Monday, December 14, 2015

Gender and the City: homosociality among Bangkok's Japanese

Homosociality is so in your face in Japan that no one even notices it. A lot of time, men and women socialise separately. It's a given, no one even talks or thinks strange about it. As it is often the case in Japan, things go extreme. There are women-only train cars, lots of urbanites stop having romantic or sexual realtionships with the opposite sex, while Japanese gender-targeted marketing is perhaps the most pervasive and relentless you'll ever see. Still, homosociality is never talked about. It's so normal, like the air we breathe, that it does not even seem to register.

After 25 years of spending a lot of time with the Japanese, it really only occurred to me as a social fact last winter. For my fieldwork, I had to do sampling among Bangkok's Japanese migrants. Men wouldn't give me time of the day, so it was mostly women that I got to hang out with and ask questions. The contrast was so sharp, it came as a cognitive shock. Knowing of homosociality from research on and my travels in the Middle East and North Africa, I immediately had a light-bulb moment, 'Bang! This is it! How could I miss it all these years?'

It seems that no one has cottoned on Japanese homosociality either. There's one piece of literary research on it, but it is mostly about homoeroticism in Modern Japanese literature. Nothing in social sciences. Completamente nada. Perhaps, it's because many social scientists are not hip to the very term homosociality (I did ask around) as it comes from literary criticism. Namely, from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick who, inter allia, claimed that Henry James's broken sentence structure is a sign of anal-fingering tendencies.

Cue to my Japanese migrants in Bangkok with their penchant of hanging out along gender lines. Despite my sampling difficulties, I've managed to gather enough empirical evidence from my interviews and participant observation. There are so many subtle arrangements, tacit understandings and internalised values getting the entire gender segregation machine running! Earthlings never cease to amaze me.

So that's what I just gave a talk on at the Daiwa Foundation. It is based on one of my thesis chapters, which I am also presenting at the Southeast Asia Symposium 2016 in Oxford, and also at the ASEASUK Conference 2016 at my alma mater

I would be very grateful for comments and suggestions, particularly re. extant research on the subject.

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