Gabriella Lukacs on Women’s Invisible Labor in Japan’s Digital Economy

Gabriella Lukacs on Women's Invisible Labor in Japan's Digital Economy

Gabriella Lukacs (Ph.D. Duke University) is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a media anthropologist whose research focuses on Japan and Hungary. She is the author of two books. Scripted Affects, Branded Selves: Television, Subjectivity, and Capitalism in 1990s Japan (Duke University Press 2010) analyzes a new genre of primetime serials called “trendy drama” as post-signification television. Invisibility by Design: Women and Work in Japan’s Digital Economy (Duke University Press 2020) examines how venture capitalists built the digital economy in Japan by harnessing young women’s pursuit of DIY careers. Her other publications appeared in Cultural Anthropology, Positions: Asia Critique, Boundary2, and the International Journal of Cultural Studies. She is currently working on a manuscript titled Illiberalism’s Culture: State Populism and Media Activism in Hungary. Building on such examples of leftist media activism as independent theater, counter-billboard campaigns, street art, political vlogs, and Internet memes, this book project explores the shifting relationship between the public and the commons in a post-socialist context.
Kelsey Clarke CMC '22 interviewed Gabriella Lukacs on Feb 21, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Lukacs on behalf of Duke University.

Your new book Invisibility by Design explores how Japan’s digital economy was built on young women’s uncompensated, invisible labor. You argue that many women were seduced into trying to create “Do It Yourself” careers. Could you further expand on the different factors that led to this aspiration? Moreover, why do you think women in Japan were more susceptible than men to “hope labor” and “the ideology of the possible?”

After 1945, Japan’s economic recovery was built on a particular form of work organization that was called lifetime employment. What that meant was that after graduating from high school or college, young people would apply for jobs, start working for a particular company, and retire from the same company. Only 30% of the population had access to lifetime employment and the overwhelming majority of them were men. Within this system, women were mobilized to provide unskilled and flexible labor that could be maintained or shut down as business cycles fluctuated. Japan’s prolonged recession during the 1990s and the 2000s has only exacerbated this situation. Among the most advanced capitalist countries, Japan has the worst gender-wage disparity. Women make up 70% of irregular workers and they make only 67.1% of men’s salaries. I demonstrate in my book that in the late 1990s, many young women turned to the emerging digital economy to develop DIY careers they perceived as more meaningful than the employment that was available to them in the traditional labor market. More often than not, this economy did not enable women to develop viable careers. Rather, it used women’s unpaid labor as the engine of its own development. Simply put, women had fewer meaningful job opportunities in the traditional labor market that serve as sources of self-growth. At the same time, women also had more experience with precarious work because it was them who provided flexible labor throughout the postwar period. Many of the young women who turned to the digital economy were students or they worked as non-career-stream clerical workers (so-called office ladies). Some of them were also mothers to young children. That is to say, many of them had parents or husbands to depend on financially, which provided space and time for them to experiment with photography, blogging, or online trading in the digital economy.

I was intrigued by your concept of a “social factory” and the erosion of the boundaries between paid and unpaid work in the digital realm. Could you expand on your idea of the “social factory” and how it relates to Japan’s digital economy? 

In the 1960s, the Italian Autonomist, Mario Tronti, introduced the concept of the “social factory” to describe a tendency in capitalism, which is the integration of the family, and also community more broadly, into formal apparata of capitalist accumulation. What this means is that, in postwar Japan, men earned family wage, while women became homemakers whose responsibility was to reproduce labor power, take care of children and the elderly. As such, employers benefitted from the labor of women without actually having to pay wages to them. Family wage, of course, did not even get close to the level of what two people would have earned in full-time positions. What I argue in the book is that the digital economy in Japan mobilized women to a similar regime of unwaged and invisible labor. In developing this argument, I built on the work of network theorists, like Tiziana Terranova, who argued that the internet has emerged as a characteristic apparatus of the social factory. I use the concept of the social factory to highlight that the digital economy extracts surplus value from labor without actually employing workers. By shifting the emphasis from job security to “meaning and pleasure in work,” young women have catalyzed the expansion of the social factory in which labor is increasingly not called labor and the regime of human capital development serves to supply uncompensated or undercompensated labor.

Do internet platforms that profit from unpaid labor have a responsibility to compensate individuals who add value and profit to their platforms?  Who should determine what constitutes  labor in the digital economy?

This is another excellent question, one that the book does not answer, I’m afraid. What I call the digital economy is still in the process of evolution and experimentation. In this context, commensuration is a difficult task. Maintaining a blog is not the same as occasionally posting an update to a Facebook or a Twitter account. That being said, I did not do enough work on this issue to be able to take a firm position. Rather, what inspired me to write the book was my own fear that the development of digital economies will drive unfavorable transformations in the realm of work beyond the boundaries of this economy. That is, I fear that the tendency of the digital economy to extract profit from labor without actually employing workers is expanding beyond the digital economy. An example is internship programs that seem to be proliferating at an exponential rate. Scholars have produced fascinating work about online labor brokerage platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Lilly Irani, for example, calls the work AMT brokers “microwork” highlighting that not only the category of laborer is becoming fuzzy, but also the category of work itself is becoming increasingly fuzzy. AMT offers opportunities for freelancers to complete human intelligence tasks that algorithms are unable to complete. Employers requesting the tasks are able to reject the submitted work if they are unhappy with it and they also rate “Turkers” who complete the work. Workers, however, are unable to rate employers and they do not enjoy any form of labor protection. It goes without saying that AMT does not contribute to workers’ insurance or pension benefits. This is how the digital economy catalyzes the dismantling of job security. In the book, I used various case studies to trace this pattern and show how, in Japan, these practices were gendered. In the context of the United States, Lisa Nakamura argues that the invisibilization of labor goes hand in hand with reinforcing racial discrimination.

Did internet platforms seek to capitalize systematically on women’s unpaid labor? Or was this development an unintended byproduct of the digital economy, with the women themselves driving this phenomenon?

In Japan, yes, they do. The argument I make in the book, and especially in the epilogue, is that the development of digital economies depends on locally specific systems of inequalities that these economies both harness for their growth and then reinforce. As I noted earlier, women turned to the digital economy in Japan because they were excluded from career-stream employment on the traditional labor market. These women sought opportunities to develop meaningful DIY careers, but, as I argue in the chapter about net idols specifically, venture capitalists, who were overwhelmingly men, built online platforms around young women’s activities that ended up mobilizing women to unpaid and feminized affective labor. In the net idol chapter, I show that net idol ranking sites, for instance, forced women to develop more intimate relationships with their fans, as net idols depended on votes from their fans. Similarly, other platforms developed for net idols and their fans categorized women based on their skills as entertainers, thus stressing that net idols were expected to entertain their fans. I mentioned above Lisa Nakamura’s work. Nakamura has written about minority internet users who invest their time and energy - that is, their labor - in calling out racist and sexist internet users. They are not compensated for this work. Furthermore, these women of color often become targets for trolling and for being ridiculed for not having a sense of humor. These minority internet users, however, produce profits for platforms by making the platforms safer places for other minority Internet users.

You demonstrate how Japan’s digital economy was built on unpaid feminized affective labor. In a similar vein, many other economies were built on women’s unpaid “labor of love,” when women raised children or underpaid factory workers who generated capital and surplus value for the economy. Would it be fair to say that all economic development seems to require the invisible or underpaid labor of a particular sector of the economy? 

Yes, absolutely. Different segments of society are affected by shifts in capitalist accumulation in different ways. Some become further disenfranchised, while others benefit from these shifts. I claim in the book that neoliberalism draws on the liberal philosophy of freedom in that it frees individuals from all earlier norms of employment security and encourages them to be entrepreneurial. I stress that this was similar to the ways in which freeing peasants allowed for the formation of an industrial labor force and the industrial revolution. Also, scholars, like Mary Brinton, argue that in Japan’s postwar period women’s unpaid labor as housewives and flexible laborers was instrumental to what some described as Japan’s economic miracle.  That is to say, capitalism does depend on underpaid and unpaid labor. What concerned me in the book was how this process was gendered in Japan.

Your book discusses the rejection of lifetime employment in favor of neoliberal ideals, such as technological utopianism, the search for meaningfulness and freedom in work, and “employability security.” In the case of Japan’s digital economy, these ideals led to the exploitation of women’s invisible labor and the erosion of job security. Can you expand a bit more on these ideals and whether their popularization is helpful or harmful to economic development?

Neoliberalism was not unequivocally embraced in Japan, as scholars, like Steven Vogel, argued. Unlike the U.S. economy, Japan’s economy was more centrally planned and there was more coordination between government and industry in Japan throughout the postwar period. From the late 1990s, the emerging digital economy played a pivotal role in expanding neoliberal ideals like the idea that individuals should not expect governments or employers to take care of them, but rather they should be more entrepreneurial and secure the conditions of their own wellbeing. Of course, embracing entrepreneurial values is important in that it drives economic development. What is problematic, however, is how entrepreneurialism encroaches into spheres of life that would normally constitute play, rest, family, friends, and so forth. What I criticize in the book is not entrepreneurialism, but its tendency to devolve into laborism, which  is not sustainable. Laborism leads to the loss of work-life balance and, eventually, burnout. Additionally, I am concerned about the gradual dismantling of job security and the weakening of the bargaining position of workers for better work conditions. But I do want to emphasize that economic growth can be achieved in different ways. Cutting labor costs is one way. In postwar Japan, however, job security was a key facilitator of economic growth. In postwar Japan, management and labor collaborated to produce competitive products for global markets.

Was the importance of female labor for the development of Japan’s digital economy unique? Or is this a phenomenon found in other developing digital economies? 

This is an interesting question. It would be interesting to see whether female labor was instrumental to the development of the digital economy in South Korea—a country whose economy was built on a similar gendered division of labor as the one we see in Japan. Scholars like Minh-ha Pham and Brooke Erin Duffy have written about personal style bloggers in the global contexts and in the United States. They, too, highlight that digital economies absorb human labor and make it invisible. Personal style bloggers always appear glamorous and they also glamorize work thus making invisible all the hard labor bloggers invest in shopping for clothes, hairstyle, makeup, coordinating outfits, maintaining their blogs, and corresponding with their fans. Personal style bloggers are not exclusively women, but the majority of them are women. In other contexts, gender might be less relevant, but other affiliations of identity like race might be more pronounced.

Kelsey Clarke CMC'22Student Journalist

Naomi Wu / CC BY-SA (

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