ZOOM TALK: “Missing Voices that Matter: a history of Japanese women law professorial pioneers, considering the social impact of their scarcity,” Tue 11 October 6pm (PDT)/ Wed 12 October 10am (KST)

Pervasive sexual inequality can feel like death from a thousand cuts. No one source of pain or minor irritation isn’t possible to dismiss or play down in favor of other, more visceral struggles against the patriarchy. But as it turns out, women’s relative absence from the legal profession has cascading effects across all society.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Photo by cottonbro at Pexels.

When young Korean men return to university after doing their military service, they’re generally two to three years older than their female classmates. In a society where age really, really matters, this gap can grant those men a great deal of privilege. For example, by being able to avoid various mundane tasks periodically required of students by the university, as these get foisted onto the young(er) women instead. Like during this coming December after the university entrance exams, when some of my female students will be expected to “volunteer” to waste a precious day before their tests by bowing in the freezing cold to visiting high-schoolers as they arrive on the bus, while my male students study from the warmth comfort of the library.

Damn right, do I see a direct link to why so many talented and highly educated women are wasted answering the phones and making the coffee at Korean workplaces.

All of which may feel like an odd introduction to announce an upcoming hybrid talk (register) by Mark A. Levin and Tomomi Yamaguchi at the David Lam Centre of Simon Fraser University, which is not actually about Korea at all. But, based on its description below, it still feels intimately useful and relevant nonetheless. Specifically, I’m wagering it will reveal many more instances of how something seemingly innocuous like a slight age gap can have surprisingly wide implications for sexual equality, offering many similar possibilities to explore—and combat—in the Korean context:

“While the U.S. and Japan’s earliest generation of female legal scholars showed roughly similar numbers, their paths soon diverged dramatically. The number of women in the two legal academies in the 1950s to about 1960 were not all that different. Both nations counted phenomenally low numbers similarly. The U.S. took an early lead, but not by all that much. One report counted five women in tenure track positions in the U.S. in 1950 and another counted fourteen women before 1960. Japan could count five women by 1956 and eight women by 1958. Neither fifteen women in the U.S. nor eight women in Japan represent even token counts among individuals who made up the two countries’ legal academy professoriate in those times.”

“The difference then is in what followed. In the U.S., we crossed a count of 100 women around 1970 and then accelerated to 516 women by 1979, while Japan’s count essentially flatlined. From 1958 in Japan, there were no new women entrants for about ten years and then the next uptick in Japan was just five women entering the field in the late 1960s through 1974. After a second near hiatus of about eight years, Japan then saw some modest growth to have a total of twenty-two women who had entered law teaching by 1988. Our next found data point is 402 women in 2004.”

“The profound scarcity of voices of women academics as leaders, teachers, and scholars in Japanʻs legal academy for several decades remains significantly detrimental for Japanʻs gender circumstances today. The story demonstrates how crucial womenʻs and other feminist voices are in addressing gender gaps and dismantling patriarchy in a society. In particular, having women and feminist allies in the legal academy is essential for feminism to advance in a society. Conversely, deficits regarding women and feminist allies in the legal academy will invariably impact the overall society’s gender circumstances for the worse. And so, just as feminist legal theorists would suggest, it seems essential to assess those circumstances in Japan with the idea that gender gap deficits in Japan’s legal academy must be at least a contributing factor to the nation’s profound and distressing gender gap situation more generally that continue to the present day.”

“This talk aims to explore not only how, but why the two paths diverged so significantly. With time allowing, some effort will be made to draw upon Canada’s circumstances to add another historical sequence into the telling here.”

Truthfully though, it was not those possibilities that first convinced me to sign up. Rather, it was the disjuncture the blurb noted between Japan’s postwar democratic, egalitarian ideals and the actual practice in Japanese women’s personal and professional lives. For it all sounded very familiar (as it probably did to many of you too), having already read much the same in a chapter from a classic Korean studies book: “The Concept of Female Sexuality in Korean Popular Culture” by So-hee Lee (pp. 141-164) in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (ed. by Laruel Kendell, 2002). To refresh your memories from page 144, with my emphases:

“[Korean women in their early-30s {now early-60s}]…were the first female generation to go to school en masse, side by side with their brothers. As Wonmo Dong (1988) argues, they learned democracy and its fundamental principles of liberty and equality as an academic subject, not as something to practice in everyday life. From the beginning of their university days, around 1980, they were pushed into the whirl of extremely violent demonstrations to demand national political democratization. Although political protests had long been a part of Korean student life, there was something about the culture of protest that emerged in the 1980s that was different from what had gone before; student activism became an all-pervasive and all-defining experience. In those days, various slogans and ideologies relating to the struggle for democracy were strongly imprinted on the consciousness of this generation as a metadiscourse. However, the students of the 1980s never examined these democratic values in the context of their own everyday lives.”

“Go Alone Like the Rhinoceros’s Horn (Source, left: Whitedevil) illustrates the bifurcation between theory and practice. Looking at their mothers’ lives, Korean women in their early thirties believed that their marriages would be different. Because the Korean standard of living and patterns of material life changed very quickly, they believed that Korean ways of thinking had been transformed with the same speed. This is where their tragedy begins. As Hye-Wan in the novel says, mothers “teach daughters to live differently from themselves but teach sons to live like their fathers” (Kong 1993, 83–84). As a result, the daughters’ generation experiences an enormous conflict between the real and the ideal. During sixteen years of schooling, they have learned that equality is an important democratic value, but nowhere have they been taught that women experience the institution of marriage as a condition of inequality. Many married women of this generation have experienced a process of self-awakening similar to that of Yông- Sôn, who early in the novel tries to kill herself. She says,“Where have I been during the last eight years of my marriage?” and concludes,“Though I don’t want to accept it, I’ve been a sincere and faithful maid who must carry out his every request” (109). Korean wives in their thirties cannot envisage a real-life alternative to the self-sacrifices of their mothers’ generation.”

See “Women Getting on Top: Korean Sexuality in Flux in the 1990s” for a further discussion of Lee’s chapter. And, please feel free to say hi in the private chat if you are able to attend the talk! ;)

(But if you can’t make it, hopefully the talk will be made available on the Centre’s YouTube channel later.)

Update—Indeed it was. There seem to be technical difficulties embedding it here however, so if the video below doesn’t work please watch it on YouTube:

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

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