American and Japanese Advice Books for Women


Nowadays husbands and wives, parents and children don’t say "hello" to each other in the morning. Sometimes not only does the wife not prepare breakfast, she doesn’t even get out of bed. If you think this is sex equality and that the man is a "

you’re mistaken.

Soshitsu Sen, What a Beautiful Woman (1980)

In What a Beautiful Woman, a best-selling Japanese advice book in 1980, Soshitsu Sen casts a skeptical eye on the working wife who sleeps in. Like other best-selling advice books published between 1970 and 1990 in the United States and Japan, this one specifies a whole array of actions—or inactions—which, the author thinks, bring a woman honor or disgrace. It tells us about the amount of cultural room she has to move around in. We speak of cultural room because sometimes aspects of the culture itself—the gendered nature of the Japanese language, for example—can indirectly immobilize a woman. Similarly, the ambiance of shared reverence for past traditions, especially those which women themselves are asked to gladly affirm, can increase the social penalties for stepping out of line. At the same time, the degree of social support she expects can make each private move just a bit more collective. In the course of telling people what to do, both Japanese and American advice books drop many clues about their respec­tive notions of cultural room.

So when we speak of “gender culture" we refer not simply to this or that attitude toward women in the United States or Japan but to certain qualities of each general culture as well. For example, like any other aspect of cul­ture, gender culture is infused with (a) a sense of connection between the present and the past (cultural weight), (b) a connection to unknown others in one’s culture (cultural stretch), and (c) a connection to others in one’s immediate place in that culture (cultural embeddedness). Through stories, commentary, and exhortation, Japanese and American advice books reflect

positions along each of these dimensions of culture. An advice book can, for example, imply a great deal of “cultural weight” by invoking serious and authoritative judgments connected to a distant and revered past, including, potentially, reverence for female ancestors. Or such commentary can seem "light” because of a failure to acknowledge or pay tribute to the past.

Advice books also imply a degree of cultural stretch. That is, they may or may not imply the awareness, tolerance, or acceptance of a variety of social patterns. So, we can ask: Are there a number of cultural possibilities described in a book, or even on the list of best-selling advice books available at any point in time? Is the advice available to the readers in one book likely to be diametrically opposed to that in another equally popular book?

Advice books imply a degree of cultural embeddedness as well. They point to the degree to which an individual is implicitly expected to coordinate her or his line of action with that of others. Soshitsu Sen’s sleeping mother is clearly embedded in a social scene. But, we also want to know, is she por­trayed as deciding a line of action on her own or in close coordination with о tliers?

All three of these deep dimensions of general cultural life in Japan and the United States—weight, stretch, and embeddedness—shape die cultural compromises we come to think of as “advice” or "opinion.” As these two modern capitalist giants induct women into their labor forces, how do they differ in their style of cultural incorporation? To turn the question around, which cultural qualities make it easy for feminists to start a gender revolu­tion? And which qualities enable them to conclude the revolution by both entering the labor force on equal terms and establishing a high level of care for the young and old?

Drawing on the cultural pragmatism of Pierre Bourdieu, the frame analy­sis of Erving Coffman, and the notion of culture as a site of struggle from Randall Collins, wre explore best-selling advice books for women published between 1970 and 1990 in japan and the United States.1 Both the courses of action women pursue and the cultural room they have to do so are the result of a certain cultural work which an entire population performs. It is as if husbands and wives, grandparents, teachers, and employers from dif­ferent sectors of society all sat around an imaginary bargaining table ham­mering out agreements about the proper role of a wife, a husband, a mother, a father. For collectively such populations strike cultural deals, each contingent on a variety of conditions. Any free choice, they imply, takes place in the context of such a history of cultural deals. We can’t see these cultural deals, of course, but advice books give us some feel for them.

Cultures are always in motion. But how is it they change? Randall Collins suggests that cultures change as a result of a Darwinian struggle between contending ideas. One cultural idea “wins" out over another. Collins is right, of course, but we need to add to this picture some understanding of how

cultural differences are brokered. Indeed, we prefer to think of cultures as the result of continually renegotiated “deals.*1 It is as if some people called out, “We want this cultural ideal1’ and others called out, “No, we want that cultural ideal." Then, cultural intermediaries—such as authors of advice books—step in, saying in effect, “I propose a compromise." I’or example, an author may seem to say, “Let’s accept the abbreviation of certain rituals, since working mothers don’t have time to do the full proper preparation, but let’s keep the idea of motherly sacrifice. Let’s take rituals more lightly, but motherliness more seriously.” Advice books don’t tell who accepts what deal, but they show what the current proposals are and the amount and nature of the cultural room they leave women.

In some ways cultural bargaining is similar to other forms of collective bargaining, and in many ways it is, of course, different. When representa­tives oflabor and management bargain, they do so in a formal, institutional setting. Representatives appointed by management meet with representa­tives elected by workers, and each bargainer is accountable to a con­stituency. Arbitrators are brought in, final deals are legally binding. Rut in cultural bargaining, the players are figures in one or another arena of the mass media. Instead of constituencies to which they are accountable, parties speak to those who listen, buy, and read. Labor-management bargains forge the terms of a relationship between union and company. But cultural arbi­trators make deals between husbands and wives, parents and children—and taken as a whole, men as one stratum and women as another.

In labor-management bargains, what is negotiated are bread-and-butter issues—wages, hours, and benefits. In the informal realm of culture, though, the elements bargained about are ideas about virtues and flaws, sta­tus and honor, the weight of the past, the stretch or embeddedness of a cul­ture. Again, when labor and management bargain, the negotiation is formal and conscious. But cultural bargaining is relatively incoherent and uncon­scious. In the case of advice books, agreement is shown not by a raising of hands, ibut by a ring of the cash register. But just as labor-management bar­gains in one company set the pattern for a whole industry, so, we believe, best-selling advice books describe the dominant notions oif the cultural room given to women and men.

Some cultural ideas reinforce patriarchy, while others weaken it, and many ideas seems neutral in effect. Cultural ideas about, for example, honor—itself an important Japanese concern—can be seen as negotiating positions. For instance, a writer may say, “Women can be honorably modem in one way (say, by working), but will have to remain honorably traditional in another tsay, by showing deference to their husbands.” Thus, the deal can be: “women can work if they still act deferential to their husbands at home.” The study of advice books, then, is the study of such cultural deals,

and the success ol each kind of hook may oi ier us clues to their public acceptance.