Cultural Relativism and an Alternative Mode of Femininity and Feminism in Modern-Day Japan

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A common reaction of Americans who have spent time in another country is that they believe the customs of the other countries are backward and need improvement. “Other” women are criticized for allowing themselves to live in such an oppressed state, and their traditional cultural resources are seldom recognized. In addition, there is a tendency to dichotomize cross-cultural information; if women are suppressed or brutalized in the other culture, then they must be liberated in this country, and when we ask American students to explore how the international economic system, which benefits many citizens in the United States, adversely affects women in many other countries, we find ourselves treading on sacred ground. (Conway-Turner, 1998, 3).

As the opening passage suggests, gender issues are one of the first things noticed and judged by foreigners. Conway-Turner (1998, 3) states that ‘gender relations are a central feature in debates about cultural change as are women’s roles central to the battle of maintaining a society’s culture.” Since the family is often likened to the smallest cell of a society, the contention that most cultures have developed around gender roles in a family context is not implausible.

Given the description above of globalized modern life described by Conway-Turner, the importance of cultural relativism, that is, a recognition that one culture cannot be arbitrarily judged by standards of another and the importance of finding out the norms of another culture, would seemingly not need emphasis.

However, even in academia, where ‘studies on the "Japanese woman" have becorne more specialized and objective in reccnt years, … the stereotyped image of the docile, obedient female, lagging behind in emancipation and self-awareness, has still not disappeared (Roberts, 1994, 112). Even in these times, when there is no longer talk of ‘good wife, wise mothers,’ but increasingly of ‘good husbands, wise fathers.’ As some Japanese writers have pointed out, the persistence of these images is no doubt symptomatic of the general inadequacy of information Westerners have about Japan. (Iwao, 1993, 1).

This ignorance and the resulting production of the proverbial ‘other,’no doubt was a basis for the colonization of the ‘New World’ and Asia. Not surprisingly, it was only after colonizing much of Asia and after the Hiroshima bombings that serious study of eastern and southern Asia began begin in the United States. (M. S. F., 1951, 178-179).

This paper will take up the issue of Eurocentrism in academia in general through a look at its origins in the colonial period; how this still influences the creation of myths regarding other cultures and their gender relations. This paper will emphasize the importance of cultural relativism by demonstrating through a look at the field of anthropology and how this field’s straying from its adherence to the key defining notions of cultural relativity, such as the deep examination of the cultural context, for example, lead anthropology itself to become an agent of cultural domination.

In addition, I propose that issues of identity are central to cultural relativism especially since the desire to reaffirm identity in many cases is a direct reaction to the ubiquity of Eurocentrism. A look into the priorities of the feminist movement itself reveals fundamental differences in the identity of the Japanese woman and the failure to realize these differences, is partly what leads to myths about submissive women and the misconception often held by others that Japanese women are far behind American women in the fight for "equal rights."

Academia, Eurocentrism and Cultural Relativism

To analyze the problem of lingering Eurocentrism in academia, it is necessary to first examine the roots of anthropology as a field. Anthropology’s emergence coincides with the period of European colonization from the 17th century onward, developing out of a scientific interest in novel...
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