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Lightweight Cars and women Drivers. The De/construction of gender metaphors in recessionary Japan

JoSHua HotaKa rotH

Let me start with a vignette from the mid-1990s, when i was a twenty-eightyear-old graduate student doing dissertation research on Japanese Brazilian migrants in Japan. My fieldsite was Hamamatsu, shizuoka Prefecture. I had rented a car to drop a friend off at narita airport and was returning to shizuoka, passing through the mountains around Hakone late on a saturday night. I forget what i had rented—a nissan sentra or a toyota Corolla. It was not a sports car, but it was managing the winding road reasonably well when out of nowhere a car raced up behind me and passed me on a curve. I could not believe it. And before i knew it, another car whizzed by, and another. I tried to keep pace, my pulse racing, but very soon realized it was impossible. Before i made it out of the mountains, several more groups of cars raced by me. I made a mental note that there was some crazy driving going on around Hakone and continued on my way to Hamamatsu. Little did i know i would be thinking about it more than fifteen years later for my current project on car cultures in Japan.

It was in the early and mid-1990s when the manga Wangan Midnight (Kusunoki 1994, 1997) and Initial D (shigeno 1995) documented the culture of street racing that had developed in the liminal time space of the late-night

300 Mountains encircling tokyo and on urban highways. These long-running manga spun off anime series, video games, and live-action films. The main protagonist in each is a lower-middle-class high school boy, one living in his own apartment after his parents divorced, another growing up with his father. Each is immersed in a schedule of school, part-time work, and a home life lacking in emotional warmth. They are hashiriya, good kids who achieve an emotional high through speed, as opposed to bōsōzoku, kids who specialize in loud roars, ostentatious modifications, and harassment of other drivers and entire neighborhoods for its own sake.

One of the minor characters in Wangan Midnight is a mechanic who has retired from street racing but whose passion is rekindled when encountering the main protagonist and his early model nissan Z on the highway one night. This mechanic is drawn back to racing despite the fact that his wife is pregnant—or perhaps because of the pregnancy and his urge to deny imminent fatherhood. Several other characters ask themselves why they do what they do as they roar along urban highways at breakneck speeds. While none of them explicitly laments the superficiality or meaninglessness of their lives, the thrill of speed clearly provides a heightened experience that compensates for some unstated lack.

Sociologist stephen Lyng (1990) has written about the emergence of extreme sports and other forms of voluntary risk taking in the context of highly disciplined industrialized societies. He theorizes risk taking as a kind of “edgework,” allowing people living in an overly disciplined and bureaucratized world to explore existential questions. At the least, edgework allows people to experience a temporary high, a fleeting transcendence of the obligations with which they are encumbered in the rest of their lives.

Cotton seiler (2008) offers a comparable reading of the impact of automobility more broadly in the United states. If risk taking provides some transcendence of the drudgery of daily existence, automobility more broadly offered americans a means by which they could express a new form of individualism at the turn of the last century, when the increasing bureaucratization of daily life and the taylorization of workplaces posed a substantial threat to the republican model of selfhood, conceived in terms of “productive labor and the stewardship of its fruits” (seiler 2008, 29).1 as the self-reliant individual became increasingly pinned down by the new economic order, the individualist ethos found an outlet in the sphere of consumption. More than the automobile itself, however, seiler writes that it was “driving's sensations of agency, self-determination, entitlement, privacy, sovereignty, transgression, and speed . . . [that were] instrumental in establishing automobility as a public good. . . . Driving provided the means by which the transition . . . From character to personality; from inner-direction to other-direction; from utilitarian to expressive individualism; from sovereign to social selfhood . . . Could be both dramatized and expiated” (41; emphasis in original).

While collectivism, rather than individualism, has been central to constructions of Japanese society and culture, the eager embrace of the personal automobile during the 1960s at the start of what has been called the My-Car era (Plath 1992) suggests that the taste of individual autonomy could be alluring to those who had never before experienced it, much as it had been to those americans who had felt a need to regain what had been lost.

In both the U.s. And Japanese contexts, however, women were seen as dependents rather than sovereign individuals, so we may not expect that driving served the same function of providing an alternate viable form of selfhood for them to compensate for the denial of sovereign selfhood in modern industrial society. But we should not assume that all women have been satisfied with their lot. In fact, seiler shows that women in the United states from very early on were drawn to the promise of the open road and the sensations of agency and speed.

But if automobility has represented a kind of freedom from the constraints and obligations of both workplace and home, people have experienced it in different ways. In Japan, i argue that automobility itself is distinctly structured into the bifurcated styles of power and speed, on the one hand, and civility and safety on the other. In Japan, it may have offered men fleeting moments of transcendence of the everyday through sensations of power, speed, flow, and transgression, but it offered women only more of the kinds of expectations that have shaped other aspects of their lives. Many women drive tiny K-jidōsha, K-cars, and these cars themselves serve as a metaphor that yokes women to their everyday routines and to their roles as mothers and wives.

In this chapter, i will draw on ethnographic data, as well as the online social networking site Mixi, to suggest the ways in which the gender associations of certain cars and driving styles support the larger gender system in Japan. Moreover, i will examine what happens when these associations start to break down.

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