Christina D. Owens, PhD
White Male Victimhood in Contemporary Japan
Created in Nagoya, the now internationally known comic strip “Charisma Man” depicts an unattractive, marginally employed white man who arrives in Japan to find himself transformed. In the eyes of Japanese women he becomes a desirable heartthrob and in the eyes of Japanese employers he becomes a valued native English teacher. My first book project, titled Colorblind Imperialism: White Masculinity in Contemporary Japan opens by asking: when white, U.S. men arrive in Japan, do they really become “Charisma Men” and, if so, how might we explain this “charisma” and understand its transnational impact? To address these questions the project brings together feminist, postcolonial, and critical race theory to show how the figure of the debauched and unambitious white male native English teacher allows for the transnational mobilization of white male victimhood tropes.
As migrants cross borders ideas about justice, innocence, and victimhood travel with them. Tracing the race, gender, class and sexuality dynamics of these travels, Colorblind Imperialism pays close attention to how U.S. migrants’ in Japan respond to white male hypersexualization in expat bars, increasing precarity in the English language industry, and mundane exclusions from Japanese public life. I show how discursive repertoires that have developed within the U.S. since the 1970s in response to civil rights, feminist, and neoliberal social transformations can be redeployed abroad in ways that fortify empire. In the U.S. context, structures of colorblind racism, assertions of white male victimhood, and celebrations of market neutrality have played central roles in recuperating hegemonic white masculinities. When my informants apply these discourses in the Japanese context, they take part in what I call “colorblind imperialism.” As a corollary to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s “Racism Without Racists,” this is imperialism without imperial subjects. I show how (neo)liberal discourses recode empire as the smooth, unbiased workings of the global market, the universalization of multicultural ideals, or the realization of labor justice. When U.S. migrants frame their experiences in Japan via gender- and race-neutral appeals to (neo)liberalism, they often leave unexamined their own connection to and reliance upon U.S. imperial dominance. Weaving together empirical evidence with cultural analysis, this project ultimately points to the flexibility of liberal empire, which can appear colorblind, anti-sexist, and progressive even within encounters that are rife with gender, race, class, and national inequalities.
I construct this argument through a bilingual archive of fieldwork evidence, cultural and government texts, and 65 semi-structured interviews with expatriates and their associates living in Nagoya, Japan’s third largest metropolitan region. My two main field sites – a U.S.-owned expatriate bar and an English teachers’ labor union – inform the structure of the book. While the first two chapters examine how informants participated in or reacted against constructions of sexualized white masculinities, the next two chapters explore how anxieties around precarious employment are also shaped by gender, race, and sexuality. The final chapter brings these concerns together by focusing on Japan’s most vocal white male activist who has deployed human rights discourses within both Japanese hostess bars and the English language industry. In this way, the book shows how colorblind imperialism is constructed across multiple sites, with victimhood discourses obscuring the maintenance of race, gender, and class inequalities.
Appointments & Education
Honors Program Faculty, Florida State University
Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow, Women's Studies, Vassar College
Visiting Assistant Professor, Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program in the Global and Intercultural Studies Department,
Miami University, Ohio
PhD in Cultural Studies, with a Designated Emphasis in Feminist Theory and Research,
University of California, Davis
Dissertation Committee: Caren Kaplan, Grace Wang, & Miyako Inoue
Fields & Languages
Gender and Sexuality Studies, Transnational American Studies, U.S.-Japan Cultural Relations, Media and Cultural Studies
Interdisciplinary Methods: analysis of fieldwork, interviews, and a bilingual archive of cultural texts
Japanese Language Proficiency Exam Level N1 (highest) -- passed in 2011
American Studies Association
National Women's Studies Association
Cultural Typhoon (Cultural Studies Association in Japan)
This article employs palimpsestuous reading practices to query the transpacific reach and imperial pedigree of the comic strip “Charisma Man.” Turning to Max Weber’s theory of “charismatic authority” to understand the comic’s humorous portrayals of white male heterosexual privilege in Asia, the article proposes that the comic strip illuminates the patterns of raced and gendered “hereditary charisma” that continue to haunt transpacific relations. “Charisma Man,” penned by a team of North American men living in Japan, links contemporary white migrants across Asia – especially native English teachers – with a longue durée of Euro-American imperial actors abroad and builds meaning through intertextual engagement with the iconic cultural texts Superman and Madame Butterfly. The article concludes that “Charisma Man” makes light of white male hereditary charisma in Asia through a layering of temporally-disjointed transpacific discourses and, in turn, adds one more layer to a palimpsestuous sedimentation of sexist and racist hierarchies, normalizing their continuation within contemporary globalization.
(A shortened version of this journal article also won Finalist
mention in the American Studies Association's 2015 Comparative
Ethnic Studies Essay competition.)
Contemporary U.S. white migrants working in Japan long-term as English teachers find themselves in an increasingly precarious labor market. When reacting to industry flexibilization, the U.S. men I interviewed during two years of fieldwork in Nagoya regularly invoked Filipina competition as an impending threat to their livelihoods. Anxieties coalesced around the question of whether racialized postcolonial subjects can fully inhabit the category of “native English teacher.” This article combines Asian / American, postcolonial, feminist, and transnational American Studies perspectives to situate these “nativist” logics within an historical trajectory of anti-Asian labor backlash in the United States, “benevolent assimilation” policies in the Philippines, and the devaluation of Asian women’s labor within neoliberal globalization. These histories reappear within Japan’s neoliberal labor regimes to position Filipina migrants as a feminized “yellow peril” menace to hegemonic white masculinities abroad. Extending Homi Bhabha’s theorization of “colonial mimicry,” I show how benevolent assimilation holds within it the seeds of yellow peril. Within the context of contemporary Japan, Filipina “colonial mimicry” undermines the embodied, linguistic authority of white “native” English teachers and becomes a discursive conduit for the transplantation into Japan of the “white male victim” figure commonly seen in domestic U.S. culture wars.
In 2012 the UC Davis American studies program began collaborating with the university’s Extension program and its Center for International Education by offering courses designed specifically for short-term international students. We contextualize these targeted efforts as a response to broader neoliberal trends toward the internationalization and marketization of U.S. higher education and explore practical strategies for centering critical inquiry of U.S. nationalism and sociopolitical hegemony within these classroom spaces. As universities are called on to develop curricula to serve international students, this development can occur in one of two directions. We argue that instead of off-loading this work to the rapidly expanding nonacademic “student life” sectors of campus, American studies scholars can proactively intervene precisely because we are attuned to the necessity of a critical and reflective approach to the study of the United States.
Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy.
Vol. 24. No. 1 & 2 (2014): 25-39.
This article examines the usefulness of “viral” videos for framing classroom conversations about the cultural politics of globalization. The author presents a series of coursework activities that revolve around YouTube videos of Filipino prisoners at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center dancing to iconic U.S. pop music and shows how the power dynamics at work within the production and dissemination of these videos opens up productive analytical space for students in a lower-division, general education course on popular culture. In addition to allowing students to concretize competing perspectives in critical theory, this coursework addresses a widespread push to transnationalize the humanities and social science curriculum.
Chong Chon-Smith’s East Meets Black: Asian and Black Masculinities in the Post-Civil Rights Era.
University of Mississippi Press, 2015. Journal of Asian American Studies Vol. 19 No. 2 (June 2016).
Dismantle Magazine 3 Nov 2022.
This short personal essay explores how fashion serves as a vehicle for identity formation and as an embodied medium through which we can navigate the fragmentation of the subject. It interweaves memoir with pedagogical reflections on teaching about fashion and style, especially during the height of the COVID19 pandemic.
Fashion Research: Fashion, Culture, Theory (blog), 19 Aug 2015.
moved to Dismantle Magazine on 6 Jan 2017.
This short online piece examines how "weird Japan" click bait produced by U.S.-based news outlets reproduces Orientalist rhetorics and conservative visions of the U.S.-Japan alliance. I have learned from colleagues that this article is often assigned to undergraduate students in Japanese Cultural Studies courses.
Works in Progress
"TransPacific Health Care Reforms: Healthy Human Resources, Hybrid Neoliberal Governance"
journal article, revising from a dissertation chapter that does not appear in the first book project.
"From Enamoration to Ennui: English Teaching Expats and Theatrical Performances of Race and Gender Difference”
journal article exploring expatriate community theater productions - the first piece of a second book project.