Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 28, March 2012

Ruth Barraclough and Elyssa Faison (eds)

Gender and Labour in Korea and Japan:

Sexing Class

London: Routledge, 2009
ISBN 978-0-415-77663-9 (hbk); xi + 152 pp.

reviewed by Alexander Brown

  1. In Gender and Labour in Korea and Japan, editors Ruth Barraclough and Elyssa Faison have brought together a number of studies which explore the relationship between gender and class. This interdisciplinary collection includes contributions from the fields of literary studies, cultural studies, anthropology and labour history. The studies focus on industrial and sexual labour and the legacies of colonialism in Korea and Japan. The case studies span a large period from an analysis of the 1925 proletarian novel The Prostitute to recent anthropological work on Korean hostess clubs in Japan. By examining gender and class over an extended historical period the studies demonstrate the ongoing connection of gender and class in modernity.
  2. The key argument running through the collection is that gender is always classed while class itself is inevitably gendered. The authors criticise notions of the working class and wage labour which obfuscate the gendered division of labour and portray the working class and wage labour as exclusively or primarily male. As Barraclough and Faison argue in their introduction to the collection, the authors collectively identify the ways in which 'the working class and wage labour—both categories generally presumed male—have depended on female bodies, heterosexuality, and normative visions of the family for their articulation within social and political discourse' (p. 1). The authors critique such masculinist conceptions of the working class and wage labour and show how women and men have struggled against patriarchal gender and sexual norms. These struggles have created 'other' notions of class and wage labour, which suggest alternate readings of modernity.
  3. The theme of sexual labour is taken up in Heather Bowen-Struyk's close reading of Hayama Yoshiki's short story The Prostitute, where she argues that the male protagonist sees in the suffering female body of 'the prostitute' little more than a trope for the suffering of the working class as a whole. Bowen-Struyk shows how the character of 'the prostitute' in the story herself resists this simple reading of her own subjectivity by speaking back to the male protagonist. Bowen-Struyk's analysis of contemporaneous debates among female and male proletarian writers explores this struggle over gender and class at this early juncture in the Japanese labour movement. The tension between a masculinist vision of the working class and the struggles of female subjects to articulate their own working class subjectivities is at the heart of Hayama's story and indeed of this collection. Throughout the collection we witness female and male working class subjects wrestling with their own gendered subjectivities and engaging in practices that at times reinforce patriarchal gender norms and at other times resist them.
  4. Continuing with the theme of sexual labour Chunghee Sarah Soh's chapter focuses on the relationship between war and the sexual labour of women. Her analysis, which covers a period from pre-colonial Korea until the present day, emphasises the ongoing connection between militarism and state-sanctioned prostitution in Korea and Japan. Soh shows how the Japanese military sexual slavery system arose out of previously existing notions of sexual labour as 'stigmatized yet customary' in both Korean and Japanese societies. She highlights the continuing reproduction of neo-colonial subjectivities within the organised sex tourism industry which takes Japanese men to Korea for sex with Korean women. Soh shows how women have fought against this colonial division by constructing cross-border networks of solidarity and feminist activism against Japan's wartime military sexual slavery system. However, Soh's comparison of the wartime military sexual slavery system with post-war forms of prostitution is problematic. While her highlighting of the relationship between patriarchal notions of women's sexual labour and militarism are important, at times she appears to claim an identity between wartime sexual slavery and post-war prostitution. Such a position not only obscures the horrors of the wartime sexual slavery system but also silences the subjectivities of women in post-war Korea and Japan who perform sexual labour. This relegates contemporary sex workers to a position as little more than slaves themselves without power or agency.
  5. Haeng-Ja Sachiko Chung explores post-war sexual labour from a different point of view by examining the legacies of colonialism in the eroticised affective labour of women and men in Korean hostess bars in contemporary Japan. Her research questions the idea that colonial relations of subjectivity are simply reproduced within Korean hostess bars. Through detailed ethnographic work she shows how female and male club workers, both Korean and Japanese, cross ethnic, gender and status boundaries in carrying out their daily work. Nevertheless, Chung acknowledges the importance of colonial legacies in the eroticisation of 'Korean' hostesses in Japan.
  6. The collection as a whole shows that the close relationship between Japanese and Korean modernity has been central to the production of gender and class subjectivities in these two countries. Barraclough and Faison point out that 'Japan's colonization of Korea created the conditions for the formation of a modern working class, and for industrialization itself' (p. 2). Japan's colonial project relied upon the mobilisation of Korean wage-labourers both in the colonies and the metropole. Female labour in Japanese industry and in the military sexual servitude system were key ingredients in Japan's imperial expansion. Elyssa Faison's contribution looks at the production of gendered and classed female labour in colonial Korea. In her study of Korean female factory workers in wartime Japan, Faison argues that the gender ideology of 'good wives, wise mothers' propagated by the Japanese state created a middle-class ideal of womanhood in the colony that made it difficult to recruit educated Korean women who possessed the necessary skills for factory work in Japan. As the Imperial state's need for labour grew more pressing in the latter stages of the war the government struggled to mobilise more female factory workers. At the same time, the restricted access of Korean women to education produced a class divide among Korean female workers. The recruitment of young Korean girls to work as military sex slaves in the 'comfort stations', Faison claims, was conducted partially along these class lines. Women who were less educated were more likely to be targeted by recruiters for the military 'comfort' system while more educated women were more likely to become factory workers in Japan.
  7. While Faison's study shows how imperial gender ideologies shaped the production of a gendered class division in the colony, Soh's research on transnational activism among feminists in Korea and Japan shows how collective political action can begin to address longstanding historical divisions based on ethnicity, gender and class. The subversion of ethnicity, gender and patriarchal notions of the working class is a central purpose of the collection and Barraclough and Faison describe how 'connecting sexual labour with industrial labour,' enables scholars, 'to cross lines to trace networks of solidarity with working women' (p. 3). The contributions of Barraclough, Hwasook Nam and Jong Bum Kwon focus on the production of working class masculinities and femininities in the Korean labour movement. Barraclough's study of female Korean proletarian writers in the 1970s and 1980s shows how their participation in labour struggles helped factory women to develop their subjectivities within a period of intensive capitalist modernisation in which their lives and labour played a central role but were largely invisible. Engaging in labour activism and becoming writers enabled female factory workers to produce working class femininities in which their lives and struggles took centre stage.
  8. Hwasook Nam looks at gender and labour activism in the Korean shipbuilding industry by focusing on the life and work of a young female welder who ultimately became a leading union activist in the 1980s. Kim Chinsook's experience, while bounded in many ways by a gendered division of labour within both the industry in general and the labour movement itself, shows the ongoing subversion of gender roles in labour struggles. Kwon, on the other hand, is more pessimistic. He argues that in the Daewoo struggles that followed the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997 the fragile masculinities of the sacked Daewoo men were reinforced through the mobilisation of both the men themselves and their wives around the normative ideal of the male breadwinner. The contributions of Barraclough, Nam and Kwon all critique patriarchal ideologies within trade unionism and the labour movement. Trade unionism's post-war emphasis on the 'living wage' privileged the position of male 'breadwinners'. As a result, trade unions tended to offer little support to women workers and often excluded them from the narrative of class struggle.
  9. The detailed historical, literary and ethnographic studies in this collection make an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship between gender and class in East Asian modernity. However, a significant contradiction exists within the collection over the meaning of class. Class is often represented both within the labour movement itself and within academia as an identity determined by particular criteria such as occupation, education and income. Faison, for example, uses educational background to differentiate middle-class from working class women in colonial Korea. This approach makes sense within her discussion of imperial gender ideology but it clashes with the notion of working class that arises within the labour movement in the chapters by Bowen-Struyk, Barraclough, Nam and Kwon. Those chapters which focus on labour struggles deal with the notions of class deployed and developed by actors themselves. Throughout the collection there is a lack of clarity as to how the notion of class is being used. At times the authors use notions of class as identity or socio-economic category. However, the proletarian movements described in many of the chapters are concerned with what E.P. Thompson described as the 'making' of the working class in the struggles of working people themselves.[1] Many of the chapters, particularly those by Bowen-Struyk, Barraclough, Nam and Kwon are concerned with this process of 'making' the working class. However, the confusion between different notions of class as category, as identity and as political project obscures the analysis in important ways. This collection would be enhanced by a more explicit discussion of the different meanings of class.
  10. In Nam and Kwon's studies of the Korean labour movement, gender appears as a barrier to the 'making' of the working class. While Nam shows how Kim Chinsook's assumption of a traditionally masculine occupation in the shipbuilding industry and her subsequent trade union activism helped to challenge patriarchal gender norms in the shipyard, she insists that Kim's case remains exceptional. Indeed, Nam argues that the very exceptionalism of Kim's case has seen her struggle reduced to the 'gendered image of the self-sacrificing, desexualized, almost saint-like woman' and, as a consequence, this image has prevented the further deconstruction of patriarchal ideologies in the Korean labour movement. Nevertheless, Kim's struggle points to the ongoing contestation of gender norms in the labour movement. Barraclough's essay shows how female factory workers in Korea engaged in forms of struggle to 'make' a working class in which female workers were included.
  11. The chapters in Gender and Labour in Korea and Japan point to the ongoing struggles of women and men against patriarchal gender norms. Many of these studies point to the limitations of these struggles and the ways in which the labour movement has itself contributed to the strengthening of patriarchal gender norms. However, the collection assembles powerful evidence of the ongoing struggles of working-class women and men against patriarchal gender norms and the construction of more fluid subjectivities in which socio-economic class and gender differences do not serve as obstacles to solidarity. Chung's piece is particularly interesting in this regard. By exploring the fluid performances of gender, status and ethnicity which occur within what many would assume to be a heavily male-dominated, ethno-centric industry, Chung shows that gender and class identities are in fact unstable and fluid even in the context of an industry that seems to rely upon particular ethnicised and classed forms of gender identity.
  12. Overall this collection represents a valuable contribution to a range of disciplines and sheds light on the ongoing interaction of gender and class in modernity. By crossing the borders of Korea and Japan it demonstrates the interconnection of capitalist modernity and grassroots struggle in these East Asian neighbours. By showing how proletarian struggles have helped deconstruct patriarchal notions of a monolithic working class the collection contributes to an alternative reading of modernity.


    [1] E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, London: Victor Gollancz, 1963, pp. 9–11.


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.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 20 February 2012 1202