Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 17, July 2008

Trading in Wives in Yang Yi’s ‘Wan-chan’:
Crossing the Border of China/Japan

Barbara Hartley

  1. Trading is a function of supply and demand and, thus, market exchange occurs when a trader supplies a buyer with a desired product. Human capital, moreover, is an indispensible feature of the industrialised state, with the sale of labour to holders of capital being a basic transaction of the modern market system. Within this system women’s gendered bodies have long had a particular significance.[1] While emphasis is often given to the forced trade of women for the sex industry and the prevalence of practices such as illegal trafficking,[2] many women have consciously and pro-actively offered themselves as gendered commodities, particularly in marriage markets. This article will examine a vignette of the Chinese bride trade in contemporary Japan given in a short story written in Japanese by Yang Yi, a forty-three year old Chinese background woman writer resident in Japan for the past twenty years.[3] The text, entitled 'Wan-chan,' was nominated in the Northern Hemisphere 2008 spring for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, a literary award given twice yearly in Japan. The narrative takes its name from the protagonist, Wan-chan, a woman from China living in a provincial area of Japan and married to a Japanese man. As one of the few possible outlets in the unheimlich (unhomely) surroundings of her new home for what is clearly her strong sense of entrepreneurial creativity, Wan-chan opens a marriage broking business trading in Chinese wives for Japanese men. Her knowledge of this system derives from the fact that she met her Japanese husband in China six years previously as a party to a similar transaction.[4]
  2. Market place exigencies mean that trading is often most successful when the item traded is in short supply and the social background to the 'Wan-chan' text concerns the fact that, since the 1970s,[5] contemporary Japan has experienced a growing shortage of women prepared to marry.[6] As both John Knight and Nobuki Fujimoto note,[7] this effect was not confined to rural areas. Nevertheless, it was particularly visible in more remote regions, such as Wan-chan's fictional home, which offered little to women in terms of lifestyle or cultural opportunity. Thus, in the late 1980s one group of farmers from Akita on the northwest coast of Honshu travelled several hundred kilometres to Tokyo in tractor convoy carrying large banners calling for women to return home with them as brides. [8] While not explicitly stated, this call implied having a child. However, in addition to a reluctance to marry, Japanese women have demonstrated a growing disdain for maternity, a trend which saw the country's 2007 birth rate plummet to a mere 1.23 percent.[9] Even two decades ago, when the Akita men made their appeal, neither marriage nor motherhood in the provinces was a priority option for Japanese women.
  3. Knight notes that, in order to solve these problems, municipal authorities began organising matchmaking activities for bachelors in their constituencies as early as the mid-1970s.[10] When overtures to young Japanese women failed, attention turned to prospective brides outside Japan. Fujimoto, for example, observes that in 1985 a municipality in Yamagata, also on the northwest coast of Honshu, officially encouraged a group of farmers on a wife-finding mission to the Philippines.[11] Although international marriage had been a feature of the Japanese social landscape since the early years of the modern era,[12] this move was part of a concerted effort deliberately targeting women from Asia to address the country's bride shortage. Following the enacting of 1990 legislation in the Philippines outlawing such marriages,[13] marriage brokers in Japan also turned their attention to other locations, including China. Fujimoto cites 2006 Japanese Ministry of Health and Labour figures which indicate that of 35,993 international marriages involving Japanese husbands in that year, the wives in 12,131 of these marriages came from China.[14]
  4. Yang Yi, author of the 'Wan-chan' narrative, was born in 1964 in the city of Harbin in Heilongjiang Province in northern China.[15] Arriving in Japan in 1987, she enrolled in a Japanese language school before entering Ochanomizu Women's University. Following graduation she worked firstly as a journalist for a Chinese language newspaper in Tokyo and then as a Chinese language school teacher. Some observers were disappointed that the Akutagawa Prize did not go to Yang Yi, and thus make her the first foreigner to win the coveted award.[16] However, her second nominated novel, entitled Toki ga nijimu asa (A Morning When Time Blurs), the story of a Chinese man who moves to Japan following the 1989 Tianamin Square Incident, did win the award in July, 2008.[*] The significance of Yang Yi’s nomination for 'Wan-chan' and subsequent Akutagawa Prize success with Toki ga nijimu asa (A Morning when time blurs) cannot be underestimated. Japanese officialdom has a long history of misguided pride in what it regards as the country's unadulterated cultural purity.[17] Associated with this attitude is a belief, less strong than it was several decades ago but nonetheless lingering today, that acquisition of the Japanese language is beyond the capacity of all except 'pure' Japanese.[18] In contemporary Japan, while levels of oral proficiency among non-Japanese are at an unprecedented high, the ability to produce literary texts remains a challenge.

    Figure 1. Chinese writer Yang Yi in Tokyo on Tuesday 15 July 2008, after learning that her novel Toki ga nijimu asa won the coveted Akutagawa Prize. Source: Kyodo Photo, Japan Times, 16 July 2008.
    One of the few foreigners to achieve this is former American academic, Hideo Levy (b. 1951). English language advertising material appearing on the website of Iwanami Shoten, a respected scholarly publishing house in Japan, concerning a 2001 work produced by Levy in Japanese, notes that the writer made the 'excruciating decision' to write in this language at a time when 'Westerners are still perceived as being unable to speak Japanese' and 'a foreigner who writes and reads Japanese still bewilders many Japanese people.'[19] Given the challenge of text production in script, it might be expected that Japanese language Western background authors are a rare species. However, if one excludes the now widely acknowledged body of writing by Resident Korean writers,[20] Asian background non-Japanese writers of Japanese are also difficult to identify. One of the few widely read Chinese background authors to produce material in Japanese is the crime fiction and historical writer, Chin Shunshin (b.1924). However, this writer was born in Japan, in the Motomachi area of downtown Kobe.[21] Clearly, for a non-Japanese born outside Japan to be published commercially in Japanese is a significant event.

  5. In addition to providing commentary on the narrative itself, the discussion that follows will examine a number of social and cultural factors foregrounded by Yang Yi's representation of a 'foreign' woman trader in Japan. These include: the need to balance theoretical notions of agency and constraint in discussing women's lived experiences; the author's treatment of significant binaries which underpin the text, particularly China/Japan and urban/rural; the way in which women's experiences contest accepted interpretations of nation, diaspora and mobility; the trope of rurality and the operation of non-logocentric knowledge systems; and the spectre of Japanese wartime atrocities which inevitably hovers above any discussion of women from China and men from Japan. In discussing these factors I will expand my discussion beyond the parameters of literary and other theoretical perspectives, and refer also to studies which examine the lived experiences of foreign brides from several Asian countries married to men in Japan. This grouping of the lives of women from various sites should not imply an erasure of the specificities which, as Ryoko Tsuneyoshi notes, distinguish groups of individual women, or men, who arrive in Japan as foreigners.[22] However, there are many resonances in the experiences of the women featured in the 'Wan-chan' text and of real life women from the diverse locations who come to Japan to marry. Since the text concerns women from China, some reference will also be made to studies relating to women, marriage and internal migration in China.

    Outline of the narrative
  6. The eponymous Wan-chan is a Chinese woman of about forty years of age who arrives in Japan from China to marry a Japanese man whom she previously met only briefly in her homeland through an agency that finds overseas brides for men in Japan. Although in Japan she takes her husband's name, Kimura, the text uses the diminutive, Wan-chan, derived from her Chinese surname. This is the mode of address her aging Japanese mother-in-law continued to use even after Wan-chan had assumed a Japanese name. The use of diminutives can be read as demeaning, especially since the suffix-ending 'chan' is used for small children. However, it is also used intimately by adults, including men, so that in a workplace Mr Watanabe can be referred to informally by his colleagues as 'Nabe-chan.' Although originally resistant because of its similarity to the Japanese onomatopoeia word, 'wan-wan,' attributed to barking dogs, Wan-chan becomes attached to the name. In fact, 'in her tedious everyday routine, hearing this name was the one thing gave her some warmth.'[23] Her mother in China suggested the unlikely personal name of 'Kurenai,' meaning crimson. When Wan-chan questions this, her mother explains that red is the colour that drives away bad luck.[24] Protection from bad luck is something that certainly seems to have eluded Wan-chan prior to her arrival in Japan.
  7. The promise of young love in Wan-chan's first marriage in China was soon dashed when, returning home from a work trip when she was six months pregnant, she discovered her partner in bed with another woman. This event was, in her words, 'just the beginning.'[25] At twenty-nine, in order to divorce and be free of her husband, who was work-shy as well as promiscuous, she gave up parental rights to her son and handed over all her property—'car, house and savings'[26]—as maintenance for the boy. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that she successfully reconstructed her life on several occasions, her previous partner inevitably materialised with demands for money. Desperate to make a complete break, she finally chose to leave China six years ago by entering into an introduced marriage in Japan. Although this second marriage is also unsatisfactory, Wan-chan demonstrates her initiative by acquiring a more than functional level of Japanese, getting a Japanese driver's license and taking a part-time job. Nevertheless, the boredom and lack of companionship in her marriage—her husband does little else than drink beer and watch television—motivate her to find something more challenging to fill in her time. Lacking the confidence necessary to work in the local clothing trade, the trade that had supported her in China, she approaches a number of established local marriage agencies to gauge their interest in providing candidates for introduced marriages to Chinese brides. When two or three indicate a willingness to enter into an arrangement, Wan-chan's 'bride trade' business begins.
  8. Information is generally conveyed to the reader in the past tense by a third person narrator. Conventional Western narratology might define such an approach negatively as exclusively univocal.[27] However, it would be a grave disservice to the text to draw such a conclusion. This is particularly the case given the practice in Japanese of referring to oneself familiarly in the third person, a convention which suggests the absence of a clear demarcation between the protagonist and the narrator.[28] Furthermore, the text moves through a series of time frames. Thus, among other images from the past, we see the nineteen-year-old Wan-chan on her honeymoon holding hands with her first husband on the Great Wall of China, view snapshots of her life as a young woman travelling long distances to and from Guangzhou to acquire stock for her clothing business, and survey the spectacle of the perfunctory and inadequate sexual performance of her fifty-something Japanese husband on the couple's 'wedding' night. This intermingling of past and present creates an often poignant atmosphere of personal memory. The fact that the narration gives intimate details of the protagonist's experiences and feelings suggests a shared, collective knowledge of Wan-chan's inner thoughts rather than an objective, 'all-seeing' or omnipotent observation of her activities. And while I will argue that this is a narrative of a woman isolated, the protagonist, Wan-chan, steps aside on various occasions to permit the voices of others around her, especially her Japanese mother-in-law, to speak. In this way, the author successively creates the polyvocal effect of a text that acts as a space for multiple points of view.
  9. Wan-chan originally unsuccessfully targeted girls from cities such as Beijing and Shanghai as brides for men in her home district of provincial Shikoku. However, since these young women had seen 'too many romantic dramas from Japan,' [29] they quickly became dissatisfied with the absence of 'large department stores' or 'exotic western style coffee shops'[30] between the vegetable patches and rice paddies of the Shikoku back-blocks. Wan-chan, therefore, contacted Cheju, a relative in provincial China, to help find suitable bride candidates in the Chinese countryside. The narrative opens in a remote rural area of China where the local 'hotel' is a renovated house once used to accommodate 'intellectual youth sent down for re-education' in the pre-capitalist era.[31] This structure is the sole reception or accommodation facility available for a radius of thirty kilometres.
  10. This introduction foregrounds the first of a number of binaries in the text, in this case, the metropolitan/rural divide. However, I will argue later that, while Yang Yi presents these binaries, she articulates them in a way that questions the usual logocentric, hierarchical either/or position. In the 'hotel' reception room, Cheju has gathered fifteen local women between the ages of twenty-two or three and thirty-six to be surveyed by Wan-chan's group of six Japanese men. Wan-chan recalls a similar imbalance in the numbers of women and men at the gatherings of prospective brides she attended herself in the past, suggesting an eagerness on the part of some women in China to re-direct their lives through overseas marriage. The Japanese party includes Uno, a fifty-five year old 'sleazy old man' (sukebe jijii),[32] whose principle objectives are, in the short term, to have a sexual encounter with as many young women as possible during a five day visit to China and, in the longer term, to find a wife to tend to his needs after an impending haemorrhoids operation; Yamaguchi, a stuttering red faced thirty-five or thirty-six year old whose nervous attempt to smile results in a grotesque smirk; Endo, a thin, pale-faced man with a permanently upset stomach; Suzuki, stranded in a massage parlour somewhere in Beijing with insufficient money to pay his fee when Uno leaves for a more personalised service with one of the women; and Tsuchimura, a courteous and well-groomed vegetable farmer looking for someone to assist with the care of his aging mother and also the family vegetable farm and retail business.[33] Tsuchimura is the principal male character to whom we will return later in the discussion.
  11. Yang Yi's representation of a number of these men resonates with other real life accounts of rural men searching for wives. Commenting on the lack of success of municipal campaigns to find brides for men in the countryside, Knight noted the complaint of a marriage consultant engaged on such as project as follows:

      [R]ural men are inarticulate (mukuchi), socially inept (kōsai heta), and generally incapable of presenting a positive image of themselves. When they do meet women in the municipally organised events, they have trouble finding topics of conversation, and are as likely as not to talk about farming or to let slip the presence of a bed-ridden grandparent at home who has to be cared for.[34]

    Since, as noted above, Japan's bride shortage also impacted on urban men, this agent's comment may not apply to the husbands of overseas wives as a group. However, it certainly sums up the men who appear in the 'Wan-chan' text.

    Agency and constraint
  12. Feminist scholars enter precarious theoretical territory when they engage with issues concerning women from different social and cultural backgrounds. This point is clearly evident in Tomoko Nakamatsu's 2002 doctoral thesis, entitled 'Marriage, Migration and the International Marriage Business in Japan.'[35] Here, the author examines the experiences of forty-five women from China, Korea and the Philippines who married Japanese men through an exchange of fees with an agent. In her introduction Nakamatsu states:

      My objective is to offer 'a gendered understanding of the social process of migration' (Pedraza 1991, 305) which explores the meaning of marriage and migration in this system [the international introduction marriage business in Japan]. I argue that the women participants' marriage and migration experiences are much more complex than the available interpretations of them as victims or opportunity seekers.[36]

  13. While Nakamatsu acknowledges the oppressive gender practices impinging on women from overseas who enter into arranged marriages in Japan, especially those from Asian countries, she also firmly critiques a the tendency to render these women as 'deviant victims.'[37] To this end she cites an extract from a book edited by 'two prominent feminists' in which 'the foreign woman married through introduction in Japan is described as “not respected as an equal human being" or “as a tool for child bearing, care of the elderly and farming duties."'[38] Nakamatsu distances herself from scholars such as Thanh-Dam Truong and what she argues is the tendency of the latter to label women who become arranged marriage foreign brides as 'socially dump[ed]' or, in that many are expected to have children, 'female migrant reproductive workers.'[39] She also argues strongly against Troung's categorisation of women from overseas who come to Japan to marry with foreign sex workers and domestic workers. Nakamatsu suggests that, in their single-minded advocacy of issues such as the need for protection for foreign wives in Japan, Troung and scholars working in a similar vein fail to adequately acknowledge the 'women's multiple subjectivities and their changing role in family, community and the host country.'[40]
  14. Nakamatsu is not the only scholar to question the positioning of foreign brides in Japan as necessarily disadvantaged or victimised. Writing in the mid-1990s, Knight, for example, while acknowledging what appeared to be unreasonable restraints operating on brides in rural municipalities at the time, including the requirement that some Filipina women not return home for three years, also noted the complexities surrounding the women's experiences. He argued that the focus on representations of the Japanese countryside as 'backward' or even 'feudal' in the discourse which dominated debates on foreign brides in rural areas in the 1990s discounted processes of radical change that can also be a feature of contemporary rural Japan.[41] Knight offered the fact that many rural marriages were 'neolocal,' that is, that the bride and her husband lived independently from the groom's family home, as an example that women were 'redefin[ing] rural domesticity and, therefore, rural society.'[42] It is significant in this respect that one of the first initiatives taken by Wan-chan following her arrival in Japan, her very limited language skills notwithstanding, is to negotiate an apartment with a real-estate agent where she and her husband can live apart from her mother-in-law and brother-in-law. This she does to avoid unwanted contact with the husband's older brother who, immobilised by an accident a decade ago, leers suggestively at her when the pair are left home alone.
  15. Nakamatsu's position is very important in that it foregrounds the need for the critical feminist scholar to simultaneously acknowledge what, in a more 'law of the excluded middle' context, might be regarded as contradictory positions. Her championing of agency reverberates with the spirit of both Chandra Talpade Mohanty's classic 'under Western eyes' discussion and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's use of deconstruction to prioritise the suppressed subaltern voice over that of the establishment scholar.[43] In fact, Nakamatsu herself, borrowing from Sherry B. Ortner, invokes the term 'subaltern practice theory' in explaining her objective to profile the voices of a sample of the brides themselves.[44] Many readers will have cringed reading retrospectively early feminist attempts to engage with the issues impacting on women outside the sphere of experience of the researchers involved and the resounding replication of patriarchal condescension, in spite of the best of good will, in some of these studies. Furthermore, Nakamatsu rightly points out that the participants in her study are both brides and migrants,[45] a point made also about foreign wives by Nicole Piper in her study of race, gender and international marriage in Japan.[46] In other words, to fully understand these women's experiences it is necessary to go beyond the parameters of gender and family studies and to consider their actions in terms of broader theoretical parameters. It is not surprising, then, that Nakamatsu's desire to foreground the agency of foreign brides in Japan resonates with assumptions made by C. Cindy Fan and Youqin Huang in their study of internal marriage migration in China. Fan and Huang premise their discussion on the assumption that 'female migration has to be understood in relation to the historical and structural contexts that impose constraints on but yet open up opportunities for women's mobility.'[47] Delia Darvin, too, notes that migration within China generally, and women's migration particularly, can challenge traditional patriarchal family norms of the countryside and thus offer women outside cities 'the chance to negotiate more power and choice in their lives.'[48]
  16. However, Nakamatsu's study also implies that there can be unbalanced outcomes when over-emphasis is given to agency in a manner that elides or diminishes an awareness of constraints. And in Japan, there are multiple constraints with respect to both gender and ethnicity. In 2005, for example, the country had only 1.7 percent of female employees in the central government ranked higher than section chief or equivalent,[49] one of the lowest levels of participation in the industrialised world. Regarding ethnicity, while the extent to which officialdom ever represents the broad masses is always debatable, key Japanese conservative politicians have a vigorous tradition of either denying or disparaging minorities both inside and outside Japan.[50] Nakamatsu's comment that marriage is a 'pervasive social institution, supporting the contemporary patriarchal and capitalistic political and economic system of Japan'[51] provides insights into the nature of the restraints that operate in that setting. While critical of Truong, she nevertheless concedes the value of approaches taken by this scholar and others like her in identifying the 'structural problems that affect these women [that is, women who come to Japan from overseas to marry].'[52] It might thus be argued that the need to provide an equitable presentation of the counterbalancing effects of both individual agency and social constraint is one of the most complex challenges facing the feminist scholar.

    More narrative outline
  17. The 'Wan-chan' text is fiction and therefore cannot be 'read' from the same perspective as the voices of the real-life women featured in Nakamatsu's study. Nevertheless, this brief narrative in many ways articulates with and supports the work of scholars like Nakamatsu who seek to foreground the agency of women and to personalise the objectifying theoretical approach taken by some studies, even feminist studies, of marriage and migration. However, in a turn reminiscent of Fuminobu Murakami's speculation that perhaps the literary text is the only form of expression that can successfully maintain contradictory positions,[53] the 'Wan-chan' narrative also confirms the position of scholars such as Troung who emphasise the structural constraints operating upon women entering foreign marriages. The objectives outlined above of the rather motley collection of Japanese men gathered in a reception hall somewhere in provincial China have less to do with marriage as empathetic companionship than marriage as compliance with, to borrow Nakamatsu's words cited above, 'the contemporary patriarchal and capitalistic political and economic system of Japan.'[54] This is not to say that the men themselves are not 'good' individuals, with the exception perhaps of the predatory Uno, whose unpleasant facial characteristics are matched, Lombroso like, by an equally unpleasant disposition. However, these individually worthy men largely seek brides to act as carer, nurse, or domestic, that is, in the roles required of wives by the patriarchal hegemony. Of course, the women the men take as brides will exercise agency. However, they will almost inevitably also collide with the discursive expectations placed upon them that work to undermine that agency. In this respect, Wan-chan's prospective brides are subject to a double bind of constraints operating in both China and Japan. For, as we read on, we find that it is patriarchal discourses in rural China that have largely motivated the women to attend the evening's gathering. The 'catch-22' facing these women lies in the fact that, while marriage to a Japanese man might free them from gender constraints operating in China, it will be at the cost of subjection to the gender discourses of Japan. Thus the women must express their agency within a web of social and cultural controls in both sites.
  18. When discussing education and employment options available to Chinese women, Fan and Huang observe that a woman in China is 'defined in relation to others: first, to her father, then to her husband, and, in old age, to her children.'[55] While noting that patriarchal attitudes are now less evident in urban China, these researchers maintain that 'women in rural areas continue to be subject to sociocultural constraints' impinging on their labour market options.[56] Fan and Huang further cite a range of scholars who argue that 'the economic reforms of the late 1970s, especially the Household Responsibility System, have deepened the concept of marriage as a transaction, undermined women's status and left practices of patrilocality and patriarchy unchanged.'[57] In addition to gender issues, it is likely that that China's hukou registration system, which, although less rigid than in the past, continues to place restrictions on permanent movement from a person's registered place of residence, is a factor in the decision of Wan-chan's clients to look for a husband in Japan. Mobo Gao, who has extensively researched social conditions in rural China, notes the disadvantage accruing through this system to both women and men resident outside metropolitan areas.[58] While Fan and Huang clearly articulate the difficulties facing women in rural China, they also point out that marriage which involves migrating to a distant place can give women the opportunity to shake off the constraints of rural registration. Thus they observe that 'marriage is not an uncommon strategy for disadvantaged women seeking to move to places where they may improve their well-being.'[59]
  19. Of the fifteen women gathered in the provincial reception hall, the 'Wan-chan' narrative gives specific attention to four. The first is a vibrant young woman whose grandfather is the head of the local village association and who appears to have many qualities of appeal to local men. However, while not stated explicitly, a desire to escape the registration limitations of her current home is certainly a possible motive for this seemingly eligible young woman's decision to offer herself to a less than impressive collection of Japanese men. The second woman profiled is a widow who miraculously suffered no injuries when the motor cycle driven by her husband of three days on which she was a pillion passenger collided head on with a truck. Since her husband was killed instantly she is now regarded as a bad luck wife. The community response to this woman's experiences invokes the issue of non-Western enlightenment-style knowledge, a point to which I will return later in the discussion. The third profile given is that of a woman who, at 36, is the oldest in the group. Abandoned by her husband after giving birth to a girl, in spite of support from her mother-in-law, she now seeks marriage in Japan. The final figure featured is a good-looking but melancholy young woman also discarded after failing to produce a son. The stuttering Yamauchi is instantly smitten by her beauty. Upon hearing this, the young woman timidly asks Wan-chan, who is translating for her clients, if Yamauchi will want a child and, if so, wouldn't that disqualify her from becoming his wife. While she is able to have children, the gendered discourses of her community judge her not giving birth to a boy as a form of cultural infertility.
  20. While it is in the interests of her trade to facilitate the language barrier separating her clients Wan-chan goes well beyond the profit principle in her business dealings as a marriage broker. Given that there are unsympathetic women and extremely sympathetic men, it is not useful to categorise modes of behaviour as either masculine or feminine. Nevertheless, socialisation and the gendered division of labour result in women often being deployed, for example, as teachers, nurses and secretaries and thereby attending to the day to day functioning of society. Thus women, through the benefit of repeated practice, are often highly receptive to the needs of those around them. Wan-chan is sympathetic to the circumstances of these women from China rendered unsuitable as brides for local men through arbitrary gender norms. She also feels a strong sense of responsibility since the women have paid a fee for her services and thus expresses her determination to find partners for her clients.
  21. The protagonist's commitment in this respect is worthy of further analysis. Wan-chan's own situation in Japan is far from ideal. She has a morbidly taciturn, sexually incompetent husband and, with the impending death of her mother-in-law, there is little incentive for her to remain in Japan. She would therefore appear to be an unlikely advocate for marriage between women from China and men from Japan. However, in the same way that she has a 'sense' for customer preferences in the clothing trade,[60] she clearly has a 'sense' that moving away from their current locale may provide opportunities for her clients. On first glance this might seem to suggest a China/Japan dichotomy, the representation of some sort of backward, patriarchal China contrasted against a developed, enlightened Japan. As Naoki Sakai observes, modern Japan has delighted in particularising China in the same way that the West particularised the East as a site against which to establish its own advanced 'universal' values.[61] Notwithstanding the author's Chinese background, is the rural Chinese setting, then, a pitch on the writer's part to a readership primed to feel a sense of superiority towards China while also, in line with classic Orientalism,[62] finding such a site endearing?[63] In other words, should we see this as an attempt to exoticise the Chinese setting for Japanese readers? Such an interpretation is not sustained by the text which, as noted, also presents the lack of facilities in the Japanese provinces and the operation of various insidious forms of Japan-style patriarchy. The latter is particularly evident through the representation of Wan-chan's brother-in-law who, in addition to tormenting Wan-chan, uses his incapacity to virtually enslave his mother.

    Women, mobility, diaspora and nation
  22. Rather than being emblematic of negative elements of their present location, I would interpret the mobility imperative facing these prospective brides more as an expression of the nomad status of growing numbers of women in the globalised world. Delia Davin has discussed the circular movement of many migrants in China and noted that women do not necessarily emigrate to one place, there to take root. [64] Rather, she observes, the registration system ensures that they move away to later return home. However, for some women, especially those judged as transgressing local gender norms, return home may not be an option. The imperative for at least three of the women assembled in this remote rural reception hall, in spite of the difficulties associated with mobility, is to leave their current circumstances to seek opportunities denied to them locally. If difficulties arise in the new site, as occurred in Wan-chan's case, further movement always remains an option. Significantly, this mobile lived experience directly contradicts the discourses which position women as eternally homebound and longing for release. On the contrary, these women yearn for the peace promised by the great fiction of modern patriarchy, the protective warmth of the hearth and home.
  23. The theme of a desire for life-change as a motive for both migration and marriage resonates through a number of studies on women, marriage and migration. We have already noted Fan and Huang's observations regarding the liberatory possibilities presented for women in China who marry and move some distance from their registered place of residence. In her study of Filipina wives in Japan, Nicole Piper, too, noted a similar motive on the part of some woman interviewed for her project. One, in particular, having experienced difficulties at home because she worked abroad as an entertainer, explained:

      I wanted to do away with my former life...So, I decided to make a change for a new life. The number one purpose was not for money, but because I wanted a new life. What is so bad is that I did not think over [sic] first.[65]

    This woman encountered difficulties as the wife of a Japanese man. However, it was not the decision to marry per se she regretted but rather her choice of partner. Given a second chance, she would repeat her decision to mobilise and make a permanent break with her original home through a marriage in Japan.
  24. If, as Nakamatsu and Piper argue, women who enter Japan from overseas to marry are migrants as well as brides, they can also be thought of as part of a wider movement of diaspora. Arif Dirlik, while noting the possibilities (and dangers) inherent in the notion of diaspora, also acknowledges that there are 'good historic' reasons for regarding diaspora as 'displacement and loss.'[66] From a slightly different perspective, in his analysis of post-colonialism and diasporic space in Japan, Korean background scholar, Kang Sang-Jung, cites James Clifford's observation that 'what gives meaning to Diaspora is the fact that the ties to the "motherland" are imagined as a result of living elsewhere.'[67] Kang's invoking of Clifford's motherland reference reminds us of the connection between diaspora, as the term is used in postcolonial discourse, and the entity of the nation, a point confirmed in Dirlik's discussion referred to above.[68]
  25. However, even a perfunctory reading of the 'Wan-chan' text confirms that this woman experienced the 'displacement and loss' Dirlik associates with diaspora long before she decided to leave her homeland.[69] We might therefore consider the extent to which women who come to Japan as brides have the ideological desire to construct an image of a 'motherland,' inspired by nationalistic discourses, to offer solace in their hours of need in a new land. Some migrant brides might be susceptible to these discourses. The so-called 'picture brides' from Japan who moved to various sites around the Pacific and North America, for example, were despatched to settlements of Japanese immigrants that, at least at the time of the women's arrival, were 'seen as extensions of communities or regions in Japan.'[70] However, rather than moving as part of a national group, the women featured in Yang's text will come to contemporary Japan as isolated, single individuals. It is therefore questionable whether any sense of Clifford's nationalistic motherland is invoked as a result of their living abroad. This is in spite of the fact that, like the women in Nakamatsu's study, Wan-chan's prospective brides are likely to be othered as 'mukō no hito,' women (literally, people) from over there, or by other expressions which mark them 'differentially and racially as non-Japanese.'[71] While they might seek companionship with women from their own national community, the nationalistic potential of such gatherings will surely be elided by everyday concerns and the desire for sympathetic human contact. Wan-chan's situation is one of total isolation. In recounting the circumstances of her name, for example, she reflects on how 'starved for affection' she must be to feel warmth when referred to by a name that recalls the sound of a barking dog.[72] Her lengthy telephone calls to her mother in China undertaken to fill the empty evening hours have little to do with connecting with a national presence. They are a more fundamental act of reaching out for human warmth, emotional sustenance, and sympathetic contact. This lack of a companion offering emotional engagement is the source of her deep distress upon realising that her ailing mother-in-law is passing away.
  26. In Nationalism and Gender feminist sociologist, Ueno Chizuko, demonstrates the fraught nature of nationalist discourses for women both inside and outside Japan.[73] Woman's excision from the national project of post-war Japan is evident, too, in Kang Sang Jung's discussion of 'the democratic public sphere' and the post-war space of the nation-state Japan. Here Kang explains how national entities operate on a 'structure' of exclusion, including a 'patriarchal mode of domination based on gender difference.'[74] Without wishing to standardise the experience of women across sites, Fan and Huang's material referred to above indicates that, in spite of very different specificities, discourses in China operate on similar principles of exclusion. For women, a 'place' in the motherland is always, paradoxically, largely dependent on their acquiescence to the male script. This is a script that excludes the feminine voice except under strictly controlled conditions. Women who seek independence without also conforming to significant aspects of the masculine script are inevitably cut loose from the considerable benefits that accrue to those with membership of the nation and its patriarchal practices.[75]
  27. In this respect, it is arguable that women such as Wan-chan or her clients ever, in fact, had a place in the 'homeland.' In her isolation, firstly in China and then in Japan, all spaces are unheimlich. Early in the narrative attention is drawn to Wan-chan's 'floating weed' (ukigusa) lifestyle, that is, to her life as an itinerant.[76] This point is emphasised in a particularly poignant section of the text which discusses Wan-chan's first contact, when learning the language of her new country, with the Japanese word rōnin. Used in the past for a wandering samurai without a lord, the characters for this word literally mean 'wave person.' Wan-chan reflects on her response to this expression as she strolls around the streets of Beijing, where her party of would-be grooms makes a brief stopover on its return to Japan:

      Some things never changed and she had always spent time wandering aimlessly around the town as she was doing now. The word in Chinese was 'piao bo'[77] which was similar to the Japanese word 'rōnin.' Her chest tightened when she first saw the word in Japanese. She didn't need to ask the meaning: those two characters perfectly reflected her own life which she'd given over to being washed back and forth by the waves. In the past and present, both in China and Japan, she would wander around the town, with an empty gaze and nowhere to go in particular…She'd been to all sorts of different places and lots of things had changed – but there was always the same empty gaze, the same vacant head, the same feeling of isolation and helplessness, the same numbed senses. And always, just like today, she would wander around with the thought repeating over and over in her head that she might just disappear into the darkness somewhere.[78]

    In addition to marking the protagonist's isolation, the passage demonstrates the irrelevance of the space of the nation state of either Japan or China for a migrant wife who has substituted one unsatisfactory home for another. The 'loss and displacement' of diaspora clearly were embedded deeply in Wan-chan's lived experience long before her arrival in Japan.
  28. In a 1988 discussion comparing mainly western wives in Japan and Nigeria, Anne Imamura noted the isolation of foreign wives who came to Japan 'as lone members of their society,' rather than as 'products of mass migration.'[79] Referring to Paul C.P. Siu's classic 1952 sojourner study,[80] Imamura concluded that foreign wives shared many sojourner characteristics in that they often had no place in their new land. To the extent that she feels no ties binding her to her current home, Wan-chan, too, might be considered a sojourner, suggesting that, regardless of ethnic background, little changed for foreign wives in Japan in the two decades that elapsed between Imamura's study and the publication of the 'Wan-chan' text. The isolation of Yang's protagonist is surely exacerbated by the fact that she separated from her son when the boy was merely an infant. This does not imply an essentialist interpretation of motherhood as a state necessary for feminine fulfilment. Her dismay and sadness upon meeting the boy for the first time in five years come not from any sense of maternal loss but from the more pressingly pragmatic realisation that the young man before her will replicate the selfish, inconsiderate behaviour of his father. This knowledge generates a deep sense of desolation when, as she changes the diaper of her bed-ridden mother-in-law, Wan-chan realises there will be no one to tend to her own self in that way when she is aged.[81]

    Women who trade
  29. Wan-chan's personal isolation invokes the isolation of other women traders. Like the business concerns of many women, her bridal brokerage is a relatively small operation. However, she has been involved in 'a long life of trading,'[82] and at the height of her achievements operated on a much larger scale. Her entry into the workforce at fifteen was followed by the opening of markets and China's emergence from its 'long years of gloom,' a reference to fashion practices as much as an allusion to political restriction. It was, therefore, a time when people 'hastily discarded' the 'national uniform of the people' and, regardless of 'how unstylish or poorly made,' any new fashion 'leapt off the shelf.'[83] Eager to take the initiative, Wan-chan established herself as a clothing retail trader operating both street stalls and boutique corners in department stores. However, like many women, she discovered that social factors related to gender limited her capacity to trade or to compete successfully in an ever-expanding market.
  30. Finding herself married to a promiscuous man, Wan-chan faced the painful pressure imposed by societies which valorise patriarchal desire at the expense of a woman's right to respect. Her husband's aversion to work, too, was a grave liability since it forced Wan-chan to act as an isolated trader rather than one who could operate with the benefits of a partner. As a result, like many women traders, she was obliged to oversee and implement single-handedly most aspects of her business. Other clothing traders working with spouses, family members or friends were able to share the burden of, for example, operating a store and needing to travel to purchase stock. However, Wan-chan had no option but to leave the conduct of the store to managers who pocketed the profits during her absence. Struggling with an unmanageable workload and incremental exhaustion, she began to make calculation errors that reduced her earnings. Her situation was compounded by the fact that any profit she did make seemed to inevitably find its way to her former spouse. Not surprisingly, she developed a tendency to migraines.
  31. Had she been a man, Wan-chan would almost certainly have been able to enlist the assistance of a wife, a supportive entitlement available to men but without which women are forced to operate. Even with a 'good' husband, that is one who works diligently and is faithful to the marriage, few women have the cultural authority to deploy a male partner in a manner regarded as acceptable for a man to deploy a wife. Many women traders operate under this disadvantage which surely contributes to the concentration of women in small-sized businesses that can be managed successfully alone. As early as Adam Smith's paternalistic inquiry in the nature and causes of the wealth of nations,[84] market principles have depended on the dehumanisation of labour and the reduction of human beings to exchange commodities. However, we have already seen from Wan-chan's activities as a marriage broker that she considered her clients as more than mere goods to be traded. Her determination to find husbands for the women marginalised by local gender practices and her efforts to facilitate her male clients' choice of partners are undoubtedly intended to maximise financial gain. She is, after all, a trader. However, she also performs these services sensitively and with due attention to the feelings and interests of all parties concerned.
  32. Regardless of structural disadvantages they might face, many women traders have the benefit of a community or at least of operating in a feminised environment. We should not romanticise communities, which, as Zygmunt Bauman has convincingly argued, have the potential to become sites of exclusion and stagnation.[85] Nor can we argue that communities of women are exempt from the sorts of distortions to which Bauman refers. Nevertheless, feminine communities can often offer solace and comfort for women merely on the grounds of common topics of conversation. Although she has family and business contacts willing to help at critical points, Wan-chan's mobility seems to have prevented her from developing a community of mutual support. Furthermore, since she operates in a gender discourse reluctant to judge the transgressive male negatively, even her hard work and diligence have limited social value in the face of her manipulative previous partner's wiles. When the father of her child appears one day in her office, their son at his side, and suggests a reconciliation, her colleagues urge her to consider:

      As [her ex-husband] left the office, leading their son by the hand, Wan-chan's fellow workers gathered as if to surround her.
      'Wow, is that your former husband? He's good looking, isn't he?'
      'Will the two of you get back together? You should probably think about the boy, you know.'
      'What made you get a divorce?'
      Wan-chan slumped in the chair like a rag doll. But the questions continued to rain down on her head like hail…Her dream burst like a bubble into the air.[86]

    It is this incident which leads Wan-chan to decide that the only way to escape her former partner is to leave the country. Once in Japan, however, while free of her first husband, Wan-chan's community diminishes to the sphere of her uncommunicative second husband and her ailing mother-in-law. Her only other solace lies in long telephone conversations to her mother in China.

    The country/city divide
  33. The one option offered of companionship for Wan-chan, and then immediately closed, is her friendship with one of the men who accompanies her to China. This is the courteous and well-presented vegetable farmer, Tsuchimura, who seeks a wife to assist both with his small business and with the care of his aging mother. Tsuchimura is a pivotal figure in the text who, while confirming various stereotypical representations of Japanese men seeking foreign wives, simultaneously works to interrogate these. His presence also works to rehabilitate rurality and to invest notions of 'backwardness' associated with that site with a highly productive and positive dimension. From the time of his first appearance in the text at the function introducing the prospective brides and grooms in rural China there are indications of Tsuchimura's worth. He is polite (reigi tadashii)[87] and of great support to Wan-chan during the minor crisis when one of the men in the party is stranded in a brothel in the Chinese capital. While the rather repulsive fifty-five year old Uno insists on choosing one of the youngest women as a bride, Tsuchimura's main concern is to find a partner able to provide practical assistance to his family and who, the text implies, will become his companion. In a meeting with his mother, Wan-chan learns that Tsuchimura was once married to a woman who could be a female version of Wan-chan's errant Chinese husband, an element which, although fleetingly, provides leverage against an essentialist interpretation of only women as injured parties in relationships.
  34. Tsuchimura's principle interest in life revolves around the vegetables he grows and sells. THis is an interest he perhaps inherited from his mother, who, until stricken recently with the immobility of old age, commenced each day exchanging greetings with the produce growing in the yard behind the family market garden stall. Yang's depiction of Tuschimura's bucolic leanings and this eccentricity in particular manages, paradoxically, to greatly enhance the man's appeal. His appearance and physique—Wan-chan is particularly taken by his large hands—conform in many ways to stereotypical representations of hegemonic masculinity. However, his loving relationship with his mother and the sincere respect and eventual affection he demonstrates towards Wan-chan mark Tsuchimura as a man who can function without the discursive props of the patriarchy relied upon by many males (and some women). Unfortunately, the fact that he is legally married to another woman, still in China, by the time the pair realise their mutual interest forbids the upright Wan-chan from pursuing the relationship.
  35. Tsuchimura can be read as a valorisation of the countryside, a reading that might cause concern given the appropriation of the non-urban Japanese landscape by advocates of the country's pre-war imperial project.[88] Profiling rural Japan can suggest an essentialist appeal for a return to a pre-modern utopia, a figment of the modern nationalist Japanese imagination. These concerns might be heightened by author Yang Yi's statement that one of her favourite Japanese writers is Yanagita Kunio,[89] the doyen of Japanese folklorists, whose pre-war writings located the essence of Japan in the rural margins.[90] Yanagita's thoughts were subsumed into the national agenda and became part of the cultural scaffolding of the pre-war regime. However, this text, with its unstable narrative space hovering between China and Japan, also critiques the non-urban setting through, among other things, the representation of Wan-chan's Japanese husband and brother-in-law. While not denying the negative potential of rurality, the text's profiling of Tsuchimura simultaneously suggests the possibility of a worthwhile life unmediated by the excesses of globalised society in the non-industrialised surroundings of the provinces. That this promise is in tandem with gender injustice and exists parallel to, in China at least, a knowledge system that marks a young woman survivor of a fatal motor cycle accident as a bad luck wife is one of the paradoxes of the text.

    Pre-modern knowledge
  36. Returning to China to reclaim their brides, Wan-chan's clients are alarmed to find that a group wedding has been arranged. The depiction of this ceremony further profiles the contradictory elements of the rural space while also profiling a knowledge system that contests the logocentric obsessions of the industrialised world. While the village has judged the women expendable in terms of marriage norms, the local community nevertheless puts considerable effort into ensuring a celebratory atmosphere for the ceremony. The reception hall is festooned with red banners featuring the character for double happiness often displayed at weddings in China while, in order to prevent bad luck accruing to the couples, the village head asks Wan-chan to facilitate the traditional 'hazing' of the brides and grooms by local youth. Chinese wedding attire is distributed to the grooms from Japan so that, to Wan-chan, they 'look exactly Chinese men from the 1940s.'[91] Furthermore, because of the cost involved to the community, oxen rather than cars are provided for the grooms to lead their brides to the ceremony. In a scene that borders on a parody of the visual representation of traditional China made famous by director, Yang Yimou, the text provides a vivid description of the bridal procession and the face, glimpsed through a fluttering veil, of a bride riding side-saddle on an approaching ox. In spite of various comic touches, should we interpret this, too, as the exoticisation of the Chinese countryside for a Japanese readership?
  37. Notwithstanding the Orientalist imagery deployed, Prasenjit Duara's comments on the rise of religion in the post-Mao era in China suggest alternate readings.[92] Duara cites Ann Anagnost's discussion of the revival of temple cults in the later decades of the twentieth century and associated attempts to re-appropriate public spaces formerly controlled by the state. Viewing this revival as an example of on-going contestation over 'symbolic space' that is 'never won or lost,' Anagnost, as Duara notes, importantly argues that these sorts of local traditions are 'retrievable in a way that re-invents them in the context of contemporary concerns.'[93] We have seen the marginalisation of the country side in Chinese registration practices. Furthermore, as noted by Mobo Gao, China's recent economic advances have failed to benefit rural regions.[94] Thus the bridal procession in Yang Yi's novel can be seen as part of a wider strategy by the residents of areas excluded by the State to endow the practices forced on them by economic necessity with symbolic and cultural meaning. Duara also cites Elizabeth J. Perry's notion of the new interest in religion being a revival of family and lineage practices generated by the diminishing of Chinese Communist Party influence.[95] However, he also acknowledges Helen Siu's interpretation that '[t]he proliferation of ritual display can be seen…as a utilitarian and individualistic strategy of the new generation to cope with the burgeoning market economy.'[96] It is likely that both factors are operating in the cultural accoutrements attached to the wedding ceremony in Yang's text. Importantly, in terms of how we read this text, Duara concludes that '[p]opular religion does not reflect an “eternal" China.'[97] The pre-modern image of brides being led on oxen notwithstanding, the meaning of the wedding is firmly located in the here and now of the twenty-first century. The dragooning of five apprehensive Japanese men into this ritual performance in China further undermines any sense of exotic Chinese essentialism.

    Women from China and men from Japan
  38. No discussion of the activities of women from China and men from Japan in whatever context can proceed without invoking the spectre of Japanese Imperial Army war-time atrocities towards Chinese women, particularly after the July 1937 outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War.[98] As we have seen above, Yang Yi's text presents a selection of images of Japanese masculinity. It is easy to imagine, for example, the Uno character, who in the early twenty-first century clearly regards young women in China as commodities for his consumption, striding across the continental landscape in late 1937 violating women atrociously without the least concern. Narratives by post-war novelist, Takeda Taijun, dealing with Imperial Army war crimes in China suggest that younger ambivalent males were pressured by older men into sexual violence as a perverted form of masculine rite of passage.[99] We see a faint suggestion of this possibility in Uno's targeting Suzuki, the youngest of the Japanese men visiting China to find a wife, as an accomplice in his sexual antics in Beijing. However, the text also presents the appeal of Tsuchimura whose 'goodness' counterbalances Uno's excess. In addition there is the pathetic representation of Wan-chan's husband's sexual performance which surely makes the Japanese man a laughing stock and figure of contempt. His grotesquely clumsy attempts at intercourse destabilise any masculine imperative for absolute power over women inherent in sexual violence.
  39. It is grossly inappropriate to make claims about time erasing memory of war crime.[100] It is also inappropriate, as various comfort women advocacy associations have noted, to dismiss the atrocities committed towards women, and men, by the Japanese Imperial Army as an aberration of war. This is a move which absolves both the authorities and the individuals involved of accepting responsibility or making amends for their brutality.[101] However, the 'Wan-chan' text does suggest that, at the level of the everyday, these imperatives do not preclude productive relations between individual women from China and men from Japan. Wan-chan is drawn strongly to Tsuchimura's warmth and humanity. Thus, rather than positioning him as a representative of an invading force that raped and murdered Chinese women, she feels deep affection for this Japanese farmer. The debates concerning Imperial army atrocities towards women in the various theatres of the Greater East Asia War must be kept in the public eye and justice unerringly sought. However, Yang Yi's narrative investigates the possibility that this does not necessarily prevent a woman from China meeting a man from Japan who can offer a depth of feeling the woman has been unable to find in her country of birth.
  40. Ultimately, the text is silent on whether the relationship between Wan-chan and Tsuchimura could endure the political contingencies of contemporary Japan China relations. Duara explains with respect to Lydia Liu's analysis of narratives by the young woman novelist, Xiao Hong (1911–1942), set in north east China in the era of the Japanese Occupation, that women's bodies are not only violated by invaders.[102] In Field of Life and Death,[103] Xiao Hong clearly depicts the brutal threat presented to Chinese women by the invading Japanese forces. However, Duara notes how Liu observes, in an argument that resonates with the issues raised in the preceding discussion on women's exclusion from the nation, that:

      [N]ationalism in [Xiao Hong's] novel, comes across as a profoundly patriarchal ideology that grants subject-positions to men who fight over territory, possession and the right to dominate. The women in this novel, being themselves possessed by men, do not automatically share the male-centred sense of territory.[104]

  41. As Liu points out, the Chinese woman in this novel is raped by a Chinese man.[105] This occasional blurring for women of the categories of national ally and physical assailant is a point that I have made earlier with reference to a semi-autobiographical work, 'The woman who fulled clothes,' by Korean-Japanese writer, Ri Kaisei.[106] Although a heavy shadow of Japanese oppression hangs over this text, set in Japanese-occupied Sakhalin in the winter before the end of the Great East Asia War, direct physical violence towards the child-protagonist's mother is perpetrated not by Japanese officials but by her Korean husband.

  42. Yang Yi's narrative is a critical work in the contemporary cultural landscape of Japan. Firstly, in a scholarly and popular environment 'obsessed' with a 'Sino-Japanese polarity,'[107] this text provides a woman-centred, grass-roots lens through which to view that discourse. While it may not completely collapse this polarity, Yang's work suggests ways in which China and Japan, and other binaries, are both similar and different. Furthermore, the text provides a rare cultural representation of a woman who trades. Wan-chan should not be regarded as an 'everywoman' for women who conduct their own businesses. Nevertheless, she certainly provides insights into a number of characteristics shared by many women traders. She is entrepreneurial, seeking opportunities for business exchange and taking advantage of these. In this sense, she is clearly an example of the agency and active subjectivity of the women featured in Tomoko Nakamatsu's study of overseas brides in Japan. Equally, however, her considerable talents are constrained by gender discourses which, although they involve different specificities, operate commonly in both China and Japan.
  43. Accordingly, the text requires us to consider how we might theoretically manage the need to balance the presence of both agency and constraint in discussions of women from our own or other backgrounds. We have also seen from this narrative that, for many women, hegemonic discourses relating to notions such as nation and or diaspora are, if not irrelevant, then much less important than issues of face-to-face, day-to-day life. However, even though the patriarchal underpinnings of these discourses exclude women, we have also seen that in the globalised world an increasing number of women face an imperative for mobility and the isolation this can bring. Yang Yi's text concludes with the death of Wan-chan's mother-in-law. It is unclear whether the protagonist will return to China or remain in Japan. Nonetheless, we can be almost certain that, as has been the case until the present time, trading will remain a part of Wan-chan's life and that her 'long life of business' has not yet ended.


    [*] On Tuesday 15 July 2008, it was annouced that author Yang Li had won the Akutagawa Prize in Japan to become the first Chinese to receive the prestigious literary award. Her winning text, Toki ga nijimu asa (A Morning When Time Blurs), written in Japanese, is set during and after China's democratisation movement and is centred on the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. See The Japan Times Online, 16 July 2008, online:, accessed 16 July 2008.

    [1] See, for example, Muta Kazue, 'Kindai kokumin kokka to feminizumu' in 'Posuto'-feminizumu, ed. Takemura Kazuko, Tokyo: Sakuhinsha, 2003, pp. 78–93.

    [2] These trades are not confined to women. As this article is being finalised 54 Burmese workers, including 36 women, 17 men and an eight-year-old girl, died of suffocation in a poorly ventilated truck in which they were trying to flee the Burmese junta into Thailand. See Maarwan Macan-Markar, 'Thailand: Suffocation of 54 Burmese workers – no surprise,' in IPS News-net, 12 April 2008, URL:, site accessed 12 April, 2008. In some cases the woman's body is a cultural rather than an economic commodity as discussed in Lori Handrahan's article on the relationship between ethnicity, gender and violence in the bride-kidnapping practices of Kyrgyzstan. Lori Handrahan, 'Hunting for Women,' in International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 6, no. 2 (2004):207–33.

    [3] Yang Yi, 'Wan-chan,' in Bungakukai, vol. 611, no. 7 (July 2008):26–60. The English language internet Chinese news service, China View, gives the name of the text as 'Wang-chan,' modifying the Chinese surname from the Japanese pronunciation “wan' to 'wang.' However, I will retain the Japanese rendering in this discussion. See 'Chinese author nominated for one of Japan's top literary awards,' in China View, 7 January, 2008, online:, site accessed 8 April. The narrative did, in fact, win a 2007 literary newcomer prize awarded by the journal given above.

    [4] I have made a deliberate decision in this article not to discuss either Yang Yi's use of Japanese in this article or comments make by the Akutagawa Award selection panel regarding this. I wish to pursue these points in a future discussion on the mother, the mother tongue and nationalism. Selection panel comments can be found at 'Dai 138 kai Heisei 19 nendo shimohanki Akutagawa Shō kettei happyō: Akutakawa Shō senpyō,' in Bungei shunjû, (March 2008 special edition):336–41.

    [5] Knight cites Satō to say that as early as the 1930s, problems of bride shortage had emerged in some remote regions of Japan. See John Knight, 'Municipal matchmaking in rural Japan,' in Anthropology Today, vol. 11, no. 2 (April, 1995):9–17, p. 9. The cited material is Satō Takao, Mura to kokusai kekkon (The Village and International Marriage), Tokyo: Hyōronsha, 1989, pp. 25–26. Several scholars, including Knight, note that the bride crisis which emerged in the 1970s accompanied Japan's emergence as an economic super-power.

    [6] Nakamatsu Tomoko, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' doctoral thesis awarded, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia, 2002, p. 7, available at Murdoch University Digital Thesis Program, URL:, site accessed 6 April, 2008.

    [7] Knight, 'Municipal matchmaking in rural Japan,' p. 11; Fujimoto Nobuki, 'International marriage in Japan and human rights of foreign wives,' online, site accessed 8 April 2008. This site has a doc version. This reference is page 2 of the doc version.

    [8] John Knight, 'Municipal matchmaking in rural Japan,' p. 10.

    [9] Central Intelligence Agency, 'Rank order – total fertility rate,' in The World Factbook, online:, site accessed 8 April 2008.

    [10] Knight, 'Municipal matchmaking in rural Japan,' p. 12.

    [11] Fujimoto, 'International marriage in Japan and human rights of foreign wives,' p. 1.

    [12] See, for example, Kamoto Itsuko, The Emergence of 'Kokusai Kekkon': On Becoming a 'Civilised Nation' – Kokusai kekkon no tanjō, Tokyo: Shinyōsha, 2001.

    [13] Fujimoto, 'International marriage in Japan and human rights of foreign wives,' p. 2. Fujimoto also notes that enforcement of this legislation is questionable.

    [14] Fujimoto, 'International marriage in Japan and human rights of foreign wives,' pp. 7–8.

    [15] Biographical background information given for author, Yang Yi, is taken from Tomoko Otake, 'Bridging an East Asia divide,' in Japan Times, Sunday 3 February, 2008, online:, site accessed 7 April, 2002. Here the author notes that she has had no experience of the marriage broking business and that the idea for the story came from her imagination and also inquiries from brides from China to the Chinese language newspaper where she formerly worked.

    [16] A web-based report by judging panel member, Ikezawa Natsuki, indicates that Yang Yi was the second choice of the judging panel. See Ikezawa Natsuki, 'Koe no aru yō na buntai,' online:, site accessed 1 June, 2008. The information is given on the first page of the article. The winning story is a coming of age story of mother daughter tension and a girl coming to terms with the changes to her body by blog writer and indie singer, Kawakami Mieko, entitled 'Chichi to ran' (Breasts and Eggs). See Kawakami Mieko, 'Chichi to ran,' in Bungei shunjū, (March 2008 special edition):352–99. It was inspired, according to the author, by iconic late nineteenth century Japanese writer, Higuchi Ichiyō (1872–1896), whose most famous narrative, 'Takekurabe' (1895–1896, literally, Comparing Heights), is the story of a girl growing up on the edges of Tokyo's Yoshiwara red light district in Meiji Era (1868–1912) Japan. There is debate over whether the references to body changes in this story refer to the protagonist's first period or first (involuntary) sexual experience. For Kawakami's comments on Higuchi, see Kawkami Mieko, 'Ie ni wa hon ga issatsu nakatta,' in Bungei shunjū, (March 2008 special edition):342–51.

    [17] The most famous statement of this kind occurred in 1986 when then Prime Minister of Japan, Yasuhiro Nakasone, notoriously claimed that the Japanese average IQ was higher than that of the United States because Japan was a mono-ethnic race undiluted by peoples, such as African Americans or Latino background people, from other parts of the world. See Sherick A. Hughes, 'The convenient scape-goating of Blacks in post-war Japan: shaping the Black experience abroad,' in Journal of Black Studies, vol. 33, no. 3 (January, 2003):335–53, p. 337.

    [18] For a discussion relating to the 'difficulties' of the Japanese language and whose interests this discourse serves, see Roy Millar, Japan's Modern Myth: The Language and Beyond, New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1982.

    [19] Foreign Rights News page of Iwanami Shoten, unauthored website review of A Room for Writing Japanese by Hideo Levy, URL:, site accessed 10 April 2008. The site also notes that in making this move, Levy thereby disproved 'the myth that nationality, race, language, and culture are one and the same.'

    [20] These are largely the children and grandchildren of Korean people who came to Japan in the colonial era and who were born and educated in Japan.

    [21] Chin Shunshin's Murder in a Peking Studio is available in English translation. Chin Shunshin, Murder in a Peking Studio, Tempe, Arizona: Center for Asian Studies, Arizona State University, 1986. Chin's narratives often have a historical setting involving China. The work cited here is set in Peking on the eve of the Russo-Japanese war.

    [22] Ryoko Tsuneyoshi, 'The "new" foreigners and the social reconstruction of difference: the cultural diversification of Japanese education,' in Comparative Education, vol. 40, no. 1 (February, 2004):55–81. For example, on page 62 of this discussion, Tsuneyoshi notes the diverse spread of cultures in Japan with the observation that the range of 'newcomers' alone 'includes everyone from an adult foreign worker from an Islamic country to a Brazilian child growing up in Japan.'

    [23] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 28.

    [24] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 28.

    [25] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 43.

    [26] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 40.

    [27] See Mikhail Bakhtin, 'Dosteyevsky's polyphonic novel and its treatment in critical literature,' Problems of Dostoyevsky's Aesthetics, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, Chapter 1, pp. 5–46. The work, first published in 1929, is also known as Problems of Dostoyevsky's Art and, among a wide range of issues, examines Dostoyevsky's texts as spaces for the dialogic voices of a range of characters.

    [28] For a comprehensive and highly scholarly account of the instability of the protagonist-narrator relationship in modern Japanese narrative, see Tomi Suzuki, Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1997.

    [29] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 31.

    [30] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 31.

    [31] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 27.

    [32] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 28.

    [33] The group recalls the collection of rather socially inept characters who gathered for dance lessons in the 1996 Suo Masayuki movie Shall We Dance (not to be confused with the later Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez Hollywood remake of the same name).

    [34] Knight, 'Municipal matchmaking in rural Japan,' p. 14.

    [35] Nakamatsu Tomoko, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan.'

    [36] Nakamatsu, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' p. 16. The full details of the Pedraza citation are S. Pedraza, 'Women and migration: the social consequences of gender,' in Annual Reviews Sociology, no. 17 (1991):303–25, p. 305.

    [37] Nakamatsu, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' p. 20.

    [38] Nakamatsu, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' p. 20.

    [39] Nakamatsu, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' p. 21. The specific reference is to T-D. Truong, 'Gender, international migration and social reproduction: implications for theory, policy, research and networking,' in Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, vol. 5, no. 1 (1996): 27–52, p. 47.

    [40] Nakamatsu, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' pp. 21–22.

    [41] Knight, 'Municipal matchmaking in rural Japan,' p. 17.

    [42] Knight, 'Municipal matchmaking in rural Japan,' p. 17.

    [43] See both Chandra Talpade Mohanty, 'Under western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourses,' in boundary 2, vol. 12, no. 3 (Spring–Autumn 1984):333–58; and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 'Can the subaltern speak?' in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, Urbana, Ilinois: University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 271–313.

    [44] Nakamatsu, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' p. 24. The reference is to Sherry B. Ortner, Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, p. 12.

    [45] Nakamatsu, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' p. 17.

    [46] Nicole Piper, 'International marriage in Japan: 'race' and 'gender' perspectives,' in Gender, Place and Culture, vol. 4, no. 3 (1997):321–38, p. 321. Piper's discussion concerns women who have come to Japan in some other capacity, such as entertainer or hostess, and who marry a Japanese man they meet after arriving in Japan.

    [47] C. Cindy Fan and Youqin Huang, 'Waves of rural brides: female marriage migration in China,' in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 88, no. 2 (June, 1998):227–51, p. 228.

    [48] Delia Darvin, 'Women and migration in contemporary China,' in China Report vol. 41, no. 1 (2005):29–38.

    [49] 'New program to boost women in the workplace,' in Japan Times, Wednesday 9 April, article 1 of 6 in business news, online:, site accessed on 10 April, 2008.

    [50] See former PM Nakasone's comments given in endnote 17 for disparaging comments about minority groups outside Japan. Current governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintarō, has made a litany of offensive statements about minority groups in Japan, including the claim made to self defence forces that, in the event of natural disaster in Tokyo, their major task would be to protect the city from an uprising of resident 'third country nationals,' a derogatory term used, as Ayako Doi notes, to refer to Chinese and Korean people resident in Japan. See Ayako Doi, 'Review: Japan's right stuff?' in Foreign Policy, no. 122 (Jan-Feb, 2001):88–89, p. 89. Sonia Ryang also refers to this claim by Ishihara. See Sonia Ryang, 'The denationalised have no class: the banishment of Japan's Korean minority – a polemic,' article 1137 in Japan Focus, June 8, 2008, endnote 21, online:, site accessed 20 June, 2008.

    [51] Nakamatsu, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' pp. 8–9.

    [52] Nakamatsu, 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' p. 22.

    [53] Fuminobu Murakami, The Weak, Despised and Lowly: Reading Against Power in Japanese Literature, manuscript currently under review.

    [54] The original citation details are given in endnote 51.

    [55] Fan and Huang, 'Waves of rural brides: female marriage migration in China,' p. 233.

    [56] Fan and Huang, 'Waves of rural brides: female marriage migration in China,' p. 233.

    [57] Fan and Huang, 'Waves of rural brides: female marriage migration in China,' p. 230.

    [58] Mobo Gao, 'The great wall that divides the two Chinas: the rural/urban disparity challenge,' in China's Challenges in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Joseph Y.S. Cheng, Hong Kong: City of Hong Kong Press, 2003, pp. 533–57.

    [59] Fan and Huang, 'Waves of rural brides: female marriage migration in China,' p. 229.

    [60] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 41.

    [61] Naoki Sakai, 'Modernity and its critique: the problem of universalism and particularism,' in South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 7 (Summer 1988):475–504.

    [62] Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Pantheon, 1978.

    [63] One of the tenets of Said's theory of Orientalism is the fact that while the 'other' is regarded as inferior it is nonetheless fascinating.

    [64] Davin, 'Women and migration in contemporary China.'

    [65] Piper, 'International marriage in Japan: 'race' and 'gender' perspectives,' p. 328.

    [66] Arif Dirlik, 'Intimate others: [private] nations and diasporas in an age of globalization,' in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 5, no. 3 (2004):491–502, p. 492.

    [67] Sang-jung Kang, 'Post-colonialism and diasporic space in Japan,' in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (2001):137–44, p. 142.

    [68] Dirlik, 'Intimate others: [private] nations and diasporas in an age of globalization,' p. 491. Dirlik, while noting the potential of diaspora to dismantle the hegemony of the nation, argues here that 'the nationalism in diaspora discourse is often noted but not elaborated on,' a matter he sets out to remedy in the discussion cited.

    [69] From a slightly different perspective, we might also note here, in the context of movement as a response to circumstances for which there is no other option, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's observation that 'from the standpoint of many around the world, hybridity, mobility, and difference do not immediately appear as liberatory in themselves.' See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 154.

    [70] Millie Creighton, 'Review of Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada,' in Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol. 29, no. 3 (Autumn, 1998): 596. The book reviewed is Tomoko Makabe, Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada, North York, Ontario: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1995.

    [71] Nakamatsu , 'Marriage, migration and the international marriage business in Japan,' p. 15.

    [72] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 28.

    [73] Ueno Chizuko, Nationalism and Gender, trans. Beverley Yamamoto, Melbourne: Trans-Pacific Press, 2004.

    [74] Kang, 'Post-colonialism and diasporic space in Japan,' p. 138.

    [75] From a slightly different perspective we might here note the comment by Ehara Yumiko in her essay giving a feminist perspective to modernity as this concept is famously theorised by Maruyama Masao, one of the intellectual giants of post-war Japan. Ehara notes the following: 'On the one hand, modern consciousness and normative values purport to define women as human beings and reject sexual discrimination, but on the other, they define men as the standard for human beings and recognise women as a special privilege only when they fit these masculine standards.' See Ehara Yumiko, 'A feminist view of Maruyama Masao's modernity,' in Contemporary Japanese Thought, ed. Richard F. Calichman, New York, Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 56–69, p. 61.

    [76] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 28.

    [77] I would like to thank Yuri Furuno for noting that this word has the sense of the English term 'flotsam.'

    [78] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' pp. 36–37.

    [79] Anne E. Imamura, 'The loss that has no name: social womanhood of foreign wives,' in Gender and Society, vol. 2, no. 3 (September 1988):291–307, p. 293.

    [80] Paul C.P. Sui expanded on the notion of 'sojourner' in a rather dated but nonetheless very interesting 1952 article: Paul C.P. Sui, 'The sojourner,' in The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 58, no. 1 (July, 1952):34–44.

    [81] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 47.

    [82] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 28.

    [83] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' pp. 27–28.

    [84] The reference here is to Adam Smith's classic text An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776. An electronic version of this work is available at, site accessed 11 April, 2008. This reference is used as a metaphor for the origins of neo-liberalism, in spite of debate about the precise degree of Smith's culpability in that respect.

    [85] Zygmunt Bauman, Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001.

    [86] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 42.

    [87] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 30.

    [88] For a brief discussion on Watsuji's ideas, see Julia Adeney Thomas, Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001, pp. 201–02.

    [89] Otake, 'Bridging an East Asia divide.' Wang also gave Okamoto Kanoko (1889–1939) as another of her favourite Japanese authors.

    [90] For a discussion of Yanagita's ideas see Shun'ichi Takayanagi's discussion entitled 'Yanagita Kunio' in Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 9, no. 3 (Autumn 1974):329–35.

    [91] Yang, 'Wan-chan,' p. 55.

    [92] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 112–13. These comments are given in his conclusion to a discussion on the campaign against religion in early modern China.

    [93] Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, p. 112. The citation is for Ann S. Anagnost, 'The politics of ritual displacement,' in Asian Visions of Authority: Religion and the Modern States of East and South East Asia, ed. Charles F. Keyes, Laurel Kendall and Helen Hardacre, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994, p. 245. (No article pages provided in Duara's citation.)

    [94] Gao, 'The great wall that divides two Chinas and the rural/urban disparity challenge.'

    [95] Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, p. 112. The citation is for Elizabeth J. Perry, Rebels and Revolutionaries in Northern China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980.

    [96] Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, p. 113. The citation is for Helen Sui, 'Re-cycling rituals: politics and popular culture in contemporary rural China,' in Unofficial China: Popular Culture and Thought in the People's Republic, ed. Perry Link, et al., Boulder, Colarado: Westview Press, pp. 121–37.

    [97] Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, p. 113.

    [98] This date marks the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which occurred in the outer suburbs of Beijing on 7 July, 1937.

    [99] Barbara Hartley, 'Contesting the authorised textbook in Japanese post-war narrative and visual texts,' in Creating a Future Past: China–Japan Relations in the 21st Century, ed. Michael Heazle and Nick Knight, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Press, 2007, pp. 93–110, p. 100.

    [100] As an example of these crimes in China, readers are directed to the 2001 documentary film, Riben guizi (Japanese Devils) directed by Minoru Matsui. Here aging ex-members of the Japanese Imperial Army recall various atrocities in which they were involved in the China theatre of war. These activities were not confined to China. Hideko Mitsui reproduces the transcript of the Tokyo District court testimony of Filipina woman, Tomasa Salinog, who recalled how, at the age of thirteen, she was forced to become a 'comfort' woman (girl) for members of the Japanese armed forces after seeing her father beheaded before her eyes. See Hideko Mitsui, 'The politics of atonement and narrations of war,' in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 1 (2008):47–61, pp. 49–50.

    [101] Mitsui, 'The politics of atonement and narrations of war,' p. 53. Here, Mitsui discusses the debate over the role of the Japanese government funded NGO, Asian Women's Fund, set up to offer compensation to women forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Army. She notes the argument that: 'By way of representing the plight of the survivors as a natural outcome of the war that victimized the Japanese and non-Japanese alike, the AWF's narration of the war severs the otherwise logical link between the 'so-called comfort women' and Japan's responsibility for compensation.'

    [102] Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, p. 11.

    [103] Hsiao Hung, The Field of Life and Death and Tales of Hulan River, trans. Howard Goldblatt and Ellen Yeung, Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1979, pp. 1–110. Hsiao Hung is the Wade-Giles romanisation of Xiao Hong, which is the pinyin version of the author's Chinese name.

    [104] Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, p. 11. The citation originally appears in Lydia Lui, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture and Translated Modernity China, 1900–1937, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995, p. 199.

    [105] Lui, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture and Translated Modernity China, 1900–1937, p. 199. This is also cited in Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, p. 11. The rape scene in the novel occurs when the young woman, Golden Bough, travels from her village to Harbin to earn some money for her impoverished family. See Xiao Hong, 'The field of life and death,' in The Field of Life and Death and Tales of Hulan River, pp. 98–99.

    [106] Ri Kaisei, 'Kinuta wo utsu onna,' (The woman who fulled clothes), presentation given at April 2006 Asian Studies Association Conference, San Francisco. The text referred to is: Ri, Kaisei, Kinuta o utsu onna (The woman who fulled clothes), Tokyo: Bungeishunjūsha, 1972.

    [107] The terms in inverted commas are adapted from the title of Atsuko Sakaki's book, Obsessions with the Sino-Japanese Polarity in Japanese Literature, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006.


Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 28 July 2008 1245

This page has been optimised for 1024x768
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.