Gitte Marianne Hansen is the first person in her family to go into higher education and says school friends would be surprised that she is now a Gates scholar studying Japanese culture at the University of Cambridge.
“Whenever I go back to Denmark and run into someone from my early school years they are surprised to hear what I am doing,” she says.”No one could have predicted it.”
Gitte was born just outside of Copenhagen. She was an only child. Her mother died when she was just three and she was brought up by her father.
Her early school years were not promising, she says. She had to take extra classes to keep up. In her eighth grade, however, she had a new teacher who questioned the need for any of her students to attend special classes unless she believed they needed them. “From then on I never attended another special class,” says Gitte.
At 16, she scraped into high school and from there her grades started to improve considerably. “People started asking me to help them with their school work rather than the other way round,” she remembers. She finished high school with a good grade average and decided to travel to the UK to take a course in English.
She went to Bristol where she met some Japanese people. “I thought that if they could learn English then surely I could learn Japanese,” she says so she enrolled at Bath College of Higher Education for a year to study Japanese studies, European history and world religions, the latter two subjects because she had enjoyed them at school. She soon realised that Japan was where her interest lay.
She returned to Denmark in 1995 and enrolled at the University of Copenhagen to study Japanese. The summer before she went to Japan for two months. “Now there is more Japanese culture in Europe and we are more aware of it, but then it was quite exotic and a bit of a culture shock,” she says.
Halfway through her degree, she decided to switch courses because she found it hard studying a culture without being able to interact with it. She started studying aerobics and fitness training and spent seven years as an aerobic instructor.
However, it was not enough for her. She started questioning what she was doing. “I asked myself as an aerobics instructor why women were throwing away their time and lives at the gym and why it was so important to them to have the perfect body,” she says. Some of the women seemed to have eating disorders and, as a result, Gitte became involved in an eating disorders organisation where she gave talks to high school and trade school students in the Copenhagen and surrounding areas. She also decided to continue her Japanese studies on a part-time basis as a route to potentially doing a masters in gender studies where she would study eating disorders.
As time passed, she became more immersed in Japanese culture again so she decided to combine her two interests which she did in her masters dissertation entitled Balancing Femininity – eating disorders, self-harm and female subjectivity in Japanese cultural expressions since 1980. She says eating disorders appear no worse in Japan than in the West, but says in each culture they might be an expressions of something different.
In her last year of her masters course she went on an exchange programme to Japan for a year, but ended up staying for five, studying and working at Waseda University as a teaching assistant in BA classes such as contemporary Japanese literature and Japanese intellectual history for two of those years. By then she was fluent in Japanese. In Tokyo she also interacted with the wider community by teaching Danish as a foreign language and did various minor translation jobs.
From Japan, she applied to Cambridge and started her PhD in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies in 2009. For her PhD she has broadened out the scope of her masters dissertation to focus on women and violence in Japan, including self-harm and violence that is directed externally. “I want to look at how internally and externally directed violence are related to the idea of femininity in Japan,” she says. Although, she adds, it is much less acceptable for women to be violent to others, government surveys show that 14% of Japanese men have been injured by their girlfriends or wives. There are also a growing number of novels, animation and films where women or girls are depicted behaving violently towards others. At the same time, incidents of self-harm seem to have been increasing among women since the 1980s and such images are likewise found in contemporary Japanese fiction. “Both internal and external violence are possibly expressions of difficulty in dealing with being a woman and having to be feminine in a certain way,” says Gitte.
“I call this contradictive femininity. It is a reaction to traditional pressures to be feminine and current pressures to be powerful, to pressures on women to take care of the family as well as to be competitive in the workplace. Women have to balance all of these contradictions inside them.”
She says her aerobics teaching has helped in her approach to people and materials for her research as it has made her more sensitive. Many have had very difficult lives, she adds, and she is wary that while she is trying to create theory on women as agents of violence, for many these issues are parts of everyday life and therefore very personal and emotional.
She has already started publishing articles on her research although she is only in her second year. Apart from a short article in the Gates Scholar vol. 7 2010, an article on Murakami Haruki’s female narratives appeared in the Japan Studies Association Journal last year and another on eating disorders will be published in the academic journal Contemporary Japan in March, 2011.
She is also a visiting researcher at the Organisation for Asian Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo and an associated researcher at the Nordic Institute for Asia Studies in Copenhagen and when she is not in Cambridge she spends her time there.
At Cambridge, she is not only pursuing her research, but she has had the opportunity to put her teaching skills to good use and spread her love of Japanese language and culture outside the walls of academia. At Wolfson College, where she is based, she founded a new society with three other Wolfson graduate students, the Wolfson Language & Culture Society, which enables those who are studying a language or area studies to get experience of teaching it to the wider community. Wolfson students are taught for free. The society is currently offering seven languages, including a UK first – spoken Sanskrit. “It’s great to be involved in such an exciting initiative,” she says.
Read Gitte’s blog on the impact of the Japanese disaster on Japanese people living abroad.