Thesis: Citizen professionals: College women, care work, and the transformation of middle class subjectivity in post-bubble Japan (2008)


This dissertation explores the changing subjectivities of female college students at non-elite universities in “post-bubble” Japan in the context of the neo-liberal restructuring of higher education, social welfare, and the youth labor market. Drawing on both preliminary research in 2001 and twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork in Tokyo from 2003-2004, I examine how lower middle-class or working-class college women negotiate the meanings of becoming full middle-class members of Japanese society, in which college attainment no longer promises middle-class citizenship. While the neoliberalization is considered to exacerbate inequality, my dissertation observes the paradoxical ways in which it works as a critical context that opens up new social possibilities for some young women. Specifically, college women majoring in social welfare and psychology are positioned in an anxious space created by the state, the labor market, and universities’ efforts to professionalize the fields of social welfare and psychology. This space is saturated with discourses championing neo-liberal rhetoric about desirable subjectivities derived from the shifting policies and practices of the state, the business world, the labor market, and universities. I argue, however, that these young women are not simply succumbing to this new neo-liberal technology of governance. I analyze these young women’s self-fashioning as what I call the “micro-processes of differentiation,” through which they fashion identifications during their urban college social lives.

This dissertation argues that while young women’s lives are fraught with ambiguity, in response to the transforming policies, practices, and discourses of the state, the business world, the labor market, and universities, many of them creatively forge alternative meanings of middle class citizenship, what I call “alternative citizenship,” in the process of opting for the caring professions. Central to the formation of this alternative citizenship is these women’s identification of care work as “professional careers” (senmonshoku). In this way, these women re-signify and upgrade the notion of “a job with one’s hands” (te ni shoku) or manual labor. College women take the caring professions’ key features–economic independence, individuality, creativity, and professional autonomy–to be the cornerstones of an alternative understanding of women’s middle class citizenship that were long symbolized by the status of OL (office lady) and the subsequent life of the full-time housewife. This dissertation thus captures a pivotal moment of the transformation of gendered professionalism: from one supported by normative corporate and family membership to another by credentials. This dissertation also argues that young college women have destabilized a variety of conventional boundaries, such as those between “professionals” and “service,” and “mental” and “manual.” By elucidating the processes through which women creatively fashion themselves as new subjects in a transformative era, this dissertation offers a new and concrete understanding of the impacts of neo-liberal global restructuring on the reconstitution of subjectivity and cultural citizenship of female youth in post-bubble Japan.