Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 26, August 2011
Kaori Okano

Young Women in Japan:
Transitions to Adulthood

London and New York: Routledge, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-415-46941-8 (hbk); x + 294 pp.

reviewed by Kirsti Rawstron

  1. Kaori Okano's latest book follows directly from her previous title, School to Work Transition in Japan: An Ethnographic Study.[1] Okano has followed a group of young, working-class Japanese women from Kobe City from their final year of high school to the present day. School to Work Transition examined the girls in their final year of school and the decisions they were making with regard to employment or further study. Young Women in Japan follows the path of twenty-one of the women from the original study through their twenties, focusing on work, family, relationships and other factors.
  2. Young Women in Japan fills a vital gap in the current literature addressing women in Japan by showing how young working class women without tertiary education experienced life in the 1990s. It continues the trend whereby the formerly dominant picture of Japanese women as middle-class housewives has gradually been diversified to present a more nuanced picture of women's experiences in Japan. Within this study alone there were several different life trajectories, displaying a range of experiences, expectations and outcomes for the young women. Okano's study is also notable for the inclusion of Japan-born Korean nationals (commonly called zainichi). Zainichi often face considerable discrimination when seeking marriage and employment, and Okano provides fascinating insights into ways that the young zainichi actors within her study presented their ethnicity, moving between, but never fully embodying, either 'Japanese' or 'Korean' ethnicity, presenting 'hybridised' or 'hyphenated' identities.[2] This is a valuable perspective.
  3. This book is divided into two parts: life stories from 1989 to 2001 (including detailed portraits of eight of the twenty-one women), and an examination of the general themes that emerged throughout the young women's experiences. Drawing on a series of interviews with the women, both individually and in small groups, as well as letters and other correspondence, Okano creates a detailed picture of how these women's lives are unfolding. The life stories were particularly well written; Okano employs an almost novelistic tone which raises these women from dry case studies to fascinating accounts of personal lives.
  4. The second section is an examination of the broader themes and common experiences which emerged from the portraits of the young women, and discusses the experiences of all twenty-one women. The themes covered include the initial steps taken by the women into the wider adult world, as well as issues with employment, relationships, marriage and divorce, and the desires of the women to reach decisions with which they can feel comfortable. While in the previous section, Okano reported the stories of selected women 'as they happened,' here she draws from a larger pool of candidates, further literature, and statistics on young women in Japan. By situating the experiences of the women in her study within the wider socio-cultural situation of modern Japanese women, Okano contextualises her study so that it is applicable and relevant to a wider audience.
  5. There is, however, a distinctive element to these particular lives. The 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake which caused so much devastation to Kobe city and the lives of Okano's actors was a life-changing event. While there were many negative consequences of the earthquake, there were some positive outcomes: of particular note are the loans and allowances set up for the earthquake victims, such as the 'recovery from earthquake damage' (shinsai fukkō) special loans which offered the extremely low interest rate of 0.3 per cent per annum. Of the eight women of whom Okano provides a detailed portrait, three took advantage of those particular loans to purchase houses of their own; while others benefitted from time spent in rent-free temporary housing. While this earthquake was impossible to predict and to prepare for when constructing this study, its effect as an outlier has unfortunately skewed the data in this study in terms of Japanese women as a whole. This study would have benefitted greatly from a partner study conducted at the same time in a different area of Japan, so as to present a more typical pattern of transitions to adulthood in Japan. However, there are unpredictable elements in any life story. The impact of the earthquake disaster does not detract from the value of this book, however it irrevocably transforms the text from being an examination of women in Japan in general to being an examination of young women in Kobe at a very particular time.
  6. The ethnographic observations collected and presented by Okano are well balanced with references to other studies and also with several statistical reports showing the experiences of young women throughout Japan at this time. The actors in this study are shown to be highly reflexive, thoughtful women, aware of their own agency and frequently deploring their limitations. As Okano notes, this is part and parcel of an actor taking part in an ethnographic study, and allows the researcher to create a rich tapestry of the transition to adulthood experienced by women in Japan. I look forward to Okano's future work describing these actors as they move through adulthood and watch their children experience their own transitions to adulthood.[3]


    [1] Kaori Okano, School to Work Transition in Japan: An Ethnographic Study, Clevedon, Avon and Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters, 1993; p. 286.

    [2] For another detailed examination of the experiences of zainichi in Japan, see, for example, David Chapman, Zainichi Korean Identity and Ethnicity, London: Routledge, 2008.

    [3] See Kaori Okano, 'Women's agency in charting life trajectories in Japan: a longitudinal ethnography,' unpublished paper presented at the Women in Asia Conference, Australian National University, October 2010.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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