts on regional development in a place like Okayama Prefecture.

    [55] Interview with Teruyo, Singapore, 20 December 2004.

    [56] Interview with Tomoyo, Shanghai, 24 April 2005.

    [57] David Newman, 'The lines that continue to separate us: borders in our "borderless" world,' in Progress in Human Geography 30(2) (2006):143–61, p. 146.

    [58] Massey points out that all boundaries are socially constructed. For a discussion about boundaries and place-making, see Doreen Massey, 'The conceptualization of place,' in A Place in the World?: Places, Cultures and Globalization, ed. Doreen Massey & Pat Jess, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 45–85, pp. 67–69.

    [59] The term 'transnationalism from below' was borrowed from the title of the book Transnationalism from Below, ed. Michael Peter Smith & Luis Eduardo Guarnizo, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998.

    [60] Some of the leading politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party, as well as officials working in the area of defence in Japan, have repeatedly pointed out that China is a potential security threat to Japan. For instance, in December 2005, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso made a remark that China's military build-up poses a threat to Japan's security. See 'China posing a threat: Aso,' in the Japan Times 23 December 2005, online:, site accessed 23 December 2005.

    [61] These assumptions reflect only some Japanese views about China. As I have already pointed out, the construction of binary distinctions between Japan as 'us' and Asia as 'other' were integral to the modernisation process of Japan. Yet centuries of exchanges and cultural interactions with China highlight the ambivalent and multifaceted perceptions about China, which are still relevant today.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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