ZOOM TALK: “Working Women and Young Industrial Warriors: Daily Life and Daily Work in 1940s Pusan,” Fri 7 October 7pm (EST)/Sat 8 October 1am (KST)

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Source: Institute for Korean Studies at Indiana University @Facebook.

(Please see the Institute for Korean Studies for further information, contact details, and registration link.)

From now on, I’ll be posting information here about every upcoming Zoom talk I’ll be attending personally. And this particular one, how could I not shout from the rooftops about it, despite its horrible hour? Not only is it a rare one for focusing on Busan, my home for two decades, but it also covers wartime Korea. Which in hindsight, is a period I’ve severely neglected, sandwiched as it were between the Modern Girls and New Women of the 1920s and 1930s and the birth of Modern Korea.

Meanwhile, for information about any further upcoming Korea and East Asia-related public Zoom talks, I have to commend Pusan National University professor CedarBough Saeji, who makes a real effort to inform everyone about as many as she can through her Twitter account. To make sure you don’t miss out, please follow her there @TheKpopProf.

Related Posts:

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

«Coeur Kamikaze 心與海» by The Rodeo with Huan Huan 緩緩—Playing in Seoul This Friday-Tuesday

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Source: The Rodeo @Facebook.

I was intrigued by the title alone, frankly. But the song itself proved mesmerizing:

With “elements of indie and psych rock,” Coeur Kamikaze “is a song about loneliness, about missing someone deeply during the challenging times of the Covid pandemic,” by French-Vietnamese singer-musician “The Rodeo” (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Homepage) in collaboration with Taiwanese band “Huan Huan 緩緩” (Facebook, Youtube), and something I was really looking forward to seeing performed by the artist herself in Busan next week.

Unfortunately, that performance has since been cancelled, but Seoulites, who get all the luck, can still see her this Friday to Tuesday.

Meanwhile, to any fellow confused Gen-Xers out there—the song you’re probably thinking of, or at least the one which Coeur Kamikaze instantly reminded me of, is the ATB remix of It’s a Fine Day from the late-1990s:

Which today I learned was based on a 1992 cover by Opus III of the 1983 original written by Edward Barton. Enjoy!

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

One Quick Thing You Absolutely Must Read to Understand Modern East Asia

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Original image source: The Chosun Ilbo, August 2015. For a discussion, see here.

It’s not often that one brief book chapter helps your whole degree make sense overnight. Even less often that someone will rescue a nearly 30 year-old, long since out of print tome from obscurity and offer that chapter as a free download.

Let me thank Shuyi Chua of the Education University of Hong Kong then, for providing a scan of Manuel Castells’ “Four Asian tigers With a Dragon Head: A comparative analysis of the state, economy, and society in the Asian Pacific Rim,” from R. Appelbaum & J. Henderson (eds.), States and development in the Asian Pacific Rim (1992). Not only did it give me one of my first genuine Eureka moments at university, but it’s still so relevant and helpful today that it took pride of place in my recent presentation above, and hence my finding Chua’s link.

(It’s probably still technically illegal to offer it publicly though, which is why I’ve never done so myself. So take advantage while you can!)

Let me also thank Professor Michael Free and his students at Kangwon National University, for the opportunity to wax lyrical about some of my favorite topics to them. If anyone reading would also like me to present to their students sometime in person or via Zoom, if for no other reason than to remind them that it’s not just you that gets excited about your subjects, please give me a buzz.

Finally, a big apology to everyone for not writing for so long. With so little physical social interaction over the summer, and with even what face-to-face contact I do get now almost entirely confined to my family and students, then frankly the weeks and months somewhat blurred into one another, making it difficult to pay much attention to the deadlines I set myself on the (always too many) posts I have in the pipeline. Inspired by my work on the presentation now though, I will try very hard to have one of my longer and more thought-provoking ones ready for you next week.

Until then!

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

Why We Need to Stop Talking about “Asian” and “Western” Women’s Bodies

Setting arbitrary standards for what makes an “Asian” or “Western” body type punishes the vast majority of women who don’t fully measure up to either.

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes. Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash. Post has one NSFW image.

What is it with people ever talking about “Asian” and “Western” women’s bodies?

If the conversation is in Korean, usually only Korean and white women will actually be meant; the latter, as women of color that don’t present as Korean tend to be referred to by their race or nationality instead. But even reduced to just those two groups of women, how could the idealized figures described in those conversations possibly embody the mélange of real, flesh and bone Korean and white women’s body types and features? Let alone actually have something useful to say about them?

I get that the habit mostly boils down to the natural, human tendency to overgeneralize groups in everyday speech. We’re all guilty of that sometimes. But on this topic specifically, the usual common-sense and restraint seem to get thrown out of the window. For one, because women of color are usually not considered “Western” as mentioned, a subject we’ll return to in future posts. Then take the alacrity with which various bodily features are pigeonholed as Korean or white by Korean journalists from all levels of the Korean media, who regularly come up with such pearls of wisdom as: “the most notable trait of Kim Yuna’s “golden ratio body” is her long limbs, just like those of a Westerner’s“; that “Lee Hyo-ri has an Asian bottom [and a Western chest]“; and that “female idols with ‘Western type bodies’…get praised by foreign fans.” Or how there’s items of women’s clothing that Korean women’s bodies are widely considered simply unsuitable for, which can present somewhat of a challenge to Korean companies trying to sell them:

Left picture: I’ve watched Western women wearing leggings, and I’ve had heated discussions about leggings with Western friends. After a month of that, I’ve come to realize why it’s so difficult for Asian women to wear them.

Right picture: When Asian women don’t have wide pelvises, flaps of skin in their “Y-zones” get bunched together and exposed. “Embarrassing!” / Instead of your skin looking soft, it looks thin and lacking in firmness; the underside of your bottom looks flabby. “I’m ashamed!” / Compared to Westerners’ long and slender legs, Asian women’s legs are short and many Asian women have stout lower bodies. “It’s upsetting!”

Shopping in New York’s Chinatown can sometimes be a minefield too:

There is resistance to this line of thinking. In response to Temple Leggings’ sponsored tweets above for instance, one Twitter user (since made a private account) argued that Korean women’s reluctance to wear leggings actually has nothing to do with their perceived body shapes or supposed too short legs vis-a-vis Western women, but is more because of a culture of constant evaluation of their bodies and “gaze rape” (“동양여성들이 레깅스를 입기 힘든 이유는 동양 여성들의 체형때문이 아니라 여성몸매평가 문화와 시선강간 때문입니다…”) with commentators in the ensuing long thread often echoing sentiments about leggings raised in both sides of recent controversies over them in the US. And probably she’s got a better handle than I do on why she doesn’t wear leggings, and has spoken to far more women about them too.

But Temple Leggings wouldn’t have mentioned Korean and Western bodies if they didn’t think it would resonate with their target market. And I have spoken to some Korean women on the subject of Asian and Western bodies specifically, and they’ve all been quite blasé about making such distinctions. I regularly hear women loudly doing so in coffee shops too, and my students aren’t shy about it either. Also, it may well just be confirmation bias, but it feels very telling that the very first result from my YouTube search for “동양몸매,” the “다이어트천재 동양몸매 vs 미친골반 서양몸매 구경하고 가세요” video (“Genius Asian body diet vs. crazy [wide?] pelvis Western body challenge”) that I couldn’t resist inserting the thumbnail from below, was titled and captioned thus without either woman ever actually mentioning Asian or Western bodies in it. Add journalists’ enthusiasm for raising the subject too, then I’m going to go right ahead and say this way of thinking is totally a thing.

Source: 파쿠아-PAQUA.

But that gives absolutely no-one permission to engage in Orientalist eye-rolling at the habit. For the Western, English-language pop culture, media, cosmetic, and medical industries are equally guilty of perpetuating such cringeworthy distinctions. More so even, as they’re frequently underscored by racist assumptions that Asian women aren’t just fundamentally different, but actually yearn to look white too.

If that’s news, I recommend reading Professor Ruth Holliday’s (Leeds University) and Professor Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s (University of Western Australia) 2012 Body & Society article “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea” on the subject, in which they present numerous examples—and which read like a withering manifest of the intellectual baggage Western observers can’t help but bring to the subject. But read it even if it’s not news too, both for their critiques of other journal articles and especially for the stark clarity with which two strong themes of English-language discourses on the subject emerge from their discussion.

First, is the hypocrisy and absurdity of raising the subject of race and a supposed desire for “westernization” at all when discussing the motivations of say, Korean-American breast-augmentation patients in the US, but never doing so for their white counterparts, who are ascribed completely different reasons—again, perpetuating the notion that each group is fundamentally different, both physiologically and psychologically. And second, the fact that Korean-Americans in the US, they point out (let alone Koreans in Korea), are hardly immune to specifically Korean beauty ideals, whether they retain them when they come to the US, they are exposed to them through relatives and the wider Korean-American community, and/or they are encouraged to adopt them by following the examples of increasingly visible Korean celebrities. In fact, they may be motivated more by those ideals than whatever Western reporters, cosmetic surgeons, and academics insist they are instead (who’d have thought?), with “V-line” surgery, for instance, being very popular in Korea, but which cannot possibly be described as making Koreans look more white.

Put like that, it seems astounding that the narrative that Koreans just want to look white persists.

But it’s not that simple. Spend any amount of time in Korea, and actually you’ll quickly encounter overwhelming evidence that seems to support it, which few people have the inclination and time necessary to debunk. This is why the stereotype is so strong.

Allure Korea took ten years to feature its first Korean cover model. Source: unknown.

For starters, consider how many ostensible Western beauty ideals such as pale skin are indeed heavily valued in Korea, Holliday and Elfving-Hwang explain, albeit largely only because they “entered Korea fitting pre-existing notions of class and status.” Also, among many, many other potential sources of confirmation bias:

(Update: Instead, it’s because they’re somewhat less likely to sue than Korean models, as once hilariously revealed by a nightclub owner that refused entrance to non-Koreans, despite featuring foreign women in the club’s posters. Indeed, as if to stress that it’s not always about white people, back in 2011 I thought the model in this poster for another club was Korean, and there was no reverse image-search available then; only now can she be revealed as the very white supermodel Miranda Kerr, photographed a few weeks previously by Seth Sebal. To the best of my knowledge, neither of their lawyers have gotten in touch with the nightclub yet.

Source: MS-Photograph; (CC BY 2.0).

Believing that Koreans want to look white then, does make a lot of sense. Right up the moment you read, or are personally informed through the clenched teeth of Koreans and colleagues, of how sick and tired they are of such assertions—and you suddenly realize that all this time you’ve been talking about Koreans rather than with Koreans, and can no longer rely on the convenient narratives you’ve being telling yourself to help understand the place.

By no means does this only apply to body image either: realizing how important it is to just STFU and listen is a very important process that every expat, observer, and commentator on every group or culture they are not native to must go through. And, if you didn’t personally need reminding of that, and feel I’ve actually been completely projecting all this time? With all the points mentioned so far reading like signposts in my own much too long journey through that process? Then you’re absolutely right.

Source: Mei Mei Rado, “The Qipao and the Female Body in 1930s China“, p. 193.

You’ll appreciate then, my uncomfortable surprise when I recently read Professor Mei Mei Rado’s chapter “The Qipao and the Female Body in 1930s China” in Elegance in the Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s (2014). In that, Professor Rado (Parsons School of Design, NY) explains that in China in the 1920s and 1930s, Kuomintang government officials and male intellectuals did explicitly view white women’s bodies as ideals for Chinese women to aspire to. Which not to say Chinese women necessarily did themselves, or even at all, but Professor Rado’s argument that it dominated discourses about women’s bodies at the time is very convincing.

This post was originally intended to be a discussion of the numerous questions that raises: what other scholars can confirm her arguments? What influence, if any did those discourses have not just in China, but also in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea? What did people in those countries think of foreign bodies and beauty ideals then?

Those questions proved to be far too much for one post, so now my answers will be spread over several in a series. Always hanging over covering this topic at all though, was the fact that I’m still basically a middle-aged, cishet, white guy explaining that (he was shocked to read that some) Asian women (once) want(ed) to look white (maybe). To avoid being lumped in with every other pig-ignorant Orientalist commentator that genuinely believes that then, all my own baggage as a Western commentator needed to be laid on the table first. And there was a lot to unpack.

With that out of the way, Part 2 will be a discussion of Professor Rado’s chapter and other sources on discourses about women’s bodies in 1920s-1930s China, while Part 3 will be on those in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea at the same time, extending to a Part 4 if necessary. Until then, is there anything else that I’ve missed or been misguided about, or you think needs an alternative perspective? Please let me know in the comments!

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

An Introduction to Japanese Subcultures: Free online course, starting Oct. 31

boys-order-goro-memo(Source: goro memo; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sorry for the lack of posts everyone: I’ve been insanely busy, and still am in fact. Naturally then, I’ve just decided to make myself busier still, by signing up for the free online course “An Introduction to Japanese Subcultures” provided by FutureLearn and Keio University. Here’s a description from their welcome page, which also has an introduction video:

Subcultures have existed for a long time: the greasers of 1950s America, the mods and rockers of the 1960s and 70s in England, the grunge of the 1980s and 90s, to name a few. Each subculture sits within a broader ‘parent’ culture and can often give us an insight into cultural fears and hopes, especially in the youth of the population.

On this course you will get an introduction to Japanese subcultures that have developed since the 1970s.

Explore different aspects of Japanese subcultures

Japanese subculture has been long considered as ephemeral youth culture compared to authentic traditional culture. It contains, however, subversive power which encourages younger generations to re-create the world they live in. We mainly focus on the significance of immaturity and vulnerability of youth which eventually give permission to younger people (in other words, minorities) to stay as they are.

In this course, together with three other specialists, Professor Niijima, Professor Takahashi and Professor Ohwada, we will explore girls comics, boys comics, the Hatsune Miku vocaloid, cosplay, and J-pop idols, focusing on the themes such as Love, Battle, Technology and Fan culture, in which you’ll learn about the different cultural creations that underpin Japanese subcultures. With materials for cultural analysis, you’ll develop a basic knowledge of key Japanese subcultures, learning the recognisable traits of each.

Understand the historic context of Japanese subcultures

On the course you’ll discover historic background of youth culture in Japan, and understand the enormous impact of World War II.

Learn about Japanese subcultures and the youth of Japan

Finally, this course will give you a new perspective on the young people of Japan, exploring how they can be seen to elaborate the world of “immaturity” and “vulnerability.” You will see the reason these characteristics of Japanese subculture attracts “global” attentions.

This post isn’t an endorsement of course, but the course does sound interesting, and hardly demanding at 3 hours a week for 4 weeks. Please let me know if you sign up too (we can be buddies!), and/or if you’ve done any other FutureLearn courses and what you thought of them.

Meanwhile, seeing as we’re on the subject of Japan, I do very much want to give an endorsement of Cecilia D’Anastasio’s interview of Amelia Cook, about her new site Anime Feminist. Frankly, Cook’s answers really spoke to me about the work I do in Korea, and especially most recently on the male gaze, which just goes to show how universal some of the pop culture issues she addresses are—so I’m sure you’ll have lots to take away from the interview too. Make sure to check it out over at Kotaku.

Something Everybody Needs to Know About Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever Personal Zones(Source, left: Kevin Jaako, CC BY-NC 2.0. Source, right: Isabel Santos Pilot, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, edited)

Now, I’d be the last person in the world to victim-blame anyone who’s ever been the target of Yellow Fever. And I don’t doubt for a moment that the media is overwhelmingly responsible for creating and perpetuating the stereotypes that come with it. But for those men who bring those stereotypes with them to East Asia, there is one aspect of life here that is likely to further convince them of local women’s attraction to them. What’s more, it’s something so fundamental, so visceral, that frankly it completely fooled me too—even though I never shared those stereotypes, and definitely continued to treat Korean women as individuals. 

See here to learn what it is, and why it has impacts that go well beyond mere dating. While it’s really quite simple, and I think most people who deal with people from a foreign country or live in one are already aware of it on some level, I think it’s enormously helpful to have it spelt out—especially if you’re having a bad experience. Also, although again I stress it only plays a minor role in perpetuating Yellow Fever stereotypes, I think it’s one that tends to get neglected in most (English) discussions of those, which tend to focus on Asian-Americans.

I’d be very interested to learn if readers have had any similar experiences, and what you did about them. (Or if your students have; if mine are going overseas, I make sure to photocopy the relevant pages of this book for them!) Also, how does it play out with the sexes reversed?

Continue reading “Something Everybody Needs to Know About Yellow Fever”