ANU research on Japanese "silver backpackers" sheds light on gender norms

Monday 18 December 2017
In 2011 Shiori Shakuto was out with friends in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They were at the sort of place where expats, backpackers and locals go for drinks and food, and she noticed a small group of older Japanese men and women drinking with the best of them. Shiori wondered, ‘Who are these people?’ 
 
She approached them and asked. They replied that they were “silver backpackers”, Japanese people who had moved to Malaysia upon their retirement. “Unlike young backpackers, we have no energy, but we have money. So instead of staying in hostels, we rent an apartment in KL, and fly around the world with our hand luggage,” they told her. 
 
That encounter was the genesis for Shiori’s Anthropology PhD thesis. The silver backpackers, she says, challenged a lot of assumptions about old age and international movement. 
 
“Elderly people are often portrayed to be less mobile, with migration being for the young person,” she says. “So I was quite inspired by them.”
 
As it turns out, Malaysia is sort of the Florida of Japan. It’s been the #1 international destination for Japanese baby boomer retirees for the past ten years. Its attractions: the relatively cheaper cost of living, the warmer weather, relatively safer standards and an English-speaking environment.
 
After 15 months of fieldwork among silver backpackers, Shiori focussed on how gender and intergenerational norms were shaken up when men of that generation retired, and the implications of immigrating to Malaysia on gender roles and social and familial ties.
 
Shiori explains how in Japan, for the baby boomers, there were strict divisions of labour between the sexes. The men played the role of father and ‘salarymen’: white collar salary workers who give their life to their companies. The women of that generation were mostly housewives.
 
Retirement reconfigured the power and social dynamics between husband and wife.
 
“Many men largely lost their place of belonging because their value and friendships was tied up in their companies,” Shiori explains. “After retirement, they lost that.”
 
“They couldn’t rediscover it in their family or house because they were largely absent during the 40 years of their working life.”
 
Women, on the other hand, remained housewives and retained their social network of family members, friends and neighbours. Consequently, they didn’t experience the same sense of disconnection as their husbands did with that change.
 
Untethered from their previous social networks, husbands tried to rekindle ties with their wives in retirement – usually unsuccessfully. Shiori references a term some Japanese wives use to refer to their retired husbands: nure-ochiba.
 
“It means ‘fallen wet leaves’; leaves that are wet are really hard to get rid of,” Shiori says. 
 
“They stick with their wives wherever they go, but it’s unwelcome. A lot of the men I met in Malaysia said they felt like this in Japan.”
 
So, women from the baby boomer generation had it pretty good in their older age in Japan, which was why they tended to resist moving to Malaysia. But in moving, they saw the situation differently to their husbands.
 
“Husbands saw their move as a permanent one and called Malaysia their new home. Women saw it as a temporary home,” Shiori says.
 
“Men called it migration, women called it tourism.” 
 
In Malaysia, husbands found new social networks – in other retired Japanese husbands. They also derived value from the old gender norms being restored as their wives – who couldn’t drive and weren’t able to speak English – were once again reliant on them for their survival. 
 
“Being in a fresh environment also gave the men the opportunity to re-define their spousal relationship from that of familial obligations to that of romantic partnership,” Shiori says. 
 
“During their working life, they’d use familial terms to refer to each other – so, they called each other father and mother, [marking] their relationship as being one of familial responsibility.
 
“Moving to Malaysia dislocates men from their social obligations, [which frees them up to] rematerialize their ties through the idiom of romantic and equal partnership.” 
 
In retirement, gender norms which were once associated with work were subject to change. Women and men re-defined these norms differently, and it caused a sense of hope and anxiety among couples. 
 
In her PhD, Shiori also examined what the Japanese government defines as ‘active ageing’, coming to the conclusion that it’s a model men are more able to fit but it’s not one that women necessarily want to, or are good at, achieving. What is needed instead, Shiori argued, is more effort put in to shifting the gendered division of labour that continues to prescribe gender relations in contemporary Japan.
 
Shiori’s thesis is now behind her, having graduated in December 2017. Already she has a post-doctoral fellowship lined up at the National University of Singapore, where she’ll be looking at shifting gender and family dynamics in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 tsunami and radiation crisis.
 
“Since then there has been the unprecedented suspicion among young Japanese families that the radiation level in Japan is detrimental to the health of their children,” she says.
 
“Some of these families take on a new familial form – the wife and children move to Malaysia but the husband stays in Japan to [work and sends money to his family overseas].”
 
It used to be the case that the pattern of mobility went the other way – women would stay at home while their husbands worked abroad. For those who moved to Malaysia, Shiori says, it’s the other way around.
 
“What does it mean to be a family in contemporary Japan? What is familial love? Is it having all the family members together, or sacrificing to ensure better health for the children? What does it mean to be independent but still supported by the husband monetarily?”
 
“So I’m interested in what these shifting forms of familiar relations tell us about new gender possibilities in uncertain times.”
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Updated:  18 December 2017/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications