A Social Mechanism that Binds a Definition: The Reappropriation of “Housework Harassment” in Japan.

by Mieko Takenobu

Recently an advertisement by Asahi Kasei Homes Corporation’s has come under fire in the media and on the internet. This advertisement dealt with the concept of “housework harassment”. The term, “housework harassment” was coined in my book, “Housework Labor Harassment – the core of making it hard to live,” published last year. In the book I defined housework labor harassment as harassment by social systems which insult, disrespect and exclude housework. The book also outlined the hardships suffered by women in poverty and hardships they endure for their on-going survival working in the home. The Asahi Kasei advertisement however, transformed the meaning of the term “housework harassment” into “hardships of men who do housework”. I would like to point out “the social mechanism” in which power holders bind a definition of terms and nullifies the terms defined by the others like women and minorities.

Turnaround of the definition
Housework is an important labor that supports lives of people. Daily activities such as child care, nursing care, and feeding children and the elderly, are important tasks that can be linked with housework. In Japan, such housework labor is done by “invisible” women and housewives whose work often goes unnoticed in society, and thus tend to receive weak political attention.
Under such a social system, women are having difficulties faced with long working hours and the lack of accessible child-care services. Nearly 60% of women quit their full time jobs after childbirth. Upon returning to the labor force, women generally work in part-time and/or irregular employment so that they can keep earning an income while raising children. Under this system, men are the main breadwinners and often women cannot be economically independent with their low salaries since they often work only for their pocket money in between their housework. Nearly 60% of women work in irregular employment, and have become a leading reason behind the increased incidence of poverty in Japan. Men, on the other hand, are expected to support women economically and have to endure long working hours, which sometimes even results in death by work (Karoshi). I published my book intending to raise awareness among people of the role and value of housework and inventing the term “housework harassment” to review issues surrounding working styles for both women and men.

Asahi Kasei Homes’ mis-adaptation of the term “housework harassment” devalues the original meaning and reinterpreted it meaning to be more about family squabbles over housework between wife and husband. In addition, the ad stated that wives’ attitude complaining about quality of housework done by their husbands is harassment. Such an ad may destroy the real meaning of housework harassment. Asahi Kasei Homes spread such distorted meaning of housework harassment among media through press releases. Furthermore, the ad was put out on several commuter trains in Tokyo. The distorted definition of “housework harassment” as harassment against men doing shoddy housework was reinforced through TV programs which took up and commented on the Asahi Kasei Homes’ ad.      

A wave of criticism from women
Soon after the ad was released, women took action against it. The very next day, a woman criticized a decrease in her husband’s motivation to do housework by hearing wives criticism in relation to this ad on FB, stating “How can you even think of deserving complements for your housework like a child?” She also mentioned about misinterpretation of the definition stating, “There would be a misunderstanding of the concept of housework harassment with the one in Mieko Takenobu’s ‘Housework Labor Harassment.’ One of my friends who read this comment called me showing her concern over the misinterpretation. Readers of the book also showed their concerns one after another. After careful consideration, mainly because of concerns that their usage of “housework harassment” caused women to hate the words and the intension of my book will be ruined before reaching out to those who need help, I decided to lodge a complaint directly with Asahi Kasei Homes asking them to stop misusing the term, housework harassment.

Asahi Kasei Homes quickly responded to my complaint. In response to the complaint, the company voluntarily removed the ad from the train and posted the definition of “housework harassment” from my book on their homepage. It also submitted an apology letter for its inappropriate usage of the words “housework harassment.”

A Social Mechanism that Binds the Definition Made by Women
I reacted responsively to this misuse of the definition of “housework harassment” because I have observed similar situations surrounding word changes in the past.

Seku-hara (sexual harassment): In 1980s, the wording “sexual harassment” appeared in Japan. It meant a serious infringement of human rights which results in excluding one gender from a workplace. However, it was abbreviated to the shorter wording “Seku-hara,” which turned the original meaning into somewhat less serious behavior as “mischiefs such as touching the bottoms of women” or “office romance” through the ways it was featured in male weekly magazines.

Work-Sharing: “Work Sharing” appeared in 1990s when the unemployment rate increased in the end of 1990s. It was originally meant to prevent unemployment by sharing work in Europe; however, the Japan Federation of Employers’ Association changed its definition into “preventing unemployment by lowering wages,” which in effect made it easier to lowering the wages of workers.       

Soushoku-Danshi (herbivore men): In 2006, “Soushoku-Danshi” (“herbivore men” which means opposite to macho men) was invented by columnist Maki Fukagawa. It showed a new male figure with whom women are able to socialize equally and frankly. However, the meaning has been transformed through magazines into “a men who cannot go out with women.”

What is common among these examples is the way that power holders changed the definition of new terms which do not suit them and are then new meanings are attached and distributed through media, watering down innovative elements that the original definition used to have. 

Distorting the original meaning of the particular terms and spreading it with its power nullifies the new images of the society that the original meaning wanted to realize and destroys the movement of restructuring the society.

I wanted to express a serious side effect of the turnaround of the original definition      in the complaint to Asahi Kasei Homes.

Women’s Pushback
It was a strong pushback from women (and men) who have been fed up with “the housework harassment society” and the power of the internet that eventually caused Asahi Kasei to pull their advertisements.

One of my friends who witnessed the misuse of the words on Facebook called me and told me her frustration, “Is this situation same as the one with ‘Seku-hara’?” It suddenly reminded me of the turnaround of the definitions of “Work Sharing” and “Soushoku Danshi (herbivore men)” I thought that all our frustration with these words whose definitions have been forcefully transformed would be meaningless if I remained silent.

I lodged my complaints with Asahi Kasei for three reasons I felt troublesome and five demands to improve these points. When I called the company for a meeting, the appointment was quickly set up as, according to Asahi Kasei, they were about to get in touch with me due to the reaction they got from female reporters who were following the discussion on Facebook.

Soon after I lodged the complaints with the company, I also made it public by posting it to Facebook. I thought it was necessary to disseminate it to the public many times in order to correct the misusage of “housework harassment” through mass advertisement.  
Many people shared my comments as well as posted it on their twitter and individual blogs. Many also mailed their complaints directly to Asahi Kasei Homes. Analytical articles on the ad of “housework harassment” were put on the web one after another by female cyber journalists. I believe these voices as a whole made the company reacted quickly to my complaint.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Council’s sexual comments generated a large swell of criticism spread through twitters. The wave of the criticism against Asahi Kasei’s distorted usage of “housework harassment” may have been small compared with the swell of the Council’s sexual comments, but it was a valuable experience for us since we succeeded in pushing back the powerful mass media through the use of the internet and social media as an effective tool.

I hope that this success can be used by others in their struggles against the social mechanism in which powerful forces misuse and transform terms and meanings for their own benefit and simultaneously devalue the original meanings of words and concepts of those less powerful than them.

Original Article (August 2, 2014): http://wan.or.jp/reading/?p=14247
Translated and Adapted by Fumie Saito

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