Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011

Reflections on Interviewing Japanese
Female Members of Parliament

Emma Dalton
  1. This paper reflects upon interview experiences with Japanese female members of the national parliament, the Diet. As Nirmal Puwar, who interviewed female members of the British Westminster Parliament has noted, feminist interviews with women MPs do not fit neatly into either feminist methodology or elite methodology literature.[1] The power dimensions played out between interviewer and interviewee are complex because of the elite status of the interviewer and the common gender of interviewer and interviewee. The consideration of the complexities involved in a relatively young white female researcher interviewing elite female politicians in Japan will, by suggesting the importance of country-contextual considerations for feminist reflective work, add an additional layer to the little that is known about issues that arise when feminists interview elite women politicians. Specifically, by discussing how my experiences interviewing female members of the Diet were affected by cultural and social hierarchical norms that govern Japanese social interactions, I aim to make an important addition to existing feminist methodological literature on interviewing elites. In this essay I will explore the subjectivity of my status as white, young student researching elites in Japan, the accessibility of those elites, the power balance between me and informants, particularly during the interviews, and the feminist ideal of creating rapport with research subjects.

    Research on elite female politicians in Japan
  2. Elites have not been the subject of many feminist projects, nor have they received vast amounts of attention from social scientists more generally. The difficulties accessing elites is a major problem—barriers, such as their secretaries, and the very nature of their positions which warrant being called 'elite,' that surround elites put many researchers off from the beginning.[2]
  3. While some qualitative research guides contain reflections on interviews with elite people there are minimal reflections of a feminist nature about interviewing elites.[3] One exception is Puwar who has reflected on her experiences interviewing female members of the British Westminster Parliament.[4] As Puwar notes, there are few reflective accounts of space negotiation that occurs between the interviewer and the female political elite. As far as I know, there are no reflective accounts of interviews with members of the Japanese Diet. To the best of my knowledge, the only other English-language research based on extensive interviews with female members of the Japanese parliament is produced by Joyce Gelb.[5] She has not published a reflection of her experiences perhaps because her research tends to be less analytically feminist and more concerned with raw data. This serves its purpose well and her research is rich in empirical data. Nevertheless, the absence of any reflection on interviewing elites is conspicuous not only in Gelb's work, but in research surrounding Japanese politicians in general both in English in Japanese. The richest objective source of data from interviews with female Diet members is found in publications by the Non-Profit Organisation, the Ichikawa Fusae Memorial Association.[6] The articles that appear in their monthly publication, Josei Tenbō (Women's Perspective) are similar to Gelb's work in that they are dense in data and furthermore, as they appear on a regular basis, provide up-to-date information. The Associations' writers Kubō Kimiko and Yamaguchi Mitsuko have produced a vast amount of extremely important data about female Diet members, but have not written reflexively about their own experiences. Political scientist Ōgai Tokuko has conducted ethnographic research with local female politicians and has written thoughtfully and insightfully about their experiences.[7] Similarly, local female politicians have also been the subject of research by Japanese feminist scholars such as Kaya Emiko and Sasakura Naoko.[8] Susan J. Pharr's groundbreaking work on politically active women in Japan contained a brief reflection on her experience in gaining access to her informants.[9] She focused on politically active women rather than female members of parliament and as a result her informants were young women with different circumstances to elite members of the Diet. Robin M. LeBlanc's work also focuses on grass-roots political activism, although some of the members of the organisation she researched progressed to national-level politics.[10] Feminist reflections on interviewing Japanese female members of the Diet are rare in both English and Japanese.
  4. Puwar observes that reflecting upon interviews with female parliamentarians involves incorporating both feminist and elite interview theory.[11] Combining the two helps highlight the flaws in existing studies. For example, it is possible to expose contradictions within elite interview studies due to uncontrollable and unpredictable elements such as informant personalities, and also to illuminate the difficulties of building 'sisterly bonds' with elite women.[12] In contrast to feminist interviewing, during which there is an expectation on the interviewer to attempt to eliminate the hierarchy that presumably exists between the powerful interviewer and comparatively powerless interviewee, reflections upon elite interviews have pointed out that power during the interview process is more likely to lie with the interviewee rather than the interviewer. The remainder of this article reflects on interviews with elite Japanese women and demonstrates how this was generally the case when interviewing Japanese female political elites. I also aim to show that cultural and social hierarchical codes which dictate social etiquette in Japan prevented me from heeding some common feminist interview methodology advice, such as creating a cosy atmosphere and maintaining ties with the interviewee.[13] The ideas presented in this paper will hopefully open the way for more feminist reflections on interviewing elite women in non-Western countries that incorporate country and culture-specific analysis of why and how power shifts between interviewer and interviewee.

    Background to Study
  5. From September 2007 to February 2008, I conducted interviews with seventeen female members of the Diet as part of my PhD fieldwork.[14] My PhD was a consideration of the under-representation of women in the Diet with a particular focus on the effects the gender ideology and party culture of the former government party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has on female representation. Fourteen of the women I interviewed, one of whom had retired, were from the LDP and the remaining three were from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Interviews were semi-structured, open-ended and lasted from 29 to 65 minutes. The interviews with current Diet members were conducted in the member's Diet office in the political precinct of Nagata-chō in Tokyo. The interview with the former LDP (female) member was conducted in the office of her current place of employment. All interviews were recorded.
  6. My reason for focusing on women from the LDP was that although institutional and structural barriers have often been identified as major hurdles for politically ambitious women in Japan,[15] political parties have not been scrutinised adequately in the literature as one of those institutional barriers. Apart from nine months in 1993–94, and until the most recent election in August 2009, the LDP had held consecutive governments since its inception in 1955, and has always had the lowest representation of women in the Diet. Of the 200 current LDP Diet members, only nineteen are women. This compares with sixty-two women out of the DPJ's 425. Other political parties, such as the Social Democratic Party and the Japan Communist Party who have a very small total membership in the Diet also have higher total proportions of female members than the LDP. LDP women did particularly poorly in the 2009 Lower House election—their numbers dropped to a mere eight, now accounting for less than 7 percent of total LDP Lower House membership. In other words, LDP men occupy more than 90 percent of all LDP Lower House seats. Interviewing women from the LDP was an attempt to learn what LDP women themselves regard as specific obstacles to women's participation in the Diet, what possible measures they perceive might help to solve the problem, and their experiences in the party as women, including sexual discrimination. Political parties have been identified as having significant power in terms of accessibility to politics for women.[16] On the basis of research that argues that political parties act as 'gatekeepers' to obstruct increased female representation, the LDP's perception and treatment of women within the party must be interrogated.
  7. I decided to focus on interviewing women largely because of limited time and access to the Diet offices. I wanted to interview as many women as possible, so in order to maximise that possibility I approached mainly women. I believed that interviewing women in the party rather than a random sample of both women and men was more likely to produce a picture of the gendered characteristics of the party's culture and show how this culture impinges on women trying to enter the world of politics as well as women who have already entered. In short, I wanted to know how the LDP operates as an institutional barrier to increased female political representation and believed that asking women about their experiences in the party would give me some answers. As positions of authority in the LDP are generally occupied by men, ascertaining men's views on the under-representation is an important step in looking for answers to the problem of female under-representation in the Diet. From what little is known about men's opinions on the issue, LDP men seem unperturbed by the situation. For instance, Yamaguchi Mitsuko, who worked on the board of the Prime Minister's Office Council for Gender Equality is generally dismayed with the attitudes of many men in the LDP concerning female representation—she notes further that LDP men are 'completely uninterested' in discussing gender quotas to counter the problem.[17] Moreover, the under-representation of women in the Diet is not even regarded by some men as a problem, as was revealed during a conversation with a male LDP Diet member during fieldwork.
  8. Interviewing women who have left the LDP or did not get into the LDP would have been another, much more difficult, but perhaps better way of discovering how obstacles within the LDP operate. In fact I did attempt to obtain an interview with Tanaka Makiko, who affiliated with the DPJ after effectively being sacked from the LDP in 2002, but my request was declined.

    Outsider status: young, foreign, white 'student'
  9. I was inferior to my research subjects on a number of levels easily identifiable without yet delving into the cultural aspects of Japan's social hierarchy. I was: younger (I was 30 years old at the time of interviewing, and in some cases more than a generation younger than informants), in some cases not as well educated, and I was speaking in my second language while they spoke in their first. By contrast, much feminist research is concerned with giving voice to those who have been marginalised and often belong to communities of lower socio-economic standing than the researcher and as a result, almost all feminist reflective accounts are concerned with negotiating how to empower the researched.[18] Feminist researchers engaged in such work, therefore, are concerned with negotiating how to interview people (usually women) with less education, less money and less social capital in general than themselves without reinforcing oppressive class and/or racial hierarchies. With regards to class, although the current financial situations of informants were naturally more positive than my own student status, our middle-class backgrounds were generally very similar. Although informants occupied a higher social status than I do, the gap was perhaps not as large as exists in many research projects where, for example, the feminist researcher from an industrialised country 'interviews down' and interviews women in developing countries. In general, my educational background and social class were similar to those of my informants.
  10. Analysis of the relationship between foreign student and elite Japanese interviewee reveals several significant cultural aspects of 'interviewing up'. A student in Japan is situated quite low on the social hierarchy. There is quite a clear discursive delineation between the lifestyles of students and non-students, or shakaijin. A shakaijin is literally a 'person of society'—in general, someone who is no longer a student. The normative life course in Japan is directed towards becoming a shakaijin. Compared with shakaijin, students have fewer responsibilities and therefore receive less respect. Student life is regarded as more relaxed than adulthood, as adulthood entails the pressures and responsibilities of marriage, family and employment. Indeed, compared with adulthood, as Louis D. Hayes suggests, '[t]he years of higher education for students are more like a vacation than a time of serious study.'[19]
  11. However, my position as a student in Japan was more likely to attract paternalism amongst politicians than disrespect—I was on my way to becoming a shakaijin and my informants were helping me on my way. Several months into my fieldwork I noticed that I was being introduced by some people (such as the local councillor at whose office I did an internship) as a ryūgakusei—an 'international student'. Having been a ryūgakusei at the age of seventeen and then again at nineteen in Japan, I realised the connotations of the term. That is, I believed that I would not be taken as seriously as I would like to be if I identified as a mere ryūgakusei. I wondered why people introduced me as a ryūgakuseiwhen I made sure to introduce myself as a 'graduate student' (daigakuinsei). Was the distinction between the two terms in English not as clear in Japanese? Being called a ryūgakusei made me feel as though I was a child again and evoked in me great despair at 'not being taken seriously.' At the forefront of my mind was the knowledge that I only had eight months to complete my fieldwork and that I could not afford to miss any opportunities because of people misinterpreting my status. As has been documented by others,[20] access to elites is difficult—their time is limited and they are guarded by secretaries—so I wanted to make the most of my time in the field. I therefore stopped introducing myself as a 'graduate student' and began to introduce myself as a 'research student' (kenkyūsei). A fellow foreign research student suggested I drop that title too and introduce myself as a 'researcher' (kenkyūsha). I decided against this believing it would be dishonest and unethical, because although technically I was a researcher, this would imply that I was not a student. I am not sure how successful my tactic of introducing myself as a research student was because I was well into my fieldwork by that stage. Furthermore, I found that people generally called me whatever they wanted to call me regardless of how I introduced myself. A young white woman conducting research in Japan is probably automatically assumed to be a ryūgakusei. This highlights once more the significance in Japan of age and position—specifically, perceived age and position—in the normative life course with regards to how one is regarded by informants and acquaintances. I imagine that if I return to Japan in the future for research as an 'older' white woman I will not be assumed to be a ryūgakusei.
  12. My approach to contact potential informants was to send a letter to their Diet office and telephone the office a few days later. To my surprise and delight the first two women I contacted responded positively. These first two informants, however, turned out to be exceptions to the rule, and my 'success rate' was low: I was only able to interview thirteen LDP women out of the total forty-one with whom I requested interviews.

    Difficulties of access: making connections and stumbling into 'walls'
  13. It has been suggested by many that the primary difficulty in interviewing elite people is gaining access to them.[21] My difficulties in gaining access to female LDP Diet members support the existing literature on interviewing elites. Having some sort of personal or professional connection with the research subject makes access substantially easier. Although I did not have any connections with my interview subjects, my advisor, from a university in Tokyo, had met some of the women I wanted to interview. He wrote a letter of introduction for me to include in my initial correspondence with the MPs. It soon became apparent, however, that my advisor did not have a strong connection with them. The rate of positive reply I received from those who received his letter was no higher than the rate from those to whom I had not sent his letter (when I had not yet met my advisor).
  14. I attempted other avenues to create 'connections'. The Tokyo mother of a Japanese friend I had in Sydney introduced me to a male Diet member who was the LDP national member for her constituency and seemed to value her loyalty. He listened earnestly to my study topic and said he would try to secure an interview with two women LDP members with whom he was on good terms due to their similar political philosophy. From this I gained one very valuable interview. It was then that I decided to begin a political internship with a local LDP councillor. This proved to be more successful and I gained two very fruitful interviews with female LDP Diet members to whom the local councillor introduced me, and I also had the educational experience of spending time with an LDP local councillor.
  15. In short, 'connections' were extremely difficult to create, and they resulted in a small number of interviews. Perhaps if I had spent more than eight months in Tokyo, I would have been more successful in expanding those connections. In fact, during the last month of fieldwork, I interviewed six LDP women and one DPJ woman—almost half the total number of interviews I conducted over eight months. This highlights how important the luxury of time can be in fieldwork.
  16. With the absence of strong connections, sheer persistence can sometimes pay off. Yet, as has been noted in the elite methodology literature, elite people tend to be very busy and also have a 'wall' that divides them from the broader public. This wall is made up of secretaries and other staff. In my experience, in many cases getting past the secretaries was a major hurdle. One particular secretary told me when I called the office to ask whether the member could spare some time for an interview that he had not shown her the letter I had sent because 'frankly, I don't understand what it is you want.' The purpose of interviewing a female politician because she was a female politician in the LDP seemed meaningless for this secretary. I explained what I wanted over the phone but he remained unconvinced saying that the member only did 'that sort of thing' when it was for the 'public good' and my interview would apparently not serve that purpose.
  17. I was also told quite often by secretaries that the ministers 'get so many of these requests' which surprised me because as far as I know, apart from the extensive work of the Ichikawa Fusae Memorial Association, and research by Sally Ann Hastings there has been no academic research devoted to women in the Diet.[22] Diet members and their secretaries generally did not appear to differentiate between journalists and academics—all interviews with them on the basis of their being women were regarded as the same. This finding echoes other researchers' experiences.[23] I got the distinct impression from both those who rejected my request and some of those who accepted that requests for interviews because they were women were frequent, and for some, very annoying. Perhaps it was annoying for many because they were sick and tired of being in the spotlight for being women—for them I represented yet another person with an unoriginal interview topic. For example, one member, who, after consistently saying no, eventually acquiesced, advising me (via her secretary) to come back to her after I had changed my topic. Naturally I could not change my entire thesis topic to gain an interview with an individual woman. However, I was very keen to speak to her so I re-worded my request. I do not know if it was my persistence or the newly phrased request that brought success, but seven months after I had initially requested an interview with her, and two weeks before my return to Australia, she said yes. My interview with her was the shortest at 29 minutes and was conducted with other people in the room, including, towards the end of the interview two newspaper journalists who had later appointments with her. Control of the interview was almost completely in her hands. To be sure, the power shifted to me, the researcher, only after the interview was completed during data analysis and subsequent publication.[24]

    Power displays by elites in interviews
  18. Several incidents before and during this interview underscored the power structure between this particular informant and me, highlighting her position of superiority. For example, despite changing the interview time several times beforehand to suit her schedule, she was 15 minutes late, thus allowing less than half an hour for the interview. At one point during the interview, I was mid-sentence when she asked one of her secretaries (who were in the room) which of the pieces of bread on the table she could eat. She did not like my line of questioning about party factions and told me that foreign researchers are too concerned with factions and 'that's why they make no progress.' Approximately half-way through the interview, two journalists entered the office, were introduced to me, and remained there quietly talking to each other for the duration of the interview. She was visibly disinterested in many of the interview questions; she told me 'I don't remember what I meant' when I asked her about a comment in one of her publications, and she told me to hurry up. These not-so-subtle signs reinforced the power hierarchy between elite and student and had the effect of 'putting me in my place.'[25]
  19. This particular interview experience is mentioned here because it was an extreme case. Apart from a few other women who also exercised their power through language and expression, with comments such as, 'You weren't even born then,' the majority of informants, particularly those relatively new to politics were not concerned with power display. In stark contrast to the above example, two women even thanked me for showing an interest in them. These two women had been in office less than a year and one of them said I was the first request she had received from an academic. Another woman said at the end of the interview, 'That was fun,' suggesting that opportunities to speak about gender (in)equities in parliamentary life might be scarce for her.

    Controlling the interview: (not) confronting the status difference
  20. I had prepared a semi-structured interview schedule which I had hoped to use in all the interviews. Due to time constraints, I could not ask every informant every interview question. I also discovered that many were prone to monologues and sometimes I had great difficulty interrupting. Their careers as politicians had seemingly allowed them to develop a fluid talking style averse to interruptions. They are used to having people interested in their opinions and used to people deferring to them. They are inclined to 'just talk.'[26] It was sometimes very difficult to stop them and progress to the next question—an urgent necessity given the rush most informants seemed to be in. Formalities that dictate social interaction in Japan made it impossible to continue 'holding the tape recorder and asking questions whilst they were getting up and moving away,'[27] as might be possible in other cultures. In fact I did not have the chance to do so, for the Diet member was always too polite to stand up and walk away—it was implicit that I would eventually conclude the interview and turn the recorder off when told that we were out of time. Susan A. Ostrander suggests that it is important for researchers to confront the status difference between researcher and researched and not be overly deferential.[28] According to her, this gains the respect of the elite interviewee and allows the interviewer to maintain some control over the situation. This is perhaps not such good advice in Japan where status difference should not be confronted but maintained. This is more likely to gain the interviewee's respect. In my own experience I found it necessary for myself to confront the status difference and come to terms with it in my own mind in order to feel more relaxed during the interviews. With time I ceased seeing the informants as 'elite' and lofty women who appeared on television and who were much more eloquent, elegant and confident than me and started to see them as ordinary people. This, however, is not the same as 'confronting the status difference.' Unlike Ostrander, who surprised her informants by outwardly demonstrating control,[29] I found it necessary to outwardly defer to informants. In particular, as an 'outsider' to Japanese society, failure to do so would suggest to the women that I had not taken the time to study Japanese social conduct and this would make them less likely to respect me. I exercised enryo, or restraint, in my relationships with informants to hopefully show them that I was not taking advantage of their hospitality. In choosing to show enryo, 'one holds back with the idea that one must not presume too much [amaeru] on the other's good will.'[30] In other words, I believed that because we did not know each other and because I was benefiting from the informants' consent to be interviewed, I needed to show enryo. As Takeo Doi explains in his influential text on Japanese behaviour, enryo is generally absent in familiar relationships, but becomes increasingly necessary the less intimate the relationship.[31] An individual exercises enryo because they fear 'that unless one holds back, one will be thought impertinent and disliked accordingly.'[32] This is exactly the reason I exercised enryo—so that informants did not think I was rude and consequently refrain from contributing to open discussion. My decision to exercise enryo in the short-lived relationships I had with the informants was based on a belief that doing so would facilitate smooth communication.
  21. Lenore Lyons and Janine Chipperfield argue that in contrast to claims made by many interviewers that creating bonds over shared experiences can produce 'successful' interviews because informants are more relaxed, when interviewing elite women, informants are more likely to have respect for an interviewer who does not attempt to enter their world.[33] I too got the sense that because of their tight schedules, the women I interviewed appreciated it when I got straight to the point. During one attempt to chat about the informant's experience raising a baby while in office, I was told to hurry up and get to the important questions because we were running out of time. This particular informant was at pains to show me what an imposition I was on her busy schedule—she was almost half an hour late and when she finally did arrive we practically ran up the stairs to the meeting office. My comment about the perceived difficulties of combining a demanding career in politics with raising a baby was an invitation to her for further discussion on this topic, and not mindless chit-chat. The informant, however, seemed to interpret it as irrelevant and perhaps a trespass into her private world which she was not interested in talking about. Although I came away from the interview disappointed and regarded that particular incident as a failure on my part to control the interview and obtain 'successful' data, the interview has become an important one to reflect upon in analysing the interview process with LDP women. In this way, 'success' then becomes a much broader notion.

    Building rapport with elites: supplication over familiarity
  22. The advice from many feminists with regards to the benefits for interviews of self-disclosure[34] and the creation of 'sisterly bonds'[35] was generally impossible to heed. Or more to the point, understanding the hierarchical nature of Japanese interpersonal relations and where I was positioned within the social structure it as a student compared to informants, I went into the interviews with no aspirations of building sisterly bonds with informants.
  23. It is necessary to discriminate between simple rapport building which involves some small talk and general courtesy, and what Shulamit Reinharz, and Susan E Chase call 'intense bonding' building which would involve, for example, the researcher attempting to find a common point between herself and the informant, or narrating some of her own experiences or opinions in an effort to create a bond with the informant.[36] The former is necessary in any interview, as part of any normal communication or interaction. The latter, however, that some feminists argue is important for feminist interviews, is a deeper relationship and more complicated than simple rapport. By sharing my interview experiences, I hope to show that in some circumstances, simple rapport building is not only sufficient, but better for the interview process than is attempting to create 'intense bonding.' Lyons and Chipperfield argue that notion of 'sisterly bonds' between researcher and respondent ignores the possibility of the interviewee's ability to control the interview, and more dangerously neglects the agency of the interview subject.[37] Rosalind Edwards also found that rather than attempting to find common ground between herself and her informants, acknowledging the differences between them was more conducive to the interview process.[38] My interviewing experiences echo these findings and suggest that attempting to create a friendly relationship or intense bonding with informants is not only unnecessary, it is sometimes detrimental to the interviewing relationship.
  24. In one case I attempted to create a bond by mentioning that I had spent a year's student exchange at the high school affiliated to the university from which the informant had graduated. The interviewee responded politely with a smile and a comment that cut right through my attempt to open up the possibility of shared experiences: 'That's what we have in common.' That was all we had in common. Not only were our backgrounds, ages and races different, most of the informants had—not surprisingly—conservative views on many things. Sharing my opinion in these cases would have had the opposite effect of creating a sisterly bond—on the contrary it would have created tension and possible hostility. My purpose in interviewing them was not to become their friends but to hear what they had to say. Any attempt to engage in debate with them may well have jeopardised the interview process and left me with a less-than substantial interview, or worse still, they may have retracted their consent altogether to include their opinions in my research.
  25. At any rate, not many women were interested in hearing what I had to say. There were, of course, some exceptions. One woman asked me why the birth rate in Australia had risen recently. After I gave my opinion on the matter I said that the birth rate in Australia was 'not that much higher' than Japan's. The informant then attempted to include me in her lamentation of the current social climate where the 'beauty of motherhood,' that is, our 'primary roles as animals to give birth to and raise children,' is not properly understood by women. I was not confident enough in my language ability or my knowledge in the area to engage in a debate about this topic without possible negative consequences. I therefore kept my silence and neither agreed nor disagreed with her. In this way, I did not 'open up' to her invitation for discussion on a topic that I was sure we would disagree on.
  26. Despite this, I did manage in some cases to build simple rapport, distinct from 'intense bonding'.[39] In some instances, I was able to build rapport by mentioning that I had visited the informant's constituency. Sometimes, but very rarely, the rapport-building was initiated by the informant by asking me something about Australia. One informant asked me if 'Wollongong' was an Aboriginal word. This, however, was always the most basic of rapport and usually lasted a few sentences before we 'got back into business.' Moreover, although I use feminist methodology for this research, I did not use the word feminism in my interactions with informants. Knowing that some members of the LDP oppose feminism I did not take the risk of enlightening interviewees to the theoretical framework of my study. LDP members are not the only ones to avoid associating with feminism—the words feminism (feminizumu) and feminist (feminisuto) in Japan generally have negative mainstream connotations and for this reason, even those who do not oppose feminism are leery of deploying the terms in reference to themselves.[40] In this way, 'opening up' to my informants was something I avoided. I do not intend to make a feminist critique of women in the LDP and have no intention of deceiving them. Nevertheless, in order to gain as much information as possible from as many people as possible, I believed it was necessary to avoid openly stating the feminist agenda of my research. At any rate, even without explicitly mentioning 'feminism,' my honest and thorough explanation of my purpose for interviewing them was quite obviously feminist in its focus on women and the issue of female under-representation in the Diet.
  27. I have mentioned that attempting to control the interview by confronting the status difference is not necessarily good advice in Japan. I also quickly learnt that showing respect for and deference to informants was more likely to engender a 'cosy' atmosphere conducive to conversation than was attempting to be their friends. Strict hierarchies govern Japanese society, and this is very apparent in politics where Diet members are addressed as sensei—a title reserved for those who occupy respectable positions in society, such as doctors and teachers. For a graduate student to assume familiarity with a member of the Diet would be unwise. Rather than creating opportunities for the interviewee to 'open up,' it would more likely have the effect of inducing the informant to close down and produce polite but less-than substantial responses to interview questions. Instead I took Kim England's advice and performed my feminist interviewer role as a 'supplicant' by acknowledging my reliance on the interviewee's co-operation to provide me with information about their lived realities.[41]
  28. In this respect, my experiences have shown that when the power imbalance lies in the interviewer's favour, the feminist interview technique of creating rapport based on shared experiences will not necessarily work, and may be ill-advised depending on the cultural context.
  29. This is often because the power is not always with the interviewer, but also because of cultural codes of behaviour and conduct. As I have shown, in cases where the researcher is 'interviewing up' power is likely to be in the hands of the interviewee for much of the time. Furthermore, in a society like Japan where individuals' positions on the social hierarchy are generally adhered to for smooth and successful social interactions, particularly when there is great disparity in those positions, attempting to 'bond' with an elite informant would be counterproductive. The great disparity in social positions between me and the members of parliament meant that I adopted deferential and respectful language (keigo). Extremely polite language in Japanese can be very difficult, and despite my best attempts, I undoubtedly made mistakes. Indeed, on one occasion I was taken aside by a Tokyo LDP local councillor and admonished for being abrupt and failing to lower my head when introducing myself to a Lower House member at a book signing. However, I was perhaps able to get away with more linguistic and behavioural faux pas than a native Japanese researcher would have been, as the expectations of the language abilities of white non-native Japanese researchers tend to be lower.[42]
  30. I did not maintain communication with any of the informants. I attempted to contact one informant after our interview to enquire about a promise she had made to escort me to a committee meeting. I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised to be told by her secretary that she would 'look into it' and 'don't call us, we'll call you.' As already mentioned, for most informants, despite their polite demeanour, my interview was probably an imposition on their schedules and they were uninterested in pursuing the relationship any further. It would be an unusual politician who offered their time and energy for no reward. So, as is obvious by now, most informants did not appreciate any attempt of mine to open up or engage in a more relaxed-style interview. Formality and manners were preferred by most women with whom I spoke. While some seemed genuinely pleased for the opportunity to talk about being a woman in the LDP, the majority did not seem to want to chat extensively. To be sure, some women were friendlier than others and at least one of them told me things she has probably not told many others. But this was more to do with the content of the interview questions that any closeness that was created between us. The vast majority of interview subjects were extremely busy and my interview with them was an inconvenient imposition.

  31. Being at ease during the interviews was for me, related to my perception of myself in relation to the informants. This involved a change in perception of the women from elite people who lived worlds apart from my own to one that regarded them as ordinary women. This change in perception did not, however, affect my conduct with them. Because of social codes that dictate relationships in Japan it was necessary that my outward treatment of them maintain deference to their elite and superior social status. Acknowledging our status difference and overtly expressing gratitude and supplication for their time and effort was essential for smooth and successful communication between us.
  32. This paper has attempted to demonstrate the importance of considering country-specific cultural and social codes when theorising about feminist and elite interviewing methodology. Specifically, I have attempted to show that contextual factors including cultural and social expectations and norms play a major part in the possibility, and the necessity of creating rapport with informants in feminist interviews. Creating rapport of the 'intense bonding' type was not an option for me during interviews with female members of the Japanese parliament. Supplication that took the form of a display of respect, good manners, enryo and an appreciation of the informants' time were far more important in the interview process in my experience.


    [1] Nirmal Puwar, 'Reflections on interviewing women MPs,' in Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1 (1997), URL:, site accessed 13 December, 2008.

    [2] Rosanna Hertz and Jonathon B. Imber, 'Introduction,' in Studying Elites Using Qualitative Methods, ed. Rosanna Hertz and Jonathon B. Imber, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1995, pp. vii–xi, p. viii.

    [3] Teresa Odendahl and Aileen M. Shaw, 'Interviewing elites,' in Handbook of Interview Research: Context and Method, ed. Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 2001, pp. 299–316; Hertz and Imber (eds), Studying Elites Using Qualitative Methods. I don't understand this reference. Are you referring to their Introduction?

    [4] Puwar, 'Reflections on interviewing women MPs.' Karen Ross has also reflected on her interviews with female MPs in Australia in 'Political elites and the pragmatic paradigm: notes from a feminist researcher–in the field and out to lunch,' in International Journal of Social Research Methodology, vol. 4, no. 2 (2001): 155–66.

    [5] Joyce Gelb, Gender Policies in Japan and the United States: Comparing Women's Movements, Rights, and Politics, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; Joyce Gelb, 'The politics of backlash in Japan,' in American Political Science Association Meeting, Chicago, Illinois, 2004, URL:, site accessed 27 November 2008; Joyce Gelb and Margarita Estevez-Abe, 'Political women in Japan: a case study of the Seikatsusha network movement,' in Social Science Japan Journal, vol. 1, no. 2 (1998): 263–79; Joyce Gelb, and Marian Lief Palley, Women of Japan and Korea, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

    [6] Interviews with LDP women appear relatively frequently in party publications such as Riburu and Gekkan Jiyūminshū.

    [7] Tokuko Ōgai, The Impact of Women in Politics (Josei to Seijisanka), Tōkyō: Seirishobo, 2005; Ōgai 'Josei mogi gikai to iu josei seisaku' ('Evolution of women's simulation assembly: A case study of women's political participation'), in Nenpō Seijigaku "Sei" to Seijigaku (The Annual of Japanese Political Science Association: Sex and Politics) (2003), pp. 113–37.

    [8] See Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow and Astsuko Kameda (eds), Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present, and Future, New York: The Feminist Press at The University of New York, 1995.

    [9] Susan J. Pharr, Political Women in Japan: The Search for a Place in Political Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981, pp.188–95.

    [10] Robin M. LeBlanc, Bicycle Citizens: The Political World of the Japanese Housewife, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

    [11] Puwar 'Reflections on interviewing women MPs.'

    [12] For arguments about the importance of creating 'sisterly bonds' as advocated by some feminist researchers, see Anne Oakley, 'Interviewing women: a contradiction in terms,' in Doing Feminist Research, ed. Helen Roberts, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 30–61, p. 41.

    [13] Janet Finch, '"It's great to have someone to talk to": the ethics and politics of interviewing women,' in Social Researching: Politics, Problems, Practice, ed. Colin Bell and Helen Roberts, London: Routledge & Kegan, 1984, pp. 70–87, p. 72; Oakley, 'Interviewing women,' p. 41.

    [14] While most of the women interviewed did not express a desire for anonymity in any publications, some did. Revealing the identity of interview participants is unnecessary for this paper's argument, so no names of interview informants will be mentioned.

    [15] Misako Iwamoto, 'The Madonna boom: the progress of Japanese women into politics in the 1980s,' in Political Science, vol. 34, no. 2 (2001):225–26; Tokuko Ōgai, 'Japanese women and political institutions: why are women politically underrepresented?' in Political Science, vol. 34, no. 2 (2001):207–10.

    [16] Miki Caul, 'Women's representation in politics: the role of political parties,' in Party Politics, vol. 5 (1999):75–98; Drude Dahlerup and Lenita Freidenvall, 'Quotas as a "fast track" to equal representation for women,' in International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 7, no. 1, (2005):26–48, p. 30; Pamela Paxton and Sheri Kunovich, 'Women's political representation: the importance of ideology,' in Social Forces, vol. 82, no. 1 (2003):87–114.

    [17] Personal interview with Yamaguchi Mitsuko, Tokyo, January 2008.

    [18] Puwar 'Reflections on interviewing women MPs,' paragraph 2.4.

    [19] Louis D. Hayes, Introduction to Japanese Politics, 2nd ed. New York: Marlowe and Company, 2005, p. 201. The frequency of enquiry by acquaintances in Australia into when I am going to 'get a real job' suggests that this perspective towards students is not unique to Japan.

    [20] Odendahl and Shaw, 'Interviewing elites,' p. 299.

    [21] Hertz and Imber, 'Introduction,' p. xiii; Odendahl and Shaw, 'Interviewing elites,' p. 299.

    [22] Sally Ann Hastings, 'Women legislators in the postwar Diet,' in Re-imaging Japanese Women, ed. Anne E. Imamura, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, pp.271–300; Hastings, 'Assassins, Madonnas, and career women: reflections on six decades of women's suffrage in Japan,' in Asian Cultural Studies, vol. 35 (2009): 229–39.

    [23] Puwar 'Reflections on interviewing women MPs'; Mary Crawford, 'Gender and the Australian parliament: putting the political scientist into the picture,' in Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 44, no. 2 (2009): 295–307, p. 301.

    [24] Consent to use this particular informant's name in any subsequent publication, however, will only be granted retrospectively after the informant has read what I have written. This is one way that informants attempt to maintain as much power as possible.

    [25] For more about 'being put in your place' in interviews with elite, see Susan A. Ostrander, '"Surely you're not in this just to be helpful": access, rapport, and interviews in three studies of elites,' in Studying Elites Using Qualitative Methods, ed. Rosanna Hertz and Jonathon B. Imber, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1995, pp. 133–50, p. 143.

    [26] Ostrander, '"Surely you're not in this just to be helpful",' p. 145.

    [27] Puwar, 'Reflections on interviewing women MPs,' paragraph 6.6.

    [28] Ostrander, '"Surely you're not in this just to be helpful",' pp. 143–49.

    [29] Ostrander, '"Surely you're not in this just to be helpful"'.

    [30] Takeo Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, Tokyo: Kodansha, 1971, p. 39.

    [31] Takeo Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, p. 39.

    [32] Takeo Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, p. 39.

    [33] Lenore Lyons and Janine Chipperfield, '(De)Constructing the interview,' in Resources for Feminist Research / Documentation sur la recherche féministe, vol. 28, nos 1/2 (2001): 33–48.

    [34] Finch, '"It's great to have someone to talk to,"' p. 81.

    [35] Shulamit Reinharz, and Susan E. Chase, 'Interviewing women,' in Handbook of Interview Research: Context and Method, ed. Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 2001, pp. 221–38, pp. 227–28.

    [36] Reinharz and Chase, 'Interviewing women,' p. 229.

    [37] Lyons and Chipperfield, '(De)Constructing the interview.'

    [38] Rosalind Edwards, 'Connecting method and epistemology: A white woman interviewing black women,' in Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 13, no. 5 (1990):477–90.

    [39] Reinharz and Chase, 'Interviewing women,' p. 229.

    [40] Laura Dales, Feminist Movements in Contemporary Japan, London: Routledge, 2009, pp. 62–64.

    [41] Kim England, 'Getting personal: Reflexivity, positionality, and feminist research,' in The Professional Geographer, vol. 46, no. 1 (1994): 80–89, p. 82.

    [42] Laura Dales, 'Feminist fieldwork in Japan (and beyond),' in Outskirts: Feminisms Along the Edge, vol. 17 (2007), online:, accessed 27 October 2010.


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