On the Internet’s gender divide

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Invisibility by Design: Women and Labor in Japan’s Digital Economy

By Gabriella Lukács (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2020, 248 pp., $25.95, paperback)

While it is too soon for a definitive history of social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, even a small-scale analysis of their effects can prime us for future studies of such a phenomenon that has a global influence on human interactions. Gabriella Lukács’ “Invisibility by Design,” which explores how social media influences gender relations and perceptions of labor in the rising gig economy in Japan, provides an excellent starting point for readers.

Lukács presents a paradoxical thesis: The current digital economy of Japan — a manifestation of capitalism that foregrounds exploitation of workers and reinforces existing gender hierarchies — was built, according to Lukács, on “women’s invisible labor.” (pp.3). Because Japanese women have traditionally been excluded from salaried jobs, their sole avenue to participation in the labor force has been in non-traditional roles.
According to the author, because Japan’s digital economy evolved as a result of the deregulation of the established labor market, it was in a position to exploit this source of labor by providing enticing opportunities beyond traditional wage jobs.

In Marxist terms, Lukács centers her discussion on the nature of women’s “invisible” labor within a labor market structure that allows major corporations, such as Livedoor and Rakuten, to exploit net idols, vloggers and influencers to promote their brands for little to no compensation. One of the strengths of Lukács’ book is her wonderful ability to humanize these women, their work and their struggle to survive.

As Lukács shows, while the digital economy advances gross inequalities throughout Japanese society, women are especially victimized because of gender barriers and the systemic devaluing of their labor. From answering fan mail to drafting blog posts, net idols and bloggers put in extensive hours of labor off the screen and around the clock, for which they receive little to no return, all within an unregulated labor market that benefits major corporations, and provides workers little legal protection. In particular, the fetishization of idols by male viewers further perpetuates a gendered division of labor. As a result, the idol is objectified as a product, rather than as a worker, and further alienated from viewers.

The comparisons between Rakuten and current companies like Amazon — one that Lukács readily identifies — is uncanny. Even though the indictment of Livedoor’s CEO Takafumi Horie on fraud charges rocked Japan’s financial world (a scandal that coincided, ironically, with both the Enron and Bernie Madoff scandals in the United States), the minor charges brought against Horie demonstrate the continuing laxness toward white collar crimes in Japan, and their implications on society.

Even as social media becomes central to everyday life, we are left wondering whether our active participation simply serves corporate interests.

Lukács’ book is not only an excellent contribution to our understanding of gender issues in Japan, but of gender divides within the global Internet economy, and is especially pertinent to a place such as the Silicon Valley.
As we await a fuller history of the Internet age, Lukács gives us plenty to think about.

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