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Top>Opinion>Learning Possibilities to Speak and Listen


Shiori Ichimasa

Shiori Ichimasa [Profile]

Learning Possibilities to Speak and Listen

Shiori Ichimasa
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Area Studies (North America), Cultural Studies

1. Voices of Women

A 91-year-old grandmother of my colleague, Professor M, self-published a collection of essays. One rainy evening in May, I came across Professor M in an elevator of Campus Building No. 2, who gave a copy to me, saying, "My grandmother has published this, so I'm handing it out to everybody." When I riffled through the book on the monorail on my way back home, I found that it indeed included many tanka and haiku poems which Kimiko Kondo, the author, had created, and essays which she had contributed and posted to local newspapers, informative JA booklets, and collections of writings over a number of years. At the end of the book, there was a chronological record of the author as well as an afterword by Professor M, introducing her life and personality.

While reading her numerous posts starting from the mid-1950s with interest, I looked up somehow to find the Tama Toshi Monorail Line full of young women due to a number of universities located along the Line. With their backpacks and bags filled with textbooks, they were talking cheerfully and joyfully in colorful outfits. As for me, I was listening to them as an expecting mother taking maternity leave from September. Kimiko Kondo moved from an urban city to begin her married life in a farming community, left her job as an elementary school teacher when she had a baby, and returned to her career in her 40's after raising her children by qualifying as a kindergarten teacher. Throughout this period, she continued posting and writing about what housewives, mothers, and working mothers were, and I could see that she let out her voice in her collection of essays.

2. Can the Subaltern Speak?

Gayatri Spivak's monograph, Can the Subaltern Speak? shows the difficulty of the subaltern (the original meaning is people, but it refers to those who are placed in a subordinate position) women speaking as subjects. Her monograph discusses various relationships of dominance and oppression intertwined over the custom called sati (the original meaning is a good wife, but it means immolation of a widow in European descriptions, given a pre-modern image) in India, and problems of the subaltern women whose existence is made objective and voiceless (and then deprived of voices) in those relationships. The ruling class and intellectuals in Europe which ruled the Indian society after colonial occupation, and which still continue to exert influence afterward, the local people as a subordinate class, as well as the local people who oppress and who are oppressed differentiate or blend in intricate and multi-layered manners according to race, class, and gender. The subaltern women are under double oppression: colonial occupation and gender domination. Sati, in which a widowed woman immolates herself on her husband's funeral pyre, was originally a form of suicide which women were allowed to commit as an exception in the Hindu doctrine. The act of sati was once widespread as a general rule in certain eras, areas, and classes, however the voices of women as those who are (or forced to be) concerned in the act have not arisen in the issues surrounding its practice and prevalence. Spivak rather criticizes both those who hold that this practice is not civilized and claim to save local women from local men, as well as those who argue that these women have voluntarily selected the act, and applaud the wonderful feminine quality of Indian women as good wives under the name of tradition have established, through their voices, after all, European superiority due to colonial occupation and the subsequent international structure of economic division, as well as hierarchization and control according to gender and nationalism in the areas in question. Furthermore, Spivak sees the problem of the voices of such oppressed women never having arisen in history, and the problem that these women are objectified as others by being interpreted and given a certain image in the statement of the ruling class and the intellectuals. She concludes that even the Western and local intellectuals who say they speak for these women replace the women's voices with theirs and erase them, and therefore the subaltern women cannot speak.

3. Speaking and listening to one's own voice

Are the voices I listened to and read on the monorail truly the voices of the women themselves? In fact, many students and teachers at a place called school received higher education, and are given the chance and the possibility to speak. However, as Spivak suggests, these voices may oppress somebody's voice, speak ideal images of women created in society consciously or unconsciously, and as a result, reproduce a framework binding many women.

After all, can speaking erase various possibilities and oppress somebody's voice? Then, should we refrain from speaking? No, that's not the case. Spivak suggests possibilities to recognize the risk of such words, to speak while casting critical eyes on ourselves also being part of the history of global, intellectual, and economic production activities, and above all, to recognize that some people cannot speak, to verify historical, social, political, and economic contexts behind, and then listen to the various voices of many different people.

4. Learning possibilities to speak and listen

Although people in every generation encounter their own joy and hardship, with people's voices continuing from generations past as well as many unheard voices behind those, more and more of one's own voices are coming to be heard today. While examining such voices critically, how can we listen as well to the voices of those who cannot speak? One means of doing this may be to create an environment in which both more men and more women speak and listen to each other, and pursue by themselves education and learning which offer such opportunities. Especially, I wish for all these women whose voices have been spoken for, or who have been given another meaning to gain significant opportunities and power. I sincerely hope that working women, mothers, women in various generations from the young to the elderly, and women of different nationalities, races, and ethnic groups will convey their voices while respecting one other's backgrounds, and listen to their own voices critically as well as to others', and that the learning process is always given to our lives as possibilities.

(References) Can the Subaltern Speak? (Misuzu Shobo, authored by G. C. Spivak and translated by Tadao Uemura, 1998)

This article is an addition to and alteration of "In Quest of One's Own Voice [Watashi No Koe Wo Motomete]" (Hakumon July Issue [Hakumon Shichigatsu Go].)

Shiori Ichimasa
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Area Studies (North America), Cultural Studies
Born in Tokyo. Graduated from the Department of International and Cultural Studies, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Tsuda College in 1998. Studied at the University of Birmingham in 2000. Completed the Master's Course at the Department of Area Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo in 2002. Completed the Doctorate Course in Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham in 2006 (Ph.D.). After teaching as a Part-Time Teacher at the University of Essex, as a Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and as a Part-Time Lecturer at Kokushikan University, Kokugakuin University, and Nihon University, appointed as Assistant Professor at Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo from 2008 to 2010. Became an Assistant Professor at Chuo University in April 2010, and was appointed to the current post in April 2011. Currently proceeding with research on immigrant communities and media in the U.S.A. from the end of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, focusing on South Slavic and Asian immigrants.