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Japanese housewives

Are Japanese housewives no longer on strike?

The NYT today tells us that household spending is up. And it is widely understood that Japanese housewives control the household budget.

The most intriguing explanation for the long-standing downturn in the Japanese economy I ever heard is from Alan Middleton who teaches marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. (And to be fair to Alan, he was not insisting that this was the only factor nor that it was a certain one. He suggested it as a possibility only. It’s also worth pointing out that Alan ran an advertising agency in Tokyo some years ago and continues to have very good contacts there.)

Alan says that he thought it was possible that the downturn was created in part by a version of Japanese feminism. Japan has embraced many cultural innovations, but it is not clear that feminism is one of them. In fact, it looks like the cultural division that once prevailed, more or less, in the West prevails there still.

Women control the domestic space, men the world outside the home. Women do participate in the world of work, but very often they are confined to the role of secretaries and assistants. What is worse, men continue to treat women with a high hand and a presumption of superiority.

I caught a glimpse of this when I was doing research for Kodak a couple of years ago in Tokyo. As one interview began, there was a long exchange between the head of the household and the translator. As we were leaving the home, I asked her what it was about.

“Oh, he was asking me why I was not yet married. He was mocking me.”

I waited. It sounded like there was more coming.

Fnally, she said, with great feeling, in a quiet but unmistakeable voice addressed a little to me but mostly to the world.

“What I didn’t say was that if I was married I would have to live with a pig like him.”

She was, it should be said, about 35, intelligent, attractive, presentable, and very, very clear.

This is just one data point, but it spoke volumes. In cases like this, anthropologists, and for many of them this may be the only time they do so, play a statistical game. This woman, as I got to know her over a week of constant company, with the opportunity to watch her interacting with households, in every respect a conventional creature. The chances that this feminist sentiment should have taken hold in her and not in some substantial part of the educated, middle class, was remote. Single remarks from single individuals can speak volumes for the rest of the community.

So several things are possible: 1) that feminist sentiment is alive and well in many Japanese homes, 2) that there has been almost no movement in the larger culture and economy to accomodate it, and 3) that Japanese women began to use the last weapon at their disposal. They controlled the household economy and to this extent some part of the domestic consumer economy…and they went on strike.

Clearly, there were many other things at work in the economic downturn, including a banking crisis and an economy that has in some respects, especially to do with channels of distribution, not very much changed since the middle of the 20th century. But this factor, if it is a factor, would be a very interesting one, not least because it will take more than banking or channel reform to fix it.

This is where anthropology meets economics in the most conventional way. Economics is very good at making numbers matter. Most of the things that are wrong with the Japanese economy can be indexed, charted, graphed and otherwise made manifest in the data that comes to economists from Dow Jones and the Bloomberg system.

What will never show in these numbers is the way Japanese women think about themselves, their husbands, their households and their economy. This factor, if it is a factor, will play like a shadow on a spread sheet. It may somehow have changed, and changing, made the new upturn possible. But it is more likely that Japan continues to refuse feminism and that the “housewive boycott” will live on to make itself felt another day.

Japanese Household Spending Rises for 4th Month in a Row

Interviewing Lou Reed

Simon Hattenstone interviews Lou Reed in this week’s Guardian (link below). Hattenstone goes into the article thinking of Reed as a hero, and comes out regarding him as an arrogant, uncooperative bully.

The result is an artifact that displays several competing ideas in our endlessly complicated culture.

First, it’s clear that Reed is not only uncooperative. He is refusing the conventional idea of rock journalism that supposes, according to some now ancient Romantic idea, that art is an expression of the artist’s rich and complicated personal life. According to this cultural convention, it is the journalist’s right and responsibility to search out the connection between art and life. Reed is having none of this. He will talk about the music, but not about his life. In what may or not be a punk gesture, he bullies Hattenstone everytime personal matters are asked for.

Second, Hattenstone is engaged in a Romantic gesture of his own. According to the new journalism, it is the journalist’s right and responsibility to insinuate himself into the proceedings. He too has a precious creative self, and this must be displayed in his journalism, as surely as the artist displays it in his art. He goes into the interview with his heart, and a certain celebrity adoration, on his sleeve and is wounded by Reed’s rude treatment of his “gift.”

What’s odd is that neither party seems to get what the other party is doing. Hattenstone doesn’t seem to see that Reed is insisting on by now pretty well conventionalized terms of engagement. But this makes you wonder how he can be a music critic for the Guardian. What, he’s never interviewed a punk before? (This is not to say Reed is a punk, merely that he draws from, and helped create, the same cultural well).

And it’s not clear that Reed sees, in any formal way, what Hattenstone is asking for. One way to have made this an interesting interview would have been to challenge the assumptions of the interview, instead of the questions that sprang from them. It wouldn’t have been the interview Hattenstone wanted but it would have been one he would have gladly taken. And readers would have been better served.

There are other ideas in collision here: including a spectacular one between English civility and American candor, but I leave those for other readers and writers.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,958676,00.html

Tag, we’re it

There are a number of experiments taking place on the internet.

In bookcrossings, people register a book at the website and then release it "into the wild”" (i.e., leave it in some public place).  The finder is asked to pass it along and record the find on the bookcrossings website.  (All links below.)

In geocaching, people search out caches using GPS coordinates posted on line, and when they find the cache, they take one thing and leave another. 

In phototagging, disposable cameras are left somewhere in public and the finder is asked to take one photo and pass the camera along.  The camera returns to the phototagging team and they post the photos and sometimes a log of where it’’s been and who used it. 

In where’’s george, people register dollar bills, return these to the wild, and ask finders to record the bill as it passes through their hands. 

The payphone project records the numbers of 500,000 pay phones.  This allows us to phone the bus station in Los Alamos or Bea’s dinner in Sao Paulo, Brazil and speak to perfect strangers.

There is a thesis or two to be written about these projects and no doubt, Henry Jenkins at the MIT Comparative Media program has someone on the job. 

A few comments in anticipation of the full treatment:

In a way, this is the internet made to exist in the "real” world."  People release little packets of information (books, cameras, bills) into the world and strangers pick them up and pass them on. 

The real world now acts like the virtual one.  Those who have a dark cast of mind will say we are offering abject deference to the internet, that these are little offerings to the new god. 

There are other explanations.   

This is a simple reenchantment of the world.  We live in a society of strangers, bound largely by the anonymous exchange of commodities (see the "Mrs. Woolworth, meet Sarah"” entry below).  The crossing/caching/tagging project reenchants this world by filling it with gestures of generosity.  Commodities are replaced by gifts.  Goods are replaced by highly personal offerings, stamped by the giver’’s taste and circumstances.  Economies of goods are replaced by an exchange of gestures and solicitudes.  "Here, have this book."  "Hey, take a picture."  "Um, this call’s for you.” "

One of the things that died with modernism (to the extent that modernism is dead) is our affection for the sheer spectacular scale of a mass society.  I think those Hollywood films of the post war period would usually represent our feeling for scale by shooting Manhattan from Brooklyn, so that we could see the vast magnificent plane of illuminated buildings (Days of Wine and Roses has one of these).   

We are now much more interested in locales that are local, little, encompassing Boston’’s north end, Montreal’’s plateau, New York’’s Soho.  We want the particular, the odd, the unpredictable.  And now, having sought out the post modernist city, we are furnishing it with little gestures of the particular, the odd and the unpredictable.  We have found a new stage for the preferred drama of city life and now we are furnishing it.  Enchanted, anti-economic, newly local, all of these are new cultural reflexes, or old ones returned. 

These are themes that appeared vividly in the Fluxus art movement and they are now evident elsewhere in popular culture.  The films Pass it forward (Mimi Leder 2000) and Serendipity (Peter Chelsom 2001) both play on this theme.  So did the children’s book Paddle to the Sea.  The ‘tag, you’’re it’” Nike ad does as well.  So does the new TV show Hack

There is also a kind of Gaia theme here.  We are with these gestures acting like a "smart mob,"” strangers acting in concert, furnishing the world with new networks of connection.  When all of us engage in tiny acts of generosity, we remake the world by connecting it.  These may be our motives, a new internet in the world, a reenchanting of the world, a localizing of the world, an interconnecting of the world but probably not.  No, almost certainly, these are too grand. 

There a couple of possibilities, sneaking hunches more like.  Why is it we do this anonymously?  If the point of the exercise is to reenchant and personalize the world, why do we not pass the book hand to hand.  Why not rush up to stranger and say, "read this, I know you’’ll like it”"?   

No, we persist with the anonymity and then the anthropological question becomes, "why do we think we are?,”" what role or personae do we assume in this act of anonymous giving?  Why must we be "not there"” at the moment that the book or the cache passes to a stranger (who remains to this extent a perfect stranger)? 

It might be that we are appointing ourselves as angels.  We like the idea of intervening invisibly.  We are like the ideas of being agents of random goodness.  We have assumed a transformation, we have given ourselves a new and strange kind of agency. 

There is, frankly, something a little creepy about this aspect of the puzzle.  Isn’t there a hubris about assuming that a stranger will care about our taste in books?  Who do we think we are?  The angel theme is everywhere in contemporary culture these days, and part of our larger reenchantment.  See the film by Wim Wenders, the remake by Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage, and all those TV shows. 

We may resist the idea of acting like gods, but angels…  Angels we can do. 

Let me end with one of the strangest aspects of this phenomenon.  The founder of the pay phone project, Mark Thomas, was asked by Shift Magazine what he says when he calls one of the numbers he has collected, he said, "I never really know what to say.  Sometimes I just ask for myself.  Is Mark Thomas there?  A blond guy with glasses?”   

This is spectacularly odd but somehow recognizable.  We are now as transformational as this, prepared to insinuate ourselves in the world, prepared to suppose that we exist where we cannot.  This is another species of hubris.  But it reflects our willingness to suppose that we are now able to move up out of the local coordinates of the self, and into the world, in a photograph, a phone call, a dollar bill, a book we love, and take up some sort of residence there. 

Tag, we’re it.

the payphone project http://www.payphone-project.com/

geocaching http://www.geocaching.com/

where’s george http://www.wheresgeorge.com/

phototagging http://www.phototag.org/

Culp, Kristine. 2003. "Paradise Lost,” found in a phone book in Edmonton, National Post. January 4, 2003: here, see also here

Mrs. Woolworth, meet Sarah

Commerce has a way of making capital colourless. Here’s a corrective. (All names and figures are sheer guesswork and offered for illustrative purposes only. With apologies to Frank Capra.)

Sarah Zupko is a little girl in Red Deer, Alberta. Her Dad took her into town today. It’s January 4, 1948. Her Dad stops at Woolworth’s for a coffee at the counter. He falls into conversation with his friends, other farmers, there: crops, water tables, combines, silage, almanacs, Indian summers and spring.

Sarah is pretty sure she couldn’t care less. She wanders though the aisles and comes eventually to rest in front of an illuminated glass case. There under glass is a watch, its perfect little numerals marching around the dial, delicate hands now still, and a metal band of cunning silver, a bracelet really. It is $9.60.

Sarah visits the case and the watch on every visit into town and magically on her 9th birthday, in late March, the watch is hers. The birthday party, thunderous with farm children and festivity, falls silent. The watch is hers.

The rest is economics. The Woolworth’s store in Red Deer keeps half of the $9.60 and the Chicago distributor keeps half of what’s left. By the time Mr. and Mrs. Zupko’s $9.60 finds its way into the Woolworth’s fortune, it has become 33 cents.

Value has migrated from a glass case to a large vault. But it does not stay there.

The Woolworths are building a summer home and 7 cents is spent to help hire men to clear the land that runs down to the point. The value Mr. Zupko extracted as winter wheat from prairie soil will actually now return to the ground as Mrs. Hudson, wife of one of the laborers, spends part of it to buy the seed for her summer garden. A dime will go to help pay for Mr. Woolworth’s dues at the Century Club and part of this will be spent on that bee’s wax that is used to give club chairs and tables the glow they give off in the light of the fire that burns all day in the library. Another dime will go to the grand tour that the eldest Woolworth daughter will take to Europe that year, a trip from which she will return with a taste for poetry and men who are a little bit dangerous. A few cents will even go to help pay for the clasp that holds the necklace that Mrs. Woolworth wears to the social event of the season, where it will be eclipsed by the still more magnificent jewelry worn by that jumped up Mrs. Chetwin, a creature who has finally pushed Mrs. Woolworth from her accustomed place of splendor.

The Woolworth’s family are a little like the mouth of the Fraser River, the place from which the tiny purchases made upstream by little girls in obscure places come rushing into the world, released from transit and their colorless state as mere capital, into labor, summer homes, spring vegetables, bee’s wax, grand tours, poetry, necklaces and social failure.

We’ve said nothing of the upward flow, how the value created by Woolworth’s working it’s way into a glass case and a watch…and from there into parental solicitude, and a little girl’s sense of herself. The watch that played the conduit for this flow upwards and downwards now sits in an antique store in Winnipeg, Manitoba, once more in a glass case, waiting for another chance to turn commerce into culture.

Post card from Mexico I

Postcards from Mexico

I was so lonely in Mexico I send out about 30 postcards. Weeks passed. And finally one found its way home, beating its way through bad weather and high winds to my friend Jim in Montreal.

To Jim
This turns out to be a city of lazy light and shadow, filtered by smog we can’t do in North America, not enough (or the same) particulate content, I think. They have these little machines, I believe they call them Volkswagens, that travel the city, constantly producing more and seeing to an even(ing) distribution. Got to the anthropology museum just in time for closing but they let me walk the courtyard. Magnificent. And outside little carts with multitudes in shrink wrap, lighters, playing cards, children’s toys. Their Halloween is coming! Hope you’re well. Seen you soon.