Faier, Lieba 2009 Intimate Encounters, reviewed by Gerry Pratt
Lieba Faier, Intimate Encounters: Filipina Women and the Remaking of Rural Japan, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009, 280 pages, $55 cloth, $21.95 paper ISBN 978-0-520-25214-1, 978-0-520-25215-8.
This is an elegant, beautifully written book that is a must-read for anyone doing or writing an ethnography, those interested in national cultures and cosmopolitanism, specialists in Japanese and Filipino studies, and those with interests in transnational feminism and migration. In other words, it has broad appeal and deserves a wide readership. It would be an inspirational text in a first year graduate (or postgraduate) seminar because it is a concrete demonstration of the kind of book that can be produced from extensive and concentrated field research and of what was clearly an exceptional doctoral dissertation.
The bulk of the ethnography was carried out in Central Kiso in Japan from 1998-2000, supplemented by return visits in 2005, 2006, and 2007 and multiple trips to the Philippines accompanying Filipinas living in rural Japan on their visits home. The ethnography was done at a time when large numbers of Filipinas were being recruited by bar owners in rural Japan to work as entertainers. The book is not just an ethnography of global forces in an out-of-the-way place in Japan (although it is this) but a close study of cultural encounters between rural Japanese and Filipina migrants in their intimate and everyday relationships.
These encounters take shape through the converging histories and political economies of Japan and the Philippines (and the United States), all carefully detailed in the beginning sections of the book. Filipinas’ migration to rural Japan as entertainers has been conditioned by a U.S. military presence in Japan and the Philippines, economic necessity, a scarcity of Japanese women willing to remain in rural Japan, a history of Japanese sex tourism to the Philippines, and cultures of respectable dance performance and labour migration in the Philippines. But equally, the author convincingly argues that it is shaped by Filipinas dreams and desires for adventure, ironically often the dream of and desire for America. For many Filipina migrants, Japan has become a second America and a passage towards America. In the absence of a Japanese Dream, especially a dream of rural Japan, many of these Filipina migrants find and feel themselves stuck: in jobs they find stigmatizing, in marriages with Japanese men that they want to leave, and in a place they find empty and lonely. For many it is an uncomfortable form of dwelling that cannot be understood within the categories of home and abroad, mobility and dwelling, or permanence and impermanence.
Another set of dreams is lived by the Japanese citizens of Central Kiso. Faier argues that Filipino bars in Central Kiso are spaces that allow quite marginal Japanese men (rural, older, often economically marginal) to feel worldly and superior because of their masculinity and Japanese-ness. Central Kiso is often framed within Japan as a rural backwater or remnant of the past; Filipina migrants figure into these residents’ frustrated desires for cosmopolitanism and inclusion within the modern Japanese nation. Like those of Filipina migrants, their experiences are contradictory and ambivalent. This is because the presence of Filipina entertainers and wives in Central Kiso not only marks the cosmopolitanism of the region; it is a constant reminder of the undesirability of the region and the resulting shortage of marriageable Japanese women. Faier provides an excellent discussion of the classed and contradictory discourse of cosmopolitanism: although their own cosmopolitanism is negotiated through the figure of Filipina migrant, Japanese residents of Central Kiso rarely consider Filipinas — despite their often excellent English and urban origins (Metro Manila) — to be themselves cosmopolitan.
The second half of the book focuses on marriages between Filipina women (most of whom first came as entertainers and worked in bars) and Japanese men. In a strange twist some of these previously stigmatized Filipina women have come to be viewed as exemplary ii oyomesan (good bride and daughter-in-law) and hence key participants in the maintenance of traditional Japanese values of family and home. In the process, Faier argues, they are redefining what it means to be Japanese in profound and fundamental ways. Filipinas can become Japanese through their skillful performance of good wife and daughter-in-law and this shifts the definition of Japanese from a biogenetic-based notion of national and racial belonging to a performance-based one.
This is neither a smooth nor unproblematic process. If ii oyomesan offers a means for inclusion of Filipino women in rural Japan, Japanese families also use the category to discipline Filipino women by distinguishing between good or bad performances. This discipline is by no means total or complete and slippages and gaps in cultural understanding create space for Filipinas. Faier writes, for example, of a Filipino woman who ate her meals after or apart from her Japanese in-laws; while her in-laws interpreted this practice as a sign of deference that solidified her status as good daughter-in-law, the Filipino woman valued it as an opportunity to eat Filipino foods alone. The main storyline, however, is not one of individual agency and freedom; by and large it is the complementary nature of Filipino and Japanese patriarchal relations that provides the ground for a common identity. Respect and care for the elderly, dedication to preparing meals and tidying the house, giving priority to husband and children: these are the practices that are robust enough to overwhelm other cultural differences. Many Filipino women living in Central Kiso have dreams and goals that exceed these patriarchal practices and the last substantive chapter addresses cases of and an abundance of narratives about Filipino women who run away from their marriages in rural Japan.
By using her status as an American outsider who speaks Tagalog and Japanese, Faier built close relationships with both Filipinas and Japanese women in Central Kiso. She offers us privileged access to their understandings and misunderstandings in their intimate and everyday encounters with each other. She is conscious of her privilege, and writes the United States into her narrative of rural Japan as one means of rendering it visible. She considers carefully how the project of decolonizing ethnography can take form, and reasons that it includes representing her informants in all of their complexity, sometimes in an unflattering light. Her informants have a right, she argues, to a complex personhood, a right not to be simplified and rendered innocent by a patron-ethnographer. Faier’s commitment to decolonizing ethnography reaches deeply into her theorizing, for instance when she traces Benedict Anderson’s conceptual borrowings on the ‘spectres of comparisons’ from José Rizal, a late nineteenth century Filipino nationalist and writer.
Intimate Encounters is a rich textual performance that reveals the ways that people in unequal relations situated on the margins negotiate their lives in relation to each other. Faier insists on the relevance of marking the passage of time in her account, and by the end of the book the moment of large numbers of Filipino entertainers migrating to Japan has passed, in part the result of Japan being placed in 2004 on a Tier 2 Watch List in the U.S. State Department’s ‘Trafficking in Persons Report’. We are left with her informants reflecting ambivalently of the ways that state decision-making — so far away from Central Kiso – reverberates through their lives.
Geraldine Pratt, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2, Canada