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  • The Too-Good Wife: Alcohol, Codependency, and the Politics of Nurturance in Postwar Japan
  • R. Kenji Tierney
Amy Borovoy , The Too-Good Wife: Alcohol, Codependency, and the Politics of Nurturance in Postwar Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, December 2005. 251 pp.

Borovoy's book looks at an important cross section in the anthropology of Japan, the intersection of the family, business, and the state. Long praised for its productive symbiosis between the state and business, this book looks at the dark side.

If one reads the latest media reports in and about Japan, one is aware that "Japan, Inc." has broken down as the listless economy drags into its second "lost decade." The pillars of Japanese society—those social forms so actively studied by earlier generations of anthropologists—are seen to be crumbling, all the while trapping the average Japanese in the structures that produced the "Japanese Miracle." The Japanese family is in disarray. Once imagined as a society of perfect marriages and stable families, it is now "Japan as Number One" in divorce (Raymo et. al.) and suicide (over 30,000 a year for the past eight years). The schools are also breaking down as some students incite violence in the classroom while others never leave their bedrooms at all (hikikomori). Among the numerous public and private responses, for example, the Ministry of Education (MEXT) has recently shortened the acclaimed school week from 51⁄2 days to 5 days in an attempt to re-center education around family and community. [End Page 791]

Meanwhile on the business side, anyone who has spent a late night in urban Japan has seen the contradictory demands of the company. One of the more striking fieldwork memories that I have of urban Tokyo is taking the very last train of the night. Stepping off onto the platform at Shinagawa station, I saw a virtual war zone with the bodies of drunken and unconscious businessmen strewn throughout the station and many more puddles of vomit as evidence of their colleagues. What is amazing is not just that the drinking is part of required commensality of work, but it is also the fact that the company similarly demands these same businessmen will be at their desk, if only physically, the next morning, either nursing hangovers or artificially animated by the ubiquitous, and sometimes mysterious, "energy drinks." This system made the world's second largest economy, but what are its costs?

Amy Borovoy's book gives the reader a look behind this system of success to examine its toll. Borovoy argues that the Japanese state and corporations have worked together to create not just the middle-class white-collar worker, otherwise known as the salaryman, but also the wife and family to support his productive activities. She analyzes the trajectory of a controversial American import, namely the concept of codependency that Borovoy defines as "the notion that it is possible to care too well for a family member" (14) and the concurrent pathologization of pre-existing forms of relationships, such as concept of amae ("passive dependency"), made famous by the Japanese anthropologist Doi Takeo. Borovoy's feminist analysis looks at Japanese society to provide a larger view on ideas of selfhood, the individual, and the family. While these are well-worn topics within the anthropology of Japan, her focus on the pathologization of codependency as a window into the dynamics of the family and construction of self allows for a fresh perspective. Thus, while in one sense alcoholism is central to Borovoy's analysis, in another, it is incidental as she does not interview the alcoholics and substance abusers themselves, rather she is interested in how their actions and the discourse around codependency affect Japanese notions of the self and the family. As such, her book is in conversation with the anthropologists of Japan, past and present.

Her book centers around the introduction of Alcoholic Anonymous (Danshukai) and its pair Codependents Anonymous (introduced to Japan in 1976 and in 1982, respectively). The prime difference between the two, as Borovoy notes, is that AA focuses on the harm done by its members, CoDA focuses on the harm done to them (13). Interested in the...


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pp. 791-795
Launched on MUSE
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