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Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan by Andrew Gordon (review)

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 73, Number 1, June 2013
pp. 211-215 | 10.1353/jas.2013.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

When we got married in 1988, my wife asked for a surprising wedding gift: a sewing machine. It was a surprise because my wife, who was born and raised in Tokyo, had never shown much interest in domestic pursuits, and was already pursuing a career in finance that left her with little time or inclination for the domestic arts of sewing, flower arranging, or the tea ceremony. After reading Andrew Gordon's fascinating account of the sewing machine's history in modern Japan, I have a much better understanding of my wife's request.

Gordon's study of the sewing machine was initially prompted by a striking statistic: in 1950s Japan married women devoted on average more than two hours a day to sewing. This was precisely when the Japanese sewing machine industry was both exploding onto the world scene as a major exporter and penetrating nearly three-quarters of all domestic households. The sewing machine, which is both a consumer good and a means of production, was therefore an important and instructive element in the complex tapestry of Japan's era of high economic growth (1955-1972). Expanding his investigation chronologically, both forward to the 1970s and backward to the 1860s, Gordon found that his topic has far deeper resonance than a focus on the 1950s would suggest. The result is an absorbing book that uses a single object of material culture, the sewing machine, to illuminate many of the key social, political, and cultural concerns of Japan's modern era.

The book is divided into two parts, each covering a distinct era: the era of initial growth of the sewing machine market in Japan, which was overwhelmingly dominated by the Singer Sewing Machine Company; and the wartime and postwar periods, when the domestic production and consumption of sewing machines burgeoned. Each era offers fascinating insights into the development of Japan's modern industrial society, and Gordon also makes intriguing connections between these two eras.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Western sewing and sewing machines entered Japan as part of the package of "civilization and enlightenment" (bunmei kaika 文明開化). As men adopted Western clothing, professional tailors (often using imported sewing machines) opened shop to meet their needs. Women, however, were much slower to adopt the new machines. For the most part, home sewing continued to mean the hand-stitching and unstitching of kimonos, which were loosely assembled and had to be dismantled every time the kimono was cleaned or stored. In this environment, the Singer Sewing Machine Company began introducing to Japan its sales system, setting up dedicated stores, hiring commission-based salesmen, extending credit through installment plans, and retaining female sewing teachers to instruct novices in the techniques and possibilities of the sewing machine. Since mass sales required widespread adoption by Japanese families, Singer's challenge was to convince consumers of the sewing machine's utility and benefit, even if they continued to wear Japanese clothing. Singer also had to make the machines affordable in an era when a sewing machine cost two months' income for a middle class family. As the company introduced and expanded its signature model of installment sales, it also had to convince consumers that borrowing on the installment system was qualitatively different from falling into debt, which was stigmatized in Japan as elsewhere. Singer's marketing model was remarkably successful: by the end of the 1920s, the company had opened eight hundred stores across Japan and was selling upwards of sixty thousand imported machines per year.

As the Japanese elites adopted Western clothing, they were entering into a global culture of material goods and daily life. Yet, they were quite ambivalent about this process. Sharp debates erupted in the press about the merits of Japanese versus Western clothing. The stakes were raised because the widespread adoption of Western clothing— and sewing machines—threatened to alter women's household roles. Western clothing was increasingly associated with a liberated, carefree lifestyle. Moreover, Singer encouraged women to seek financial returns from their investments in sewing machines, and this in turn implied a level of economic independence that appeared to threaten Japan's patriarchal society. The struggle was not simply between tradition and modernity, however...

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