Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 31, December 2012

Dream Chasers:
Japanese Migrant Women in International Marriages and their Experiences in the Hierarchy of Languages

Mayuko Itoh

  1. This article draws on interviews with Japanese migrant women in international marriages in a capital city of Australia.[1] In existing research on international marriages in the age of globalisation, analysing the structured power asymmetry between spouses has been an indispensable part of most attempts to understand the phenomenon. That is, the construction of gender and global 'marriage-scapes'[2] has been the focus of attention. Marriage-scapes are framed by 'existing and emerging cultural, social, historical and political-economic factors'[3] as well as through 'gendered geographies of power' which are based on the simultaneous operation and organisation of gender beyond national boundaries.[4] My discussion has been informed by these writings on asymmetries of power in a global frame, but my main focus here is on how the women I interviewed positioned themselves in relation to power asymmetries. This does not only mean resistance or struggle, but also suggests compliance and embrace. I thus aim here to illustrate the women's ways of constructing their ideal way of life in the context of their experience of power asymmetries.
  2. My research is therefore relevant to existing studies which have focused on women's agency in international marriage settings through investigating women's negotiations with their surrounding environments.[5] As such, studies suggest that agency has often been used to describe or mean women's actions, practices and negotiations with surrounding power structures in which they are often disadvantaged. Lyn Parker argues that agency 'comes into play in the operation of power differentials,' and the concept thus has 'particular relevance for those who experience historically produced, institutionalized subordination.'[6] Tammy Anderson also makes a comparison between 'power-over or dominance' types of power and 'empowerment and agency' types of power, and attributes the latter to women in difficult situations.[7] Hence, it can be said that the discourse of women's agency has tended to recognise agency as a concept concerning power from 'below,'[8] from those in structurally subordinate positions.
  3. The concept of agency, therefore, seems highly relevant to the experiences of Japanese migrant women in international marriages. Japanese women in so-called western countries, especially those in international intimate relationships, have often been portrayed as subaltern in academic discourse. According to such discussions, women's experiences of migration and international marriages can be regarded as moving from one oppressive environment due to Japan's gender order to yet another set of hegemonic categorisations, exclusions and inclusions, and oppressions.[9] This is because the women's life courses are inevitably involved in global/local 'politics of image and categorisation,' which can marginalise Japanese women in multiple ways due to their gender and racialised/ethnic backgrounds.[10]
  4. However, I still have some hesitation in applying the concept of agency—entailing the notion of power from below as many existing studies imply—to the analysis of my interviewees' narratives of their lives. This is because when academic researchers declare that Japanese migrant women in international marriages are marginalised, women's self perceptions, recognition of surrounding structures, and how they feel about their position are not always considered. In order to deal with such considerations, I will pay particular attention to the women's ability to create 'a personal sense of happiness and hardships'[11] as a crucial part of their agency. This means that in my analysis the women's sense of what is necessary for their lives is the most important analytical feature. It should be noted here, however, that the women might have been positioned 'under a set of circumstances and conditions that were beyond their control'[12] in their creation of agency. Some existing definitions of agency contain this point: Laura Ahearn's definition is 'the socio-culturally mediated capacity to act,'[13] while Vera Mackie defines agency as 'individuals' actions, their attempts to gain control over their own destinies.'[14] It has also been pointed out that agency includes both substantive and cognitive processes.[15] Based on these understandings, I will refer to agency in the context of the women's ability to make decisions and to attempt to realise their decisions within specific frameworks of power.
  5. In this article, I will examine how Japanese migrant women in international marriages in Australia have exercised agency in negotiating asymmetrical power structures. In order to deal with the myriad layers of power around the women, I will focus on one particular power structure—language. For the women interviewed here, the English language has been a tangible signifier of and, in many cases, a pragmatic object of their desires for what the West symbolises. In many cases, an 'assumed isomorphism of space, place, and culture'[16] can be found in the women's narratives. For example, some women talked about their passion for the English language while their object of desire seemed to be to live overseas. In their views, therefore, the English language is not a mere language, but often a condensed symbol of their imaginaries of the West. With regard to the term West, Vera Mackie points out that terms such as 'Europe,' 'United States,' 'first world,' and 'white' are often a form of 'shorthand,' which condenses 'several different elements of power and privilege.'[17] Borrowing this view, the English language in this study refers not only to an actual language, but also to a symbol of a particular form of power and privilege. Indeed, my interviewees' accounts of their experiences with the English language also trace their negotiations with a particular set of power relations. For the purpose of this article, therefore, I will focus on language while recognising that other elements of power and privilege are also worthy of sustained attention. After a brief discussion of my research methodology I will look at the construction of the hegemonic institution of the English language in Japan and its gendered implications. I will then present the my interviewees' narratives of their relationships with the English language in order to demonstrate that this can be seen as a site where the women express their agency. The women's exercise of agency in their marital relationships in relation to their position in the hierarchy of languages will then be examined through demonstrating the conjunction between the women's own understanding of power structures and of their desirable life courses.

  6. I interviewed sixteen women who were between the ages of twenty-four and forty-six at the time of the interviews. Most of them were in their thirties. Their English language skills, educational backgrounds, career paths, and their husbands' socio-economic circumstances varied. Despite the variety, all the women had completed at least secondary education in Japan, and none of them stated that they had come from an economically disadvantaged background. All interviews were conducted in Japanese. In conducting the interviews, my main interest was the women's perceptions of their lives and selves shaped through their experiences of migration and international marriage. That is, I aimed to listen to their subjective truth, which is rather different from simple facts. I found the oral history interview method to be most suitable for my aims. Oral history is often considered to have an exclusive focus on 'reconstruction of the past'[18] through the words of interviewees, emphasising not only actual activities and facts, but also whether, for example, 'the process was fun or drudgery, whether it was accompanied by a sense of pride or failure.'[19] Therefore, research data collected by oral history can 'tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did.'[20] In the following section, I will analyse my interviewees' relationships with the English language by utilising the attribute of oral history, after discussing the language's global/local powerfulness.

    The hegemonic power of the English language
  7. The English language has played a significant role in my interviewees' lives. Most of them met their husbands through activities relating to the English language—in many cases as a result of pursuing their desire for competency in the language. Put differently, pursuing the English language has been a central feature of their life paths. My interviewees' closeness to the English language, pragmatically and emotionally, could partly be attributed to the status of the language in Japan as well as in the global arena. The women have found their desires, dreams and hopes through the English language, and this has been significantly due to the language's global/local powerfulness.
  8. The English language is clearly the most powerful language in the world today. It has been called 'the global language (emphasis in original),'[21] a 'supranational language,'[22] and 'the language of globalization.'[23] These labels attest to the place of English at the top of 'the complex political, economic and cultural hierarchy of languages in the world.'[24] This has historical roots in British colonial power in the nineteenth century and in the economic power of the United States in the twentieth century.[25] The English language is not a mere communication tool, but a system providing its users with power in various contexts. Indeed, facility with the language has been a symbol of élite status and an avenue to obtaining economic opportunities in some parts of the world.[26]
  9. As a part of the international community, Japan is also under the hegemonic power of the English language. For example, the Japanese government has been promoting English learning programs for children and adults alike under the flag of internationalisation.[27] Indeed, the English language has its place in educational curricula at almost every level.[28] Furthermore, the English language has been socially perceived as a pragmatic tool as well as an imaginary 'door' leading to a bright future.[29] Although popular, academic and governmental discourses of the language and English education have not always been greeted in a welcoming tone,[30] the English language has maintained associations of advancement, success, and another brighter world in Japanese society. As a result, it has even been argued that there has been a societal perception that 'English speakers are civilized and superior to other non-English speakers.'[31]
  10. In Japanese society under the hegemonic power of the English language, Japanese people have often been considered as forming gendered attachments to the language.[32] One of the dominant discourses of this is developed based on women's negotiations with Japan's gender stratification. Especially in the context of Japan's corporate structures, English skills have been seen as 'the single most indispensable "weapon" … in women's battle for advancement in the business world.'[33] The language has even been socially portrayed as an avenue for 'finding new life spaces, about defining new modes and ways of living' for young women, especially young women who are oppressed in Japan's gender order.[34] Some have argued that this societal imagery has contributed to young Japanese women's passionate attitudes to English language learning.[35] The pragmatic and imaginary attainments Japanese women aspire to through the English language are sometimes said to be imbricated in some Japanese women's attraction to white males.[36] For instance, Keiron Bailey proposes that the 'English language is both [the] mechanism and the objective' on which Japanese women project their desire for 'power, work, and the consumption of an idealized masculinity embodied in white English-speaking males.'[37] It can thus be said that layers of structured power surrounding Japanese women have been considered as a significant constructive factor for the women's gendered relationship to the English language.
  11. Etsuko Katō calls the English language a 'double-edged sword'[38] for Japanese women. It is often pointed out that Japanese women who are entangled in Japan's gendered structures can be entangled again in the same, or yet another set of power structures through being close to the English language.[39] Aya Kitamura analyses the double-edged nature of the English language, and Japanese women's experiences of this complexity. By examining the power politics involving Japanese women who use the English language, she finds ambivalence.

      There is a woman who empowered herself, even though it might not last long, by taking English as a tool while being aware that the tool is not easy to use. She seems to be in danger because English sometimes alienates and even controls us. At the same time, she is indicating that women are not mere receivers who just await what would be provided.[40]

    The English language has been described as a multi-dimensional power structure which can be a pragmatic tool, an imaginary avenue to a new world or a new self, or a risky trap for Japanese women. As Kitamura suggests, Japanese women's position in the hegemony of the English language is highly complex and ambivalent, and thus cannot be theorised in a fixed manner.
  12. There is a rich literature on how institutionalised power has affected women who have formed an attachment to the English language, and on how such women have negotiated the linguistic power politics. In this study I will attempt to analyse Japanese women's self positioning within this institutionalised power structure and their associated feelings, and how such positioning and feelings can have pragmatic influences on women's construction of their lives. I will portray women's attachments to the English language as a site where they have exercised agency in realising their ideal life paths. To start with, I will examine how my interviewees formed the attachments to the English language.

    Japanese women's akogare for the English language
  13. As noted above, Japanese women's attachment to the English language has often been investigated in relation to their struggles and resistance against Japan's gender order. Therefore, many studies interpret the attachment based on a binary between socio-historically constructed images of a restrictive Japan and a liberated West.[41] In describing Japanese women's desires for the West as an expression of their aspiration for emancipation from Japan's gender order, the term longing (or akogare, in Japanese) has often been used. For example, Karen Kelsky maintains that Japanese women's longing for the West is their display of 'personal liberation, and romantic and erotic self-expression' in challenging 'persistent gender ideologies that make authentic Japanese womanhood … contingent on women's continued subordination to Japanese men and "traditional" gender roles.'[42] In contrast to such a dominant framework, Kitamura recaptures Japanese women's struggles with gendered power structures as negotiations. She argues that the term akogare is a mere academic label, thus analysing women's actions within the term can confine women's diverse experiences to fixed and stereotypical categories.[43]
  14. In my study, however, I do not regard Japanese women's akogare as a simple product of the Japan-West binary. Rather, my understanding of akogare is based on my interviewees' use of the term akogare. Some interviewees actually mentioned the term to describe their attachment to the English language. Others did not directly use the term, but they still talked about their attachment to the English language in terms of feelings such as longing, admiration and yearning, with nuances of love, affection, adoration, respect and attraction. All of these feelings are included in the literal meaning of the Japanese term. The women did not express such feelings, however, in terms of a backlash against Japan's gender order. Rather, their affirmative feelings seemed to reflect their perceptions of what the language means in their lives. All of my interviewees found English highly desirable for individual and personal reasons, and constructed their life courses around pursuing the language. Although the hegemonic power of the language may be part of this picture, it does not necessarily mean that the power has preyed on the women. They have rather actively engaged in the power structures, and designed their lives within it. My understanding of the women's feelings of akogare is, therefore, as a personal tie between each individual and the English language, a manifestation of their self-positioning within its power structure, and also a site where they have exercised agency in achieving their ideal lives. Below, I will explore the women's construction of akogare.
  15. My interviewees' narratives reveal that their constructions of akogare were highly personal thus diverse, and based on individual circumstances. One obvious commonality among their various experiences with the language is that they have been exposed to the hegemonic power of the English language in Japanese society. Put differently, it may be difficult to avoid this exposure for Japanese people, as the power of the English language can be found in political, popular and educational discourses in the society. Some women also listed their family members as a trigger for their initial interest in the language. For example, Chika's first catalyst for relating to the language was her mother.

      Well, I did not particularly like English…although I went to a private English conversation school [from when I was little], which was just because my mother wanted me to be able to speak English…maybe…she was just like thinking that English skills would be useful when I grow up and join society, something like that, I think (Chika, 20 October, 2008).[44]

  16. As a young adult, she developed a strong passion for the English language and persuaded her parents to let her study abroad. In Chika's case, her mother was the first significant disseminator of the hegemony of English. Influential family members included wishful parents who seemed to believe that English language skills would widen their daughters' future possibilities, and siblings who had their own desires for the language. In any case, other family members also lived under the power of the English language and conveyed particular understandings of the language to the women.
  17. Some of the women, however, did not offer any explanation for their attachment to the English language. This may be because 'individuals do not necessarily possess sufficient knowledge to explain everything about their lives'[45] especially about power structures surrounding them.[46] One notable example is the story of Mika.

      I can't understand why, but I have loved English for a long time, even as an elementary school kid. I asked my parents if I could go to a private English school…when I was in Grade 4 or 5.… Then, I was talking about study abroad when I was in junior high…I have always loved English and have continued to study English (Mika, 24 June 2008).

  18. Another woman also said that '[i]t was like, I have had a vague longing for the West. Well, like, I have loved English since I was a child' (Rie, 2 July, 2008). Both of them could not verbalise causal factors for their feelings and they did not even hint about what they wanted to achieve through the language learning. Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean that they have been unsure about their objectives in learning the English language. This is because their desires for the language have pragmatically directed decision making in their lives. Mika left an established career behind in Japan to study English abroad while Rie completed a bachelor's degree in English literature and obtained a teaching job in Australia. Their lives indicate that they pursued their desires for the English language in order to feel closer to the language, rather than learning the language for practical reasons.
  19. This suggests a question about what the English language means for the women and women's lives if it can be more than a globally useful skill which can expand their possibilities. The narrative of Emi, who also mentioned an unnamed attachment to the language, offers a hint. In Japan prior to her marriage, she had to quit her job due to depression. The serious study of the English language was a significant contribution to the reconstruction of her life.

      [After about half a year since quitting my job because of depression] I didn't want to be at home all day, so I tried doing a part time job…but I thought I had to have a rest…then, somehow I started studying English conversation (laugh) (Emi, 28 September, 2009).

    I asked her why she chose to study English under such difficult circumstances.

      Well…I don't know why…I have always loved English although my major at University was Economics…I listened to English language educational programs on radio.

      (Researcher) why did you listen to the radio? Was this because you loved English?

      …without any reason (laugh) (Emi, 28 September, 2009).

    After talking about her vague connection to the English language, she described her feelings on learning the language.

      I could not feel a sense of improvement well in my work. I wanted something where I could see a tangible improvement…like, 'I can understand a bit more!' something like that. I wanted that feeling (Emi, 28 September, 2009).

  20. Emi said that she wanted a sense of achievement from her English language learning. At the same time, she still could not offer a clear reason why it was English study that she focused on when she was in a difficult situation. Despite her lack of explanation, it seems that it was not just any foreign language or any other skill which could provide her with a feeling of progress, but it had to be the English language.
  21. Having a closer look at Emi's narrative, it can be noticed that the object of her attachment was not the English language itself, but the desired figure of herself who could make progress in learning. In difficult personal circumstances, she strongly needed to revive her faith in her own abilities as she aspired to the feeling that 'I could understand a bit more!' That is, the English language for her was a site where she tried to reconstruct herself. Her narrative also implies why she chose the English language. Emi said that she could not get a feeling of achievement in her work and thus lost her self confidence in her previous employment, through which she might have expected to feel a sense of connection to society. She then tried to deal with her difficult circumstances by doing part-time work. Therefore, it can be assumed that she needed to reconstruct herself through activities which could provide her with a sense of being connected to society in a positive and productive way. In Japan, the English language has been socially acknowledged as a productive, meaningful and positive activity due to its globally/locally powerful status. Hence, it can be said that what Emi wanted through her English language learning was to regain her attractiveness to appeal to herself as well as to the society.
  22. Emi's story reveals that her desire for English is firmly based on her personal experiences and necessities as well as the power of the English language. Because of the attributes of the language—a highly usable and socially desirable skill—my interviewees tended to choose the language as the site where they shaped the figure of their ideal selves. For example, Fumiko had firstly been attracted to the English language due to its powerfulness in the world of a sport to which she had made a commitment. Her main focus was then shifted from the sport to the language. In explaining her experiences of language learning, what she was talking about was actually her way of shaping and realising what she wanted to see in herself.

      [after finishing my first stay in New Zealand for a year] I could carry out daily conversation in English then, but there was lots more to learn. It was like, I had many, many things to learn. I had loved that kind of situation…that kind of challenge since I was a child (laugh). I loved situations where I had to make more effort (Fumiko, 12 December, 2008).

  23. Fumiko's story shows that the English language for her was a practical communication tool as well as a challenge through which she repeatedly reconfigured her ideal self. In most cases, the women's stories suggest that their attachment to the English language was a site of imagining, creating and realising their desirable selves, and thus an important element in their construction of their lives. This attachment is not unconnected with the powerfulness of the language: they have defined the meanings of the English language for themselves even while unbder its hegemony. The women's stories therefore show that they have acted in a constructive, productive and positive manner in relation to the domination of the English language through their formation of akogare.
  24. On Japanese women's positioning under the hegemony of the English language through akogare, Kitamura argues that, '[u]nfortunately, [Japanese] women are put in a vulnerable position. They are embedded in the pyramid that has the English language at its top the moment they start purchasing relevant magazines and books or going to language schools under the belief that "English is good [for me]".'[47] This hits the mark because many other commentators have witnessed Japanese women who had bitter experiences as a result of being involved in the power structure through akogare.[48] Nevertheless, we have to reconsider how women perceive and feel about their involvement in the power of the English language. As some studies suggest, individuals' active engagement with power structures as members of a subordinate group can also result in the pursuit of their desirable futures.[49] This reconsideration invites us to recapture Japanese women's involvement with the institutionalised power as a relationship, through which they cognitively and practically construct and re-construct their perception of themselves and their lives. It does not necessarily mean, however, that my interviewees did not have difficult experiences with the English language. Rather, they faced their subordinate positions in the hierarchy of languages as a result of pursuing their desires for the English language. Below, I will look at my interviewees' experiences in migration and international marriage, and analyse how they have exercised agency in dealing with language-related difficulties.

    The hierarchy of languages and marital relationships
  25. My interviewees' narratives reveal that their difficult experiences with the English language were usually caused by their international move from Japan to Australia, namely their physical relocation from one position in the language hierarchy to another. It accordingly means that their exercise of agency in pursuing their desires for the English language has brought about difficult experiences for them. The women stepped into an Anglophone linguistic territory as a result of pursuing their desires. Their position in the linguistic hierarchy was then shifted from majority to minority at a localised level. A twist here is that the women had attachments to the English language, which defined their positions within the language. Therefore, my interviewees experienced the hierarchy of language in Australia in a highly complex way.
  26. At a localised level, language becomes a pragmatic site of 'resistance, empowerment, solidarity, or discrimination' for individuals.[50] For example, using a minority language or having an accent marked as 'ethnic' may bring the risk of being rejected for those who are not linguistically categorised as mainstream.[51] As Japanese, whose first language is not English, some of my interviewees have experienced rejection in Australia. As Yoshiko explained,

      When I go to a job interview, I think, naturally, there is a language barrier.… I think so…so they'd kick me out…my resumé for instance…(laugh) …they might not even have a proper look at it. Things like that.… So, sometimes…I didn't get decent treatment.

      (Researcher) Was it a linguistic matter rather than a racial one?

      Yes. Australia is not a strongly racist place (Yoshiko, 16 June 2008).

  27. Yoshiko's perception of Australia suggests that she felt that Australia is a place of language-oriented discrimination and thus she perceived herself as vulnerable. The women's perception of the vulnerable self did not only come from their actual experiences of rejection. In some cases, the women's recognition and criticism of their linguistic status generated and reinforced their sense of vulnerability. As Chika put it,

      just going to a bank, and if I cannot understand what they say, I fall into thinking that I am wrong, do you know what I mean? Yeah, if it is in Japan…well, even if I cannot understand what they say, I guess I would not think I am the one who is wrong so much. I may think you should explain more clearly, something like that. [But in Australia,] I think it is…me, who is wrong (Chika, 20 October 2008).

  28. As 'learning the language of the host society implies learning one's place in the structures of social inequality,'[52] learning and using the English language in Australia can mean experiencing minority status for the women. A side effect of the women's exercise of agency in pursuing their desires for the English language, then, is the experience of being marginalised.
  29. This language-related paradox between the women's agency and their linguistic reality is also apparent in their experiences of international marriage, especially when the dominant language of their marriage is English. According to Alison Tokita, the language choice for daily communication between spouses of international marriages determines 'who is "at home",' and accordingly 'who is "in control."'[53] Therefore, each international marriage can be seen as a micro-level territory of language which is different from the actual physical location of the couple. It means that each marriage has its localised hierarchy of language, which is a pragmatic site where each spouse understands the other and the specific marital relationship. For example, Sakura met her husband in Japan and lived with him there before marriage. In their household, however, the dominant language was English. Sakura's story depicts how she recognised her linguistic position in her marital relationship. I asked her what was the most difficult aspect in being with him. She explained,

      Well, difficulty? … It was, after all, language…. His [language-related] demands are really high. He sometimes gave me a bored look…when I started to talk about things in a very ordinary way, or if I used a so-called idiomatic phrase…he was quick to sense [my lack of language skills]. It was really tough. If it was in Japanese, I could use my original, unique form of expression but in English, there are limitations…. It was a very hard time for me. This was in the first one-and-a-half years of our relationship.

      (Researcher) [checking the date of her marriage] then, you mean that you had such a hard time [even] when you were deciding to marry to him, right?

      Yeah, at that time, I was still…not comfortable. Yeah, it was not about him. I was not comfortable with myself (Sakura, 28 October 2008).

  30. Sakura clearly felt a responsibility for the clumsy English communication she had with her partner, who gave her what she felt to be a 'bored look' when she could not meet his linguistic expectations. Instead of blaming her partner's lack of Japanese skills or his high linguistic demands, Sakura lamented her own lack of English skills. Her story thus depicts the asymmetrical power politics in her marital relationship, in which she recognised herself as not 'at home' thus not 'in control'. In researching the 'negotiation of understanding' between migrants and people of the host societies, David Block points out that the responsibility for achieving a smooth understanding between the two parties is often on the migrants' side.[54] At the same time, however, these migrants are often ill-prepared to undertake such a responsibility. Therefore, he continues, the linguistic negotiation tends to 'have inconclusive and often frustrating outcomes for all parties involved.'[55] Sakura's story indicates that she was a migrant and thus responsible for what Block calls the negotiation of understanding in her marriage as a linguistic minority, even before she literally became a Japanese migrant in Australia.
  31. Except for two cases, all of the women in my study indicated that English was the dominant language in their marriages. Seven of the women had started their intimate relationships in Japan, and in these cases, too, English was the dominant language. Taking a subordinate but responsible role in the negotiation of understanding with their husbands is a common experience for my interviewees. Although the women's stories tended to concentrate on their experiences of miscommunication with their husbands and the associated feelings, some of them also pointed out that their subordinate position in the hierarchy of language in their marriages could determine their weaker positioning in other aspects of marital life. When I asked Akemi whether she had any issues because of using English with her husband, she replied,

      Well, you know, his English is much better [than mine], so when we have arguments, I'm talked down…something like that (Akemi, 18 July 2008).

  32. When the women are 'talked down' in arguments, it can mean that they are also defeated in issues other than language. This is the reason why some commentators on international marriages of Japanese women have been particularly concerned with issues of linguistic power differences between spouses.[56] Some women's stories, however displayed strategies to prevent their linguistic subordination from affecting other aspects of marital negotiations. When I asked Sachiko whether she ever thought it was unfair that she was the one who had to use a foreign language, she replied,

      Always. When I had heated arguments with my husband and if I was really angry, I would tell him 'speak Japanese, you bastard!' in Japanese.… I would say [in Japanese] 'don't even think of arguing with me if you can't understand what I say!' (laugh) (Sachiko, 2 July 2008).

  33. Although the women's experiences of their linguistically subordinate role in their marriages varied, their stories reveal several common tendencies. In cases where English was the dominant language in their marriages, the women seemed to fully accept it despite the frustrations expressed in their stories. However, of particular interest is that their linguistically weaker position in marriage did not necessarily undermine the intimate ties the women had with their husbands. Below, I will explore these aspects of their experiences in order to examine how the women's desires for the English language affected their marital relationships.
  34. Some of my interviewees had not even considered negotiating with their husbands about the dominant language in their marriages. The couples' choice of language may have been because of the dominant status of English as discussed above. This dominant status has rendered English as the global common language in a practical sense. In addition, the husbands' career prospects were another practical factor. That is, most of their husbands intended to establish their careers in English-speaking environments. Therefore, it is possible to see the women's gendered ideologies of marriage behind their choice of the dominant language in their marriages. These women had a tendency to see their husbands as breadwinners in both a practical and an ideological sense.[57] Indeed, their gendered perception of the division of labour discouraged some women from moving to Japan, where their husbands would have limited earning capacity. However, some of the women accepted the dominance of the English language in their marriages even when the couples were in Japan and the husbands were employed there; and when the women's English skills and the husbands' Japanese skills were almost equivalent. About such power politics, Aneta Pavlenko and Adrian Blackledge argue that 'the official language or standard variety becomes the language of hegemonic institutions because both the dominant and the subordinated group misrecognize it as a superior language. In this view, ideologies of language are not about language alone…but are always socially situated and tied to questions of identity and power in societies.'[58]
  35. According to this argument, it might be tempting to argue that the English language was 'misrecognised' as superior by both the women and their husbands. For these women, however, it is not really a case of 'misrecognition'. This is because they have already recognised English as particularly desirable in many senses. The women's desires for the English language impacted on the construction of their lives and selves, and let them have affirmative relationships with its structured power. That is, possessing one form of self-recognition led them to conform to specific power relations entailed within that recognition.[59] Hence, it can be said that the women tended to take a subordinate position in relation to the English language even prior to stepping into an Anglophone linguistic territory. Combined with the other practical factors mentioned above, this was why the women accepted English as the dominant language within their marriages.
  36. The women's prescribed position in the hierarchy of languages suggests that the international marriages had the potential for asymmetrical linguistic power politics even before the women came to Australia and/or met their husbands. As a result, the women were unlikely to question or challenge their disadvantaged position. Some might see this as ironic because they have been positioned as subaltern in their lives due to migration and international marriages, which were the consequences of their exercising agency in realising their desires. Before making such a conclusion, however, it is necessary to consider how the women perceive their linguistic disadvantage, how they see the hierarchy of languages itself, and how their agency has been expressed in this context.
  37. As has been discussed above, it was the women who tended to take the responsibility for solving communication problems with their husbands. This tendency is clearly observed in Sakura's comment that 'it was not about him. I was not comfortable with myself.' Similarly, Kasumi explained her difficulties in her marital relationship as follows:

      'My ability to express what I wanted to say was just not good enough…well, it is still not good enough…the ability, like that of expressing fine nuances, you know what I mean? I started to feel frustrated at my lack of ability around then [in the fourth year of the relationship]' (Kasumi, 22 August 2009).

  38. When she talked about language-related difficulties in her intimate relationship, it was all about herself. Kasumi repeatedly insisted that her language skills had not been, and still were not good enough to convey what she really wanted to say in communicating with her husband. While Sakura said, 'I was not comfortable with myself,' Kasumi said 'I started to feel frustrated at my lack of ability.' Having language-related difficulties was not seen as a 'relationship' problem for them. Rather, it was perceived to be more of a problem with the women themselves.
  39. Hanako's account of her experience of linguistic disadvantage exemplifies the women's perceptions of English-related difficulties. In Japan, Hanako had learned English conversation outside the school curriculum, and she had the additional experience of a short term internship abroad. However, when talking about the English-related difficulties she confronted in Australia, she said, 'I realised I could not speak English, which I had thought I could.' She went on,

      Well, that feeling of finding myself a backward or hopeless person [because of not being able to speak fluent English]…. In Japan, I could do things the way I intended to, but…because of the fact that I could not speak English as fluently as native speakers…I felt like an infant. You start feeling like you can't do anything by yourself. And there was a kind of inferiority complex about myself and other negative factors, you know what I mean? These things were difficult to deal with (Hanako, 29 July 2008).

  40. Hanako experienced a strong sense of disappointment, stemming from her expectation that she could be a competent English speaker. Her expectations were firmly grounded in her personal history in relation to the English language. Even though she was clearly conscious of her shifting status in the hierarchy of languages, she did not challenge, question, or blame the structure and the associated power asymmetry which placed her at a disadvantage. Instead, she strongly criticised her own inability to meet her own expectations. Furthermore, despite the intensity of her despondency, Hanako did not develop a dislike of the English language. Rather, her strong feelings of failure were paradoxically implicated in her affection and admiration for it.
  41. Sakura's and Kasumi's frustrations at miscommunication with their husbands also stemmed from their recognition of the gap between their ideals and reality. Their stories depict ideal selves who could have smooth communication with their husbands. A crucial indication here is that their partners were basically perceived as one of the elements in the construction of the women's ideals. For example, Sakura's partner's high linguistic expectations shaped Sakura's understanding of her ideal self in the marriage. In other words, the women's husbands were also involved in the achievement of the women's desires. This is perhaps why the linguistic power asymmetry did not undermine the women's relationships with their husbands.
  42. Sakura, Kasumi, and Hanako's stories suggest that their sense of hardship does not necessarily concern their disadvantaged positioning within the power structures. Rather, they felt difficulties when they could not realise their personally created ideal selves. As we have already seen, the women's creation of their ideal selves was conducted through their attachment to the English language and thus through their relationships with the hegemony of the language. This accordingly means that their happiness in this context could be achieved through approaching closer to the English language, rather than through challenging the structured power of the language. For example, Hanako's feelings of language-related failure faded through achieving one of her language-related goals, which was working in an English environment. As she explained,

      It was about my previous job which was a temporary contract for only three months. I got this job which I had wanted. Then, I did the job, I could work [in English], I didn't feel any lack of capability–finally, I became closer to what I wanted to do, little by little (Hanako, 29 July 2008).

  43. Hanako's story shows that she could achieve happiness even while being disadvantaged in the hierarchy of languages. For my interviewees, the institutionalised power of the English language was a significant factor in the construction of their sense of success and failure, happiness and hardship. Such meanings led them to exercise agency as a form of actively living within, while even contributing to the structured powerfulness of the English language. Hanako's story may be seen as reinforcement of the concomitant power asymmetry and thus as an ironic process of subordination. Her story, however, displays her agency in realising her ideal self following her own creation of happiness. When she said that 'finally, I became closer to what I wanted to do, little by little,' we need to recognise the feelings she attached to the English language, despite the complex power politics around it.

  44. In this article, I have investigated the agency of Japanese women in international marriages in Australia by analysing their experiences in the associated asymmetrical linguistic power relations. I have demonstrated that the women's attachment to the English language, which was partly a product of the structured power of the language, was a site where their agency can be observed. Through examining the women's language-related experiences and the associated feelings, I have argued that not only by challenging hegemonic power, but also actively living within it can be regarded as an exercise of agency in the construction of ideal life paths.
  45. My interviewees' narratives at times showed that their lives as linguistic minorities in international marriages in Australia could be explained in terms of their struggles with linguistic power asymmetry. While they might indeed struggle, I have pointed out that it is also necessary to pay attention to their understandings of the struggle. That is, we have to be sensitive to what they have struggled with and why, as well as how they have expressed their struggles. On migrants' difficult experiences in their host countries, Saskia Sassen argues as follows.

      The rationality of emigration is far more complex than [a] push-pull explanation allows for. On the one hand subjective issues come into play. Critical is that many people have shown themselves willing to–live in extreme discomfort and under conditions they might not accept in their home country.[60]

  46. In order to understand the experiences of Japanese migrant women in international marriages, we have to strive to see the complex power structures within which they operate from their perspectives, not only from the researchers' standpoint. By doing so, it becomes possible to observe the women's exercise of agency in their relationships within the power structures, which may otherwise be overlooked although being crucial to the construction of their lives.


    [1] Translations of Japanese materials quoted in this article are done by the author unless indicated otherwise. Japanese in my study means people who: hold Japanese nationality; speak Japanese as a first language; have lived in Japan more than two thirds of their lives; have completed at least secondary education in Japan; and have both parents with Japanese nationality. In this article, Japanese given names are presented in the order family name followed by given name, except when quoting English-language sources where the author uses the English order of given name followed by family name.

    [2] Nicole Constable, 'Introduction: cross-border marriages, gendered mobility, and global hypergamy,' in Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia, ed. Nicole Constable, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005, pp. 1–16, p. 3.

    [3] Constable, 'Introduction,' p. 4.

    [4] Patricia Pessar and Sarah Mahler, 'Gendered geographies of power: analyzing gender across transnational spaces,' in Identities, vol. 7, no. 4 (2001):441–59, p. 445.

    [5] For example, Constable, 'Introduction,' pp. 1–16; Tomoko Nakamatsu, 'Complex power and diverse responses: transitional marriage migration and women's agency,' in The Agency of Women in Asia, ed. Lyn Parker, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2005, pp. 158–81.

    [6] Lyn Parker, 'Introduction,' in The Agency of Women in Asia, ed. Lyn Parker, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2005, pp. 1–25, p. 16.

    [7] Tammy L. Anderson, 'Introduction,' in Neither Villain nor Victim: Empowerment and Agency among Women Substance Abusers, ed. Tammy L. Anderson, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2008, pp. 1–11, p. 4.

    [8] Michel Foucault argues that 'Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations,' in Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Vintage Books, 1990 [1978], p. 94.

    [9] For example, Karen Kelsky, Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001; Matsuo Hisako, Kokusai Rikon, Tokyo: Shueisha, 2005, pp. 122 –34; Katō Etsuko, 'Jibunsagashi' no imin tachi: Kanada. Bankūbā, samayou nihon no wakamono, Tokyo: Sairyusha, 2009, pp. 219–33.

    [10] Kitamura Aya, Nihonjosei wa dokoni iru noka: imēji to aidentiti no seiji, Tokyo: Keisō Shobō, 2009, pp. 3–24, p. 23.

    [11] Kaori Okano, Young Women in Japan: Transition to Adulthood, London and New York: Routledge, 2009, p. 272.

    [12] Okano, Young Women in Japan, p. 9; also Pessar and Mahler, 'Gendered geographies of power,' pp. 445–46; Kelsky, Women on the Verge, p. 10.

    [13] Laura Ahearn, 'Language and agency,' in Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 30 (2001):109–37, p. 112.

    [14] Vera Mackie, Creating Socialist Women in Japan: Gender, Labour and Activism, 1900–1937, Cambridge and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 18.

    [15] Pessar and Mahler, 'Gendered geographies of power,' p. 447.

    [16] Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, 'Beyond "cultures": space, identity, and the politics of difference,' in Cultural Anthropology, vol. 7 (1992):6–23, pp. –9.

    [17] Vera Mackie, 'The language of globalization, transnationality and feminism,' in International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 3, no.2 (2001):180–206, p. 182.

    [18] Patrick McNeill and Steve Chapman, Research Methods, London and New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 123.

    [19] Kathryn Anderson, Susan Armitage, Dana Jack and Judith Witter, 'Beginning where we are: feminist methodology in oral history,' in Feminist Research Methods: Exemplary Readings in the Social Sciences, ed. Joyce McCarl Nielsen, Boulder, San Francisco, and London: Westview Press, 1990, pp. 94–112, p. 98; also Leslie Rebecca Bloom, Under the Sign of Hope: Feminist Methodology and Narrative Interpretation, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, pp. 114–16; Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, 'Introduction,' in Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, ed. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, New York and London: Routledge, 1991, pp. 1–5, pp. 2–3.

    [20] Alessandro Portelli, 'What makes oral history different,' in The Oral History Reader, ed. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, London and New York: Routledge, 1998, pp. 63–74, p. 67.

    [21] David Graddol, 'Global English, global culture?' in Redesigning English: New Texts, New Identities, ed. David Graddol and Sharon Goodman, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 181–217, p. 181.

    [22] Aneta Pavlenko and Adrian Blackledge, 'Introduction: new theoretical approaches to the study of negotiation of identities in multilingual contexts,' in Negotiation of Identities in Multilingual Contexts, ed. Aneta Pavlenko and Adrian Blackledge, Clevedon, Buffalo, Toronto and Sydney: Multilingual Matters, 2004, pp. 1–33, p. 2.

    [23] Harm de Blij, The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization's Rough Landscape, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 39.

    [24] Graddol, 'Global English, global culture?' p. 195.

    [25] Jennifer Jenkins, World Englishes: A Resource Book for Students, London and New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 34.

    [26] Graddol, 'Global English, global culture?' p. 181.

    [27] For example, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Eigo ga Tsukaeru Nihonjin' Ikusei no Tame no Kōdō Keikaku, n.d., URL:, accessed 22 September 2009.

    [28] Nanette Gottlieb, 'Japan,' in Language and National Identity in Asia, ed. Andrew Simpson, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 186–99, p. 197.

    [29] Kitamura Aya, Eigo wa onna o sukuu no ka, Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2011, pp. 22–25, esp. p. 24.

    [30] Yoko Hatta, 'The issues of making English an official language and English education in Japan,' in Bungakubu Kiyō: Bunkyō Daigaku Bungakubu, vol. 16, no. 2 (2002):107–36, p. 113.

    [31] Atsuko Kawakami, 'From an "internationalist woman" to "just another Asian immigrant": transformation of Japanese women's self-image before and after permanent settlement in a western country,' in Journal of Identity and Migration Studies, vol. 3, no.2 (2009):22–39, p. 29.

    [32] For differences in gendered relationships with the English language between men and women, see Kitamura, Eigo wa onna o sukuu no ka, pp. 26–28.

    [33] Kelsky, Women on the Verge, p. 100; also Matsubara Junko, Eigo Dekimasu, Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 1993, pp. 85–127.

    [34] Keiron Bailey, 'Marketing the eikaiwa wonderland: ideology, akogare, and gender alterity in English conversation school advertising in Japan,' in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 24, no. 1 (2006):105–20, p. 109.

    [35] Yoko Kobayashi, 'The role of gender in foreign language learning attitudes: Japanese female students' attitudes towards English learning,' in Gender and Education, vol. 14, no. 2 (2002):181–97; Fumi Morizumi, 'Does gender matter in language learning?,' in Educational Studies, vol. 44 (2001):223–35, pp. 231–32.

    [36] For example, Karen Kelsky, 'Gender, modernity, and eroticized internationalism in Japan,' in Cultural Anthropology, vol. 14, no. 2 (1999): 229–255.; Karen Ma, The Modern Batterfly: Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Cross-Cultural Relationships, Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo: Chares E. Tuttle Company, 1996, pp. 80–83.

    [37] Bailey, 'Marketing the eikaiwa wonderland,' p. 110.

    [38] Katō, "Jibunsagashi" no imin tachi, p. 211.

    [39] For example, Kawakami, 'From an "internationalist woman" to “just another Asian immigrant",' pp. 22–39.

    [40] Kitamura, Eigo wa onna o sukuu no ka, p. 194.

    [41] For example, Toshie Habu, 'The irony of globalization: the experience of Japanese women in British higher education,' in Higher Education, vol. 39, (2000):43–66, pp. 43–45; 52–56; Junko Sakai, Japanese Bankers in the City of London: Language, Culture and Identity in the Japanese Diaspora, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, p. 214; Kawakami, 'From an “internationalist woman" to "just another Asian immigrant",' pp. 22–25.

    [42] Kelsky, Women on the Verge, pp. 2–3.

    [43] Kitamura, Nihon josei wa dokoni iru noka, pp. 120–39.

    [44] In presenting my interview data, I have used pseudonyms for all interviewees. Also, I have employed direct translation in an attempt to convey my interviewees' narratives faithfully in a form close to the original.

    [45] Mary Maynard and June Purvis, 'Introduction: doing feminist research,' in Researching Women's Lives from a Feminist Perspective, ed. Mary Maynard and June Purvis, London: Taylor and Francis, 1994, pp. 1–9, p. 6.

    [46] Sherry Gorelick, 'Contradictions of feminist methodology,' in Feminism and Social Change: Bridging Theory and Practice, ed. Heidi Gottfried, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996, pp. 23–45, pp. 26–30.

    [47] Kitamura, Eigo wa onna o sukuu no ka, p. 62.

    [48] For example, Kawakami, 'From an "internationalist woman" to "just another Asian immigrant",' pp. 28–31; Katō, "Jibunsagashi" no imin tachi, pp. 141–45, for difficult experiences caused by international relocation and international intimate relationships, pp. 106–66; Matsubara, Eigo Dekimasu, pp. 213–226.

    [49] For example, Katsuhiko Suganuma, 'The (dis)embodied swimsuit on the beach,' in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, issue 23 (January 2010), URL:, accessed 1 November 2012.

    [50] Pavlenko and Blackledge, 'Introduction,' p. 4.

    [51] Olivia M. Espin, Women Crossing Boundaries: A Psychology of Immigration and Transformations of Sexuality, New York and London: Routledge, 1999, p. 140.

    [52] Espin, Women Crossing Boundaries, p. 140.

    [53] Alison Tokita, 'Crossing cultural boundaries in the context of marriage: Australian-Japanese marriages and the profession of Japanese Studies,' in Crossing Cultural Borders: Towards an Ethics of Intercultural Communication—Beyond Reciprocal Anthropology—International Symposium, vol. 14 (1999): 237–49, p. 243.

    [54] David Block, Second Language Identities, London and New York: Continuum, 2007, p. 76.

    [55] Block, Second Language Identities, p. 77.

    [56] For example, Sachiko Ishikawa, International Marriages: Globalization on the Home Front, Tokyo: The Simul Press, 1992, pp. 27–31.

    [57] For comments on attitudes to men as breadwinners in mainstream Japanese society, see, for example, Masahiro Yamada, 'Tsumisugita Kekkon: Nihon no kekkon no kongo,' in 'Konkatsu' Gensyō no Shakaigaku, ed. Yamada Masahiro, Tokyo: Tōyō Kēzai Shimpō Sha, 2010, pp. 232–39.

    [58] Pavlenko and Blackledge, 'Introduction', pp. 10–11.

    [59] Sakamoto Kazue, Aidentiti no kenryoku, Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 2005, p. 205.

    [60] Saskia Sassen, A Sociology of Globalization, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2007, p. 132.


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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