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:


Related Posts

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

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 recommend 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)

If You Understand Korean, Please Don’t Miss Out: “After Me Too” (애프터 미투, 2021) is Screening October 6-9!

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

The clincher:

가장 도발적인 작품은 소람 감독의 ‘그레이 섹스’다. 흑백으로 구분할 수 없는 회색지대처럼 성폭력은 아니지만 그렇다고 즐거운 섹스도 아닌 성 경험을 말한다. 여성의 성적 욕망 자체에 조명을 비추는 작품이기도 하다. 내가 무엇을 원하는지 정확히 알아야, 피해 아니면 가해라는 이분법의 언어를 벗어나 자신이 느끼는 혼란과 모호함의 정체를 붙들 수 있다고 말하는 듯 하다. ‘미투’ 운동에 대한 다큐멘터리라기보단 말 그대로 ‘미투 그 이후’, 새로운 장으로 넘어가기 위한 고민이다. 네 작품 중 가장 마지막으로 배치됐지만, 매끈한 결론 대신 오히려 생각할 거리를 안고 극장을 나서게 한다.

“The most provocative [of the four mini-documentaries] is director Soram’s Grey Sex. It refers to sexual experiences that can be considered to be in a grey area—not outright sexual assault, but not exactly pleasurable, enjoyable sex either. It is also a work that shines on a light on the nature of women’s sexual desire itself. It seems to be saying that if you know exactly what you want, you can break free of the binary, dichotomous language of victim and aggressor, thereby taking control of and overcoming any confusion and ambiguity you may feel. Rather than a documentary about the ‘Me Too’ movement per se [like the previous mini-documentaries], it’s literally ‘After #MeToo,’ illuminating a path on how to move on to a new chapter. By being placed last of the four, rather than providing a smooth conclusion to the documentary as a whole, it give viewers something to think about as they leave the theater.”

See here for more information about this documentary as a whole, or these two trailers:

Not going to lie, I’m expecting a few curious looks when I attend myself later this week. Will I be the only non-Korean person in the theater? The only man?*

What if that curiosity leads to—horror of horrors—someone actually striking up a conversation afterwards, forcing me to brush off my rusty spoken Korean skills as I explain why I came?

The peculiarities of my glorious visage aside, it would seem odd I was there. After all, my job is actually almost entirely devoid of office politics, because of reasons. True, there’s interacting with my young Korean students, which I admit will indeed always be overshadowed by my privilege of being a middle-aged cishet white man, not to mention the power over them which comes with conferring grades. Yet if you really knew anything my utterly lowly job, you’d laugh at the notion that such power was sufficient to seriously consider abusing it.

(Update—In hindsight, I realize my privilege in being a middle-aged cishet white man may have clouded my judgement about the lack of office politics. Sigh.)

Then there’s dating (etc.), which I’ve recently become painfully aware I haven’t pursued in nearly 22 years. Those few genuine offers I’ve received in all that time, that I like to pretend weren’t entirely just wishful thinking on my part (but do know I always turned down with nothing but grace and respect), don’t provide much of a foundation to navigate the choppy sexual politics of dating in the 2020s.

Gaining one then, is one good enough reason alone to watch this documentary. As is learning about the subject in general. There’s also simply showing financial (and moral) support for a worthy cause, which not everyone who feels the same way has the privilege to bestow. And finally, there’s reading that paragraph at the start of this post, through which I discovered that one of four mini-documentaries contained within speaks so profoundly to what I’ve read recently about #Metoo in these two excellent books, which I’ll be discussing at a later date:

I completely share your frustrations though, that in Busan at least, Korea’s second-biggest city, in CGV cinemas it will only play for a total of 12 times over 4 days, As in, literally only a single theater, let alone having no subtitles available.** Still, for those of you with the Korean ability and time, I do hope you consider supporting it by attending.

Who knows, maybe I’ll see you in Seomyeon? ;)

*(To my surprise, as I type this there’s only a 56%-44% women to men split among people who’ve pre-purchased tickets at CGV. Finally, this feature of Korean cinema websites actually proved interesting!)

**Update—Actually, it screened for much longer than expected, and did include Korean subtitles. Both of which were great of course, but it still seems odd not to mention the subtitles on the movie’s information page.

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

Announcing a New Series: My Vignettes 

Wherein I stumble upon a surprisingly effective method of overcoming writer’s block

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Photo by Marga Santoso on Unsplash.

So, I’m getting divorced.

Don’t worry—I’ll spare you the details.

I find myself only mentioning my private life at all, because I wanted to explain my sporadic writing as of late. Only once I got started, I just couldn’t bring myself to roll out the same old platitudes about the stress of the new semester, or simply being too busy.

Actually, the start of the new semester was very stressful. I have been busy. But the truth is, neither compare to the hell I’ve been going through these last few years, especially this past summer. Or how it’s just been so exhausting pretending everything’s okay.

Sorry to be so dramatic, and so cryptic. But simply making it “official” is helping me to move on, by forcing me to write about it. For just these few lines alone, knowing thousands of strangers are going to be reading them, reflect many hours of grappling with my demons. Let alone the thousands more I’ve only written to myself.

It’s in the same spirit of candor, and of writing as a process, of both informing and learning, that I want to apologize for being unable to produce the long, well-researched posts—à la The Grand Narrative—which I know most of you prefer. My head just hasn’t been in the right place, and now you know why.

But now, I realize know how desperately I need to write anyway.

So what to do?

Just write of course. But that’s easier said than done, when writing is both the solution and the problem.

Well, for the time being, avoid those long posts. Just write whatever brings you joy instead. Whether that is: informing people of an interesting-looking Korean documentary on #Metoo that you’re going to make an effort to see, despite the lack of subtitles; sharing a paragraph on the gender politics of Japanese fitness clubs that made you buy the book on the spot; waxing lyrical over a sculptor’s unique skills, even if you did only find out about their two week-long exhibition half an hour after it had ended; gushing over how good it feels to be reading and understanding a Korean language book about feminism and the Korean entertainment industry, whilst also ruing how its contents seem so resistant to being shoehorned into any post here; venting your frustrations about how almost all the novels you’ve recently been reading on the promise they would deeply explore the female gaze and sexual desire, just haven’t hit the spot, and asking readers for recommendations; letting everyone know about an upcoming Zoom lecture on the 1940as wartime mobilization of Busan women into factories,* which sounds interesting enough to stay up all night for; or admitting your concerns about how many of your posts—and likely your views—on various aspects of Korean sexuality are likely very outdated, and how you’ll go about addressing those.

It doesn’t matter if you’re not an expert on many of these topics, or even know barely anything at all about them. Sharing and talking about them with smart people like your learned selves, is how we all become more knowledgeable.

So, provided they all prove worthy once I put pen to paper, all of those posts will all go up in the next few weeks. They also represent just the tip of the iceberg, which I’m glad to have finally given myself permission to reveal, and excited and anxious to begin breaking apart.

On which note, on Monday I’ll bring you the first of what I’m calling My Vignettes. And all, like their namesake, very much still belonging to the same Grand Narrative.

*(The lecture is at 1am, Saturday October 8 Korean time, 12pm Friday October 7 Eastern Standard Time. So if you’re also interested, please don’t wait for my post about it to register!)

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