Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective: From Japan’s Temporary Dispatched Workers to China’s Migrant Domestic Workers

By Huiyan Fu

This article will be available for free access through SAGE until December 15, 2018.

Gender, precarious work and social inequalities are the center of my academic interests. During my doctoral studies, I conducted year-long fieldwork research on agency-mediated temps or ‘dispatched workers’ inside two Japanese business organisations. Dispatched and other insecure and low-paid employment categories in Japan are predominately female; around 70 percent are occupied by women. Despite their enduring and growing work participation, Japanese women are shunted to the labour market periphery. Many face tremendous barriers to full-time career development. This distinct gendered pattern of precarious work in Japan provides me with valuable insights into China’s expanding domestic care industry that relies heavily on migrant women from rural areas, known as ‘floating population’.

My research journey from Japan to China sheds light on both similarities and differences regarding gender and precarious work. In Japan, partly because of the country’s strict immigration policies, women have long been used to fill a large and increasing demand for cheap, disposable labour from the post-war growth decades to the post-bubble era. By contrast, in China, rural migrants have shouldered an excessive burden of precarious, low-paid and low-status jobs since Deng’s open-door reform. Both labour categories serve as a powerful yet hidden engine that has produced extraordinary rates of economic growth. What strikes me as particularly interesting is the crucial, but often overlooked role of culture in legitimizing and maintaining such gendered or citizenship-based employment dualism and social inequalities.

In Japan, Confucianism-informed gender and family values are deeply embedded in the fabric of society. Key to these values are women’s family role as ‘good wife, wise mother’ (ryōsai kenbo) and men’s breadwinner responsibilities as ‘a central supporting pillar’ (daikokubashira) in the traditional household. Despite changing socio-economic conditions, government policies, employment regulations and businesses continue to relegate Japanese women to the margins of political-economic life as part-time wage workers and full-time family care-givers. The pervasiveness and persistence of this male breadwinner, female homemaker model poses serious barriers to everyday negotiations of gender norms. During my fieldwork, I found that dispatched workers had to deal with both gender- and employment-based restrictions; to be sure, being a female and non-regular worker in the Japanese male-dominated workplace subjected many to a web of discrimination, subordination and harassment.

In China, Confucian gender norms are not the most prominent factor in shaping the development of previous work. Rather, it is the country’s hùkŏu (household registration) system that has played a central role in driving rural-to-urban migration processes and worsening existing inequalities. For migrant domestic workers, their second-class hùkŏu status makes them vulnerable to not only employer exploitative and discriminative practices but also hostility and alienation from wider society. Adding to this is long-existing cultural stigma attached to domestic workers such as nannies (āyí or băomŭ) whose subservient ‘servant’ status and undervalued female care hark back to Confucian hierarchical and patriarchal values. It is worth noting that government policies and corporate practices, which place a distinctive emphasis on the professional training of domestic workers, tend to normalize, rather than contest, such values. Similar to Japan, the underlying taken-for-granted assumption is gendered familialism, which assumes that care is primarily a female and familial responsibility. This in turn reinforces women’s inferior positions and self-sacrificing obligations in the Confucian patriarchal family as a devoted mother, a dutiful wife and a filial daughter. Thus, for migrant women, their reproductive labour as domestic care workers is exposed to both hùkŏu– and gender-based prejudice, entrapment and exploitation.

Comparing Japanese temporary dispatched workers and Chinese migrant domestic workers makes me realize the importance of investigating the simultaneous operation of gender and other dimensions of oppression in society, such as employment status, citizenship, marital status, age, ethnicity, race and class. The complex conditions of inequality facing individuals in real life go beyond simple dichotomies involved in traditional gender or class analysis. Another insight gained from the Japan-China comparison is concerned with the role of culture or tradition, which deserves special attention. In both countries, the Confucian doctrine of womanhood and family remains entrenched; it is intricately interconnected with, and often instrumentally used by the ruling elite to legitimize, political and economic processes. As indicated in the conclusion of the article on ‘selling motherhood’, these perspectives are useful for thinking more inclusively about the oppression and resistance that people experience in the workplace, the family and wider society across different national contexts.

Huiyan Fu (PhD, Social Anthropology, University of Oxford) is Senior Lecture at the University of Essex. She is the author of An Emerging Non-Regular Labour Force in Japan: The Dignity of Dispatched Workers (Routledge, 2011) and the editor of Temporary Agency Work and Globalisation: Beyond Flexibility and Inequality (Routledge, 2015). She is currently working on a new book entitled Temps and Giggers: The Changing World of Work in China and Japan.


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