Women on the Verge

Japanese Women, Western Dreams

Women on the Verge

Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society

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Book Pages: 312 Illustrations: 23 b&w photos, 9 figures Published: November 2001

Author: Karen Kelsky

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > East Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

Over the past few decades, many young Japanese women have emerged as Japan’s most enthusiastic “internationalists,” investing in study or work abroad, or in romance with Western men as opportunities to circumvent what they consider their country’s oppressive corporate and family structures. Drawing on a rich supply of autobiographical narratives, as well as literary and cultural texts, Karen Kelsky situates this phenomenon against a backdrop of profound social change in Japan and within an intricate network of larger global forces.
In exploring the promises, limitations, and contradictions of these “occidental longings,” Women on the Verge exposes the racial and erotic politics of transnational mobility. Kelsky shows how female cosmopolitanism recontextualizes the well-known Western male romance with the Orient: Japanese women are now the agents, narrating their own desires for the “modern” West in ways that seem to defy Japanese nationalism as well as long-standing relations of power not only between men and women but between Japan and the West. While transnational movement is not available to all Japanese women, Kelsky shows that the desire for the foreign permeates many Japanese women’s lives. She also reveals how this feminine allegiance to the West—and particularly to white men—can impose its own unanticipated hegemonies of race, sexuality, and capital.
Combining ethnography and literary analysis, and bridging anthropology and cultural studies, Women on the Verge will also appeal to students and scholars of Japan studies, feminism, and global culture.


Women on the Verge successfully puts recent feminist theoretical concerns with agency, identity, discourse and desire to the ethnographic test.” — Carol McGranahan , Anthropology Newsletter

“[C]ompelling. . . . [G]reat reading. . . . [T]his book pushes forward discussions of contemporary Japanese culture, the politics of cosmopolitanism, and transnational sexualities. With Women on the Verge Kelsky makes an important and bold contribution to the ethnography of Japan and also to the conceptualization of cosmopolitan identities as rhetorical constructs. Her account is convincing and compelling not only for the specialist but for any reader interested in present-day Japanese society and more broadly in transnational cultures.” — James Farrer , Monumenta Nipponica

“Kelsky expertly draws on current anthropological, theoretical writing about globalization and the flows of transnational capital and culture. . . . [S]he is using impressive and diverse sources to launch this investigation.” — Japan Studies Review

“Kelsky’s stories about the seemingly inexhaustible subject of Japanese women make this book a stimulating read.” — Kimberly Palmer, Asahi Shimbun

"Women on the Verge is a groundbreaking work, the first systematic study of not only Japanese women’s eroticization of the white (American) male, but also of the underlying racial hierarchies of sexual desirability. . . . Kelsky writes lucidly, and mobilizes a diverse array of sources for her analysis. . . . A bold, thoughtful and thought-provoking work, this book should be required reading for all researchers of gender, race, power, sex and desire."
— Hyung Gu Lynn , Pacific Affairs

"Women on the Verge provides a provocative window into the ways in which an imagined ‘America’ has been wielded as a loooking glass for an imagined ‘Japan’ and the avenues of social criticism that this construction both opens and closes. The book will be of interest to scholars in gender studies, U.S.-Japan relations, postcolonial studies, and to students interested in understanding the dilemmas entailed in Japan’s embrace of the West."
— Amy Borovoy , American Ethnologist

"[A] groundbreaking study. . . . It is a bold and provocative book that will no doubt cause controversy. . . . This is a difficult and at times painful book to read that will no doubt ring true for anyone who has lived in Japan for any period from the late 80s through the 90s. Kelsky should be congratulated for having persevered with a topic that caused her so much anxiety and distress, both personally and professionally. It was clearly a difficult story to tell, but I foresee that for many people it is going to prove an even more difficult one to listen to."
— Mark McLelland , Intersections

"[A] thorough analysis of contemporary Japanese women’s use of the West as a mirror image of critique of their own society. . . . Karen Kelsky’s Women on the Verge makes a strong case in showing that Japan, although never formally colonized, was and is affected by imperialist and colonial ideological domination. The importance of Women on the Verge lies in its effectiveness at tearing down the popular, historically loaded imagery of both Japanese women and the assumed Western superiority." — Seija Jalagin , H-Net Reviews

"Full of rich narratives and candid fieldwork, this book critically takes on a sexual and gender-specific phenomenon that is rarely academically discussed - namely the obsession of a certain class of Japanese women with all that is Western, especially Western men. Kelsky strives to show the ways that 'desire for the West is a potentially trangressive and transformative force' that remains deeply, politically compromised. This is one of the most innovative anthropological works to come out in a while. A great read for that Asia-phile you know and love. Watch out, white boys - the tables are turning." — Asian Week

"Karen Kelsky’s fascinating and provocative study . . . provides a powerful antidote to the U.S./West-centered approach to the study of Orientalism, globalization, and transnationalism. . . . Women on the Verge combines a grounded and self-reflexive ethnography, an impressive application and articulation of cultural theory, and nuanced readings of texts across genres. Kelsky offers a fresh look at the dialectics of hegemony and agency in the era of transnational circulation of capital and images. As American studies moves in an increasingly transnational direction, its practitioners have much to learn from studies such as this one." — Mari Yoshihara , Anthropology Quarterly

"Kelsky's main contribution is to boldly portray the historical and contemporary construction of the powerful discursive framework of sexualized and racialized global images of white men, Japanese women, Japanese men, and white women. . . . [A]n intriguing and compelling global analysis of the influential significations that Japanese women meet and reproduce. . . ." — Nancy Rosenberger, Journal of Japanese Studies

"The complexities that Kelsky uses to bring forth the stories here create a picture of life infinitely more real and alive than a more simplified and/or judgmental story of the weak and the strong or of pure sexism. The power of these women's lives and the power of nationalistically invested forces are real. The book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the social construction of desire." — Frederick Cloyd , International Examiner

“Taking cover under her more innocuous theme of the recent internationalization of Japanese women’s lives and careers, Karen Kelsky bluntly asks one of the great taboo questions in Japanese studies: why do so many Japanese women, if given the chance, prefer white husbands over those of their own ethnicity? What are the historical and psychological reasons for a powerful attraction enshrined in popular culture since Madame Butterfly but until now never critically examined, certainly not from a modern feminist perspective? Kelsky’s provocative answers to these questions make her Women on the Verge the first study we have of Japan’s eroticization of the West, in a world already so full of books that would tell us how the West has eroticized Japan.” — John Whittier Treat, Yale University

Kelsky insightfully treats desire as a complicated and contradictory complex, something inspired as much by pragmatic as erotic concerns. The narratives she offers are rich and impressive and her skills as a fieldworker as well as command of the ethnographic scene in Japan are striking. This is a compelling, engaging, and important work.” — Anne Allison, author of Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Karen Kelsky is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Note on Japanese Names and Terms xiii

Introduction 1

1. The Promised Land: A Genealogy of Female Internationalism 35

2. Internationalism as Resistance 85

3. Capital and the Fetish of the White Man 133

4. (Re)flexibility in Inflexible Places 202

Conclusion: Strange Bedfellows 227

Notes 249

Bibliography 259

Index 283
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2816-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2805-6
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