Gender, work, and the politics of identity: Work collectives and social activism among middle-class housewives in contemporary Japan

Date of Completion

January 1998


Anthropology, Cultural|Women's Studies




This dissertation examines the characteristics of women's work collectives and their socio-political implications, placing specific emphasis on the intrinsic relationship between gender ideology and the socio-political processes of postwar Japan. The central questions addressed are: (1) how gender and class in a particular historical context animate women's collective actions; (2) how their experiences of collectives transform their perspectives on women's roles and work in society; (3) how grassroots activism is brought into public discourse and becomes an agent for social change. ^ Women's work collectives in Japan were initiated by a group of housewives in 1982 as an offshoot of consumer cooperative movements. They aspired to create a collective enterprise which combined economic activities with social activism as an alternative to the work patterns and culture of the existing society. The collectives are organized on the principle of a democratic workplace and equality of all members. In 1995, there were 250 collectives throughout Japan, with 7000 members—mostly middle-aged, middle-class housewives. I conducted a 14-month fieldwork at two lunch-catering collectives. ^ Based on my findings, this dissertation aspires to challenge two theoretical issues pertinent to the study of gender, work, and politics: first, the women's work collectives in Japan bring into question the notion that work collective movements inherently represent working-class struggle against capitalism. Class status—in this case middle-class status—enables women to participate in collectives, rather than to be challenged by the collective action. Second, the convention of social activism is criticized for its limited scope in understanding the ways people organize collective actions. Viewed from this position, women's collectives appear to be politically passive. However, within the limitations of institutional barriers and ideological constraints, they make strategic use of available cultural and social resources and produce a realistic goal in ways that make their effort sustainable and effective. Their strategy—covertly making claims for broader choices for women with a long-term vision—presents an alternative way of conceptualizing social movements. This perspective highlights the transformative potential for change of women's collectives. ^