SIUE professor says female entrepreneurs played pivotal roles in Japanese culture

More than 20 years ago, SIUE professor Christienne Hinz sat in a café in Fukuoka, Japan, studying and observing how an elderly Japanese woman interacted with her customers.

SIUE history professor Christienne Hinz is studying the cultural impact of the social roles of working class Japanese women. (Photo courtesy of Hinz)

“Grandmother,” as the woman was known to the locals in the neighborhood, treated customers as members of her family. As a 73-year-old restaurant owner, Grandmother provided motherly advice and cared for guests as she would her own children, Hinz said.

As a young PhD student at Ohio State Hinz spent a year in the southwestern Japanese city taking meticulous notes on Grandmother’s business and gathering an immense collection of data. Now an assistant professor in SIUE’s history department, Hinz is using the data for her current study “Manufacturing Modernities; a case study approach in the history of entrepreneurship among Japanese women in the 20th century.” Hinz hopes to get the results of her study published in an academic journal.

The study focuses on the social role of working class women in Japanese culture, Hinz said. In Grandmother’s case, her business served as an extension of her home, both in a literal and figurative sense.

Hinz said Grandmother would seamlessly walk in and out of her restaurant, which was connected horizontally to her home. Grandmother used items from her own kitchen to serve to customers in her restaurant. She would also engage in parental style rituals with customers. Hinz said Grandmother and other Japanese women use the motherhood image as a marketing tool to form a customer base.

“She’s really selling is a sense of motherhood so that people who go there feel like they’re coming home,” Hinz said. “And that’s actually something really important to make a stable Japanese identity because they experience such rapid and radical westernization – modernization. A sense of maternity requires a sense of tradition somewhere. And that’s where that is seeded: in the businesses that women are running.”

Hinz recalled when she would frequent the restaurant how Grandmother would give her marital advice and tell her what food she should eat. On one occasion, Hinz said Grandmother scolded her when she had not replaced a missing button on her coat and sowed it for her.

Depictions of motherhood in her restaurant business and how Grandmother interacted with her customers formed the basis of Hinz’s presentation as part of the SIUE History Department’s “Brown Bag” presentation series on Jan. 20 at the MUC.

“Grandmother,” whose identity Hinz kept private for confidentiality purposes, worked at her mother’s restaurant as a young girl during World War II and later opened her own restaurant in 1959. During the 1960s, student activists engaged in protests on social issues of the time, breaking store windows and rioting in Fukuoka’s streets. But Hinz said the students avoided vandalizing Grandmother’s home and business, because they thought of her as a maternal figure and enjoyed her family-style cooking.

“People in the neighborhood interacted with her as if she was their mother,” Hinz said.

Hinz said the role of women like Grandmother provided a sense of cultural stability at least from a psychological perspective. Small businesses like Grandmother’s restaurant are common in Japanese urban streets. Hinz said 30 percent of small businesses in Japan are owned by women.

“It’s not necessarily that they preserve culture, but that they preserve an imaginary tradition,” Hinz said. “In their minds, the Japanese people imagine their old village — the village of their ancestors as being a particular kind of place where human relationships are warm, people are intimate, and things are peaceful and all of that is wrapped up in the idea of a motherly figure.”

Hinz completed a study in 2004, called “Women beyond the Pale: Marital Misfits and Outcasts among Japanese women entrepreneurs,” which was published in the Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Hinz has also made presentations on different aspects of women in Japanese culture at the Business History Conference in Milan, Italy, the Babson College Entrepreneurship Research Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Berkshire Conference on Women’s History.



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