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K-Cars

No more than 11.15 feet long and 4.86 feet wide and with a 660 cc engine, K-cars are the smallest class of cars in Japan. These specifications have Increased somewhat since the category of the K was first established in 1950, reflecting the increase in size and power of cars in general. In that year, the transportation Ministry specified K-cars as those not exceeding 9.84 feet in length and 4.32 feet in width, with a tiny 300 cc engine (Ozeki 2007, 13). The next year the limit on engine size was increased to 360 cc. But it was not until 1955, when Ks started to be taxed at a substantial discount compared to larger cars, that manufacturers began making them in substantial numbers. Since then, the number of Ks has increased rapidly.

The category of Ks was feminized beginning with the rapid increase in the number of women drivers from the early 1970s, as the ideal of the female homemaker took hold in Japan. In 1969 women comprised just 17 percent of all license holders. Their share had risen to 29 percent by 1980 and 42 percent by 2004 (national Police agency 2005). In some two-car families, there may be a larger sedan that the husband will drive and a K (marked by the yellow license plate) for the wife (see figure 12.1). In the Mixi interest group called “Do

Figure 12.1

A husband and wife. The yellow license plate (right) indicates a K-car. Not make fun of K-cars!” A woman claims that she is very happy with her K, that it gets great mileage, and that it feels roomy on the inside. She writes that the one drawback of the K, “compared to my husband's sedan, is that other cars on the road do not give way to me.”

Ks represent practicality and economy. They do not represent the exciting potential of other kinds of cars. Their speed is limited. They generally cannot go on highways. They are perfect for puttering about city streets to go shopping or for taking kids to and from music or english lessons or play dates with schoolmates. While many mothers may take their preschoolers to school on the backs of their bicycles and older kids generally walk to school, cars are important for many child-centered activities, especially in suburban areas such as in Hamamatsu City, shizuoka Prefecture, where i did my dissertation research in the mid-1990s, as well as in Kawagoe City, saitama Prefecture, where i did car-related research in 2007. One mother on a Mixi site wrote that she had logged more than twenty-seven thousand kilometers in the last two and a half years going back and forth to her child's preschool and that the K was serving as “the legs of the family in place of the bicycle.” Rather than providing a release from their roles as wives and mothers, Ks help women fulfill those roles. Gender schema helps compartmentalize the conflicting discourses on manners and speed by making it seem natural for men to speed and women to give way. And it makes it seem natural that men drive sports cars and women drive Ks.

The association of Ks with women drivers is evident in the numerous posts on the “Don't make fun of K-cars” interest group on Mixi about how women view men who drive Ks. In addition, there is an entire interest group with over eight hundred members called “what's the Problem with Men Driving Ks?” Some posts express anxiety about whether driving a K makes one an undesirable marriage prospect. One person replies to such a post noting that he “dated someone that turned up her nose at anyone who didn't drive a BMw but that after driving here and there together for a year in [his] suzuki alto, they ended up getting married, and the alto continues to be [their] beloved car to this day.” Another writes that “in this ecological age, it is nonsense to judge a man by the size of the car that he drives.” Yet in their denials of the rationality of judging a person by his or her car, they implicitly acknowledge that many people continue to do so. One writes more explicitly that “i don't think marriage or dating is impossible just because someone drives a K. But as others in the community have written, i think there is still the tendency for people to think that 'it is just not possible that a man drive a K.'” as we see, Even if some men drive Ks and some women drive full-sized sedans or sports cars, both those types of cars continue to be associated with the other gender and thereby lend support to official gender ideology.

 
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