Chizuko Ueno: Nationalism and Gender

by tigermanifesto


Nationalism and Gender in many ways pivots around one event. The author, Chizuko Ueno, was attending a conference in Beijing on global women’s issues. When her time came to speak she argued that feminism needed to transcend national borders and forsake any investment in the state or nationalism. A Korean feminist, Kim Pu-Ja, responded passionately to the contrary:

“‘My country’s borders were invaded by soldiers from your country. You should not be so quick to say that we should forget national borders. Stating that feminism has nothing to do with nationalism is surely no different from the ethnocentric thinking of Western feminism.'”¹

Ueno’s basic political position in the book, as well as in her speech, is that when feminism is tied to the politics of the nation-state, the inevitable result is that women are misled into trying to fit themselves into “male” roles and moulds. This is because national and class politics have been historically and, she would argue, logically, determined by patriarchal values and viewpoints. An autonomous women’s movement, therefore, cannot be supportive of nationalist politics. The goal is rather to transcend the state, to operate outside of its boundaries and define feminist politics as gender solidarity regardless of nation.

Much of her argument is developed in dialogue with Japanese history, in particular women’s and gender history on the left and “liberal” positivist history on the right. On the far end of the right spectrum are the patriotic or “orthodox” textbook advocates in Japan who want to whitewash away Japan’s war history and promote a reactionary adherence to a (they hope) rearmed Japanese imperial state. Ueno dismisses these rightwing voices fairly briefly in a couple chapters, while engaging with them here and there in a dismissive fashion.

Her main dispute is with respectable academic history rather than the conservative revisionists. On the methodological level, she argues against the privileging of written documents over oral testimony, pointing out that the problems of selectivity and personal bias are applicable to written documents as well, including state or bureaucratic sources. Informing this conclusion is her position on history’s status as a field. Rather than a simple recounting of past events, she sees history as a reconstruction of these events in the present, inevitably serving present concerns and political goals. Interpretation and bias are inherent in the historical composition process. Moreover, she asserts that different groups of people can inhabit separate realities. Japanese soldiers and American citizens, for instance, have views of the nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945 that she would deem them irreconcilable.

Most of the analysis in the book centres around the issue of “comfort women,” i.e. the conscription of women for sexual use by Japanese soldiers during the Asia-Pacific War (WWII in Eurocentric terms). Korean women, in particular, were used as sexual slaves by the Japanese military. Ueno describes this system of sexual servitude in a multitude of ways, but her basic description is that of the “threefold crime.” The actual enslavement of women is the first part, the suppression and silencing of victims’ accounts with shame is the second, and attempts to impose historical denial on textbooks and official accounts––in effect, discrediting those who have had the courage to come forward and name their suffering––is the third. Far from a vestige of the past, the “comfort women” issue is an open wound  that demonstrates the politicization of history and its relevance to present state policy and feminist debates.

These debates notably include questions of nationalism. For instance, Ueno recounts numerous “feminists” who capitulated or even actively embraced Japanese fascism, even lobbying the government to include women in the imperialist war machine. Ideals of motherhood were also mobilized; since women could not be deified soldiers dying for their country, they were simply displaced by one. Others involved in the women’s movement celebrated the entry of women into “home front” work in munitions plants and other state jobs. After all, despite the fact that the Japanese state refused to outright integrate women into the armed forces for the most part, women were taken out of the home and participating in the labour force. She effectively demonstrates the problems of a feminist politics in thrall to the imperialist state, and it bears more than a bit of a resemblance to the mainstream feminist movement in the USA that agitates for women’s participation in combat and the invasion of foreign countries to “save” their “primitive” women from racialized male oppression.

Beyond this, she takes into account what she calls “reflexive” feminist history that tries to reclaim women’s agency in historical events. For instance, just as prominent members of the women’s movement in Japan were incorporated into fascist politics, ordinary women in Japan bore some responsibility for supporting the war on the home front. On the other hand, she mentions how the idea that every citizen in Japan shared equal responsibility can equally be used for regressive ends, as in the case of pardoning the Japanese emperor since he had no “special role” in Japan’s aggression. Everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. Additionally, she notes, attempts to proclaim women’s agency in historical accounts can distort or exaggerate the real power dynamics of the situation, acting as though women might be to some degree immune from the motivations of circumstance or common sense. For instance, Ueno questions those who are too quick to render judgment of the women who vocally supported Japanese imperialism, recognizing the force of convention and questioning whether those who are making judgments in hindsight overestimate people’s ability to escape their historical position.

I would praise the majority of this book as being both revelatory for someone like me who is not yet knowledgeable about Japanese women’s and gender history as well as astute in its discussion of historical methodology. Unfortunately, the book loses me more and more as Ueno outlines what could be called her positive programme. Her argument, in brief, is that the state exists as the only body legally able to impose its will with violence. Citizen-to-citizen violence (defined as male and public, the violence of “civil society”) is criminalized owing to the disarmament of the population under capitalism. Meanwhile, private/domestic violence––mostly against women––has similarly been above/below the reach of the law in society. This is particularly so because of the way the marital relationship is essentially one of property and usage rights, whether sexual, monetary, or otherwise.

Thus both above and below civil society violence reigns unrestricted by law. Because of her pacifist position, rejecting all violence including self-defence, she defines feminism as the ideology for the protection of the weak rather than one of aspiring for women’s power or liberation. Not only nationalism but all what she calls striving for maleness should be anathema, and she believes that class-centred politics oppress women just as much as state/national politics, while rejecting the possibility of just wars or the justice of national liberation struggles/violent class struggle.

Differences in political line are one thing, but I have some actual logic difficulties with her conclusions for feminist politics. They seem to at least border on incoherence or the non-dialectical sort of contradiction where two irreconcilable things are held to be true at the same time.

“Feminism is not an idea that advocates that women should be powerful on a par with men, an idea I call a ‘catching-up strategy,’ but should be an idea that respects the dignity of minorities just as they are. I may be no match for a man in terms of muscular strength. I may not be able to make it through life single-handedly. But why simply because of this should I be forced to obey somebody else? It is feminism that has argued for this kind of respect for the weak. That being so, my answer is that there is only one possible solution for feminism and that is to aim in the direction of criminalizing all kinds of violence [emphasis added], regardless of whether is public or private. It goes without saying, that this also includes the criminalization of war.”²

This final paragraph concludes the book and leaves me scratching my head at its implications. On the first point about “catching up,” it is admirable that Ueno has criticized the notion that physical strength is all that counts and that women can be “strong” without being physically adept. She mentions, for example, women with disabilities who cannot play the “catching up” game. At the same time her statement here, in conjunction with her broader positive arguments, leans toward the fetishization of weakness and minoritarianism, fixating on the problem of violence while curiously letting the problem of power slip out unnoticed. Respect and protection of the weak––again, an important value, and any progressive movement where stronger members did not protect those who could not protect themselves would not be worth much. And yet weakness is worth nothing on its own, and cannot be counted a virtue.

Earlier, she also refuses the idea that the distinction between friends and enemies is valuable, refusing all recourse to violence in any situation whatsoever. And yet, she states that she wants to criminalize the use of all violence. The obvious question to raise is: on whose authority and with whose power would one enforce this idea? If war were made criminal within a legal framework––Ueno earlier questioned the efficacy of state legal frameworks in determining ethics, and rightly so––who would enforce such a provision? She rejects the idea of UN peacekeeping as another cover for war, but her specific use of the term criminalize implies the existence of some kind of apparatus for separating just and unjust acts, and empowered with the ability to forcibly disarm those who do not abide by the laws. In other words, Ueno’s feminist propositions appear to imply the prolonging, even the permanence, of state machinery. It’s utter nonsense, idealistic and moralistic in the extreme, taking the apparent high ground with only token consideration for its practical implications even in an ideal situation.

Were I inclined to be charitable, I could point out that there could be translation difficulties, and that the word criminalize was simply an incorrect or misleading choice of words. And yet what word could substitute to reconcile these vagaries and logical problems? To forbid? To abolish? To defeat? To undo? All of these restatements, though they do not carry the legalistic and statist connotations of criminalize, still beg the question of power. If the weak are to remain weak on principle, refusing to liberate themselves by any and all means necessary, what is to prevent them from simply being trampled forever and ever, amen? Ueno unintentionally demonstrates the inherent weakness of the pacifist position, which is that it achieves a moral bliss at the cost of embracing a politics of theatre and self-destruction, assuming the best of one’s adversaries and positioning all political contradictions as “differences” that can be negotiated and won through reasoning rather. Despite Ueno’s critical attitude towards human rights regimes, “modernity,” and state boundaries, her programme implies a kind of superstate authority imbued with an almost supernatural sense of justice and the ability to nonviolently prevent all violence. And her only response to this is that history teaches us that any time we legitimate violence it will be abused. And so we shall have it gone at the snap of a finger!


1. Kim Pu-Ja quoted in Chizuko Ueno, Nationalism and Gender, trans. Beverly Yamamoto (Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne 2004), 143.

2. Ibid, 178.