Research Projects

Be Polite, Be Healthy, Be Feminine: Gender, Body Culture, Etiquette, and Health in Modern Japan

(Funded under General Research Fund Scheme 2014 – 15 Exercise, Research Grants Council, Hong Kong)

Principal Investigator

Izumi Nakayama, Honorary Assistant Professor, Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Total Fund Awarded

HKD 328,620

Project Duration

36 months

Project Description

This historical and ethnographic study examines female Japanese body cultures and its transformations from the late 19th to the first decade of the 21st century to understand the complex interactions between gendered notions of propriety, physical acts, and diverse health practices and beliefs in the construction of an idealized national female identity. In this inquiry, body culture refers to the physical ideals, techniques, practices and acts and its cultural contexts that shape these interpretations. The body is akin to a cultural artifact, where its physical actions are molded and informed by socio-cultural and historical factors and conditions. In the latter half of the 20th century, a young Japanese woman may have hesitated to sit down on the sidewalk for reasons of propriety and health. For women of her generation, sitting on the ground was considered “inappropriate,” but the physical act was also viewed as detrimental to her health because her “waist” (lower torso) would be chilled by the direct contact to the cold ground, possibly leading to infertility. In this example, the questions to pose are numerous: Why (and since when) was sitting on the ground inappropriate for women and not men? And why were ideas of “chilling” one’s body, based on traditional Chinese and Japanese kanpo medical thought, selectively entrenched in the discussion of women’s health in the 20th century? Did health concerns inform gendered physical manners of propriety, or vice versa? Despite the apparent dominance of conventional medicine in contemporary Japan, how do we understand the historical and cultural interplay between these physical acts of propriety, gender, and health? The research objective is to analyze the body as a depository of rituals and disciplined acts, shaped by and embodying historically and culturally specific ideals to better understand the physicality of propriety, gender, and health in the making of a national identity as a “Japanese” woman.