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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Strangers and sensemaking : an ethnography of Japanese housewives Lee, Beverly


This thesis attempts to look at the experiences of Japanese housewives who have spent a period of time in a foreign Western country before returning to Japan. It is an ethnography presented in the context of what it is like to become a stranger. In it I try to examine not only the initial impact of the cultural encounter, but also the day-to-day sense making as it occurs in the lives of the women, and the change in perspective which becomes apparent upon return home. The data were collected in the form of approximately 50 tape recorded, in-depth interviews conducted in English. Because the relevant experiences of the women varied so greatly, an unstructured open-ended interview format was employed. The informants were wives of scholars, government representatives, or businessmen. All were residing or had resided in a foreign Western country solely because their husbands were studying or working abroad. About one-third of the interviews were conducted in Vancouver, and the remainder in Japan. Most interviews took place in the informant's home. Many of the women bring with them expectations based on past experiences, handed-down information, and taken-for-granted ideas which prove to be an inadequate basis for sensemaking in the new environment. Confronted with this anomaly, they often suffer disorientation and depression. It appears that time, familiarity, and exposure to the new socio-cultural environment ameliorate the sense of dislocation. But perhaps the most important factor is the individual ability to draw from varied sources of information and to integrate this information into the patterns of thinking and behavior. This can lead to cultural competence, which is more than just being able to perform in a socially acceptable manner. It involves both knowing the rules of society well enough to abide by them and understanding when one can successfully violate, bend or break the established tenets. Upon returning to Japan many women feel that their encounter with another culture has affected their perceptions of self and home. Following the initial impact of return, many began to question the differences and similarities of the socio-cultural environments they had encountered. They also began, again, to question themselves. Some women found this self-examination and reflection to be a long and difficult process, but others experienced immediate insights and changes in perspectives.

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