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

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 154-159 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0021

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As Andrew Gordon recounts at the start of this book, two surveys in the early 1950s revealed that Japanese wives of industrial workers spent over two hours every day sewing! The discovery of that startling fact prompted him to try to make sense of it. As he did so, he began to realize that examining the development of sewing in twentieth-century Japan could provide an important perspective on major social transformations in twentieth-century Japan. His curiosity and hunch paid off. Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan yields a wealth of insights on a variety of issues pertaining to business history, labor relations, the role of women in Japan, the nature of wartime Japan, the impact of globalization, and the experience of modernity for the Japanese. As the author of three monographs on Japanese labor relations and a major textbook on modern Japanese history, Gordon brings a considerable depth and breadth of knowledge about twentieth-century Japan to this work. He also utilizes a wide range of sources, including Japanese women’s magazines, major Japanese newspapers, journals of the Japanese sewing machine industry and the Japan Credit Industry Association, archives of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, ethnographic studies of dress in Japan, and time use studies, as well as materials at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, the municipal government of Tokyo, the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce, the Japanese Ministry of Labor, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At one level, this study presents a valuable examination of the rise and fall of the Singer Company, a U.S. firm, in Japan. Opening its first shop in 1900, Singer introduced the sewing machine to the Japanese. By the 1920s the company was selling 50,000 to 80,000 units per year while maintaining an 80 per cent share of the market of machines sold. The key to the firm’s success lay in its distinctive direct selling system through 800 wholly owned stores. Salesmen literally went door-to-door to pitch their product, while female teachers offered free sewing lessons to customers. A novel installment plan allowed purchasers to stretch out their payments over a number of months. As Gordon calculates, however, Singer achieved a low market penetration of only 7.5 per cent during that period, because Japanese women viewed the machines as only useful for stitching Western-style clothes. Unfortunately for Singer, the overwhelming majority of women continued to wear traditional Japanese garments. By the late 1930s Japanese competitors began to achieve some success. After the government forced Singer out of Japan during the Pacific War, the company re-entered the market in the 1950s with a Japanese partner but was able to corner only a 14 per cent share. Meanwhile, Japanese rivals, which freely imitated and adapted both Singer’s products and sales techniques, prospered and came to dominate the Japanese market and even to export to the U.S. market.

Given the author’s focus on labor issues in previous studies, one should not be surprised that he devotes a chapter to examining a major dispute initiated by Singer employees in 1932. By contemporary estimates in the press, perhaps 2,000 of 8,000 employees launched a job action to demand various benefits, such as pensions and severance pay. The employees continued to sell machines and collect payments but deposited the proceeds “in trust.” The Japanese government, which generally took a dim view of workers’ protests, remained neutral in this confrontation between Japanese workers and this foreign firm. Taking an intransigent stand, management defeated the workers’ movement. Gordon emphasizes that the dispute was significant for the employees’ articulation of “customary Japanese practices they expected employers to follow,” such as severance pay linked to seniority, stable wages, and job security. Here, he asserts, appeared elements that would after 1945 be defined as a “‘Japanese’ employment system” (pp. 102–4, 115). This view accords with his argument in an earlier work that this employment system, which evolved in the first postwar decade, had some continuities with practices in prewar Japan.1

The influence of the sewing machine on the role of women in Japanese society receives the most attention in this book. Singer empowered some women by...

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