A review of The FX Beauties Club
By Miriam Ho
Japanese “housewives” are trading an average of $9.1 billion per day (1) on the forex exchange. Their success has astonished international media outlets, who seem sceptical, even derisive of these "amateur" female traders' next moves and are quick to note their failures (2). Danish architect Christine Bjerke's online project "(On the Floating World of) the FX Beauties" (http://www.thefxbeauties.club/ ) offers an alternative, more empathetic reading by teasing out the architectural dimensions of this phenomenon through essays and interviews.
The Forex Beauties (FX Beauties) are an online group of women investors who, from their individual homes all across Japan, are excelling in the stereotypically fast-paced, male dominant finance industry. The group focuses on stay-at-home mothers who are preoccupied with domestic labour and have little opportunity to work outside the home, but also include single women who are actively trading, gaining purchasing power and showcasing their purchases on social media. An estimated 25 per cent Japan’s Forex market is traded by women, compared to only 10 percent in the UK. (3) "(On the Floating World of) the FX Beauties" examines the spatial impact of massive, decentralized investments, contrasting significant financial power with the confines of domesticity. The website features an ongoing essay series that explores how this invisible women's economy coexists uneasily, surprisingly, and powerfully in an urban fabric that was not designed for them.
Perhaps as a reflection of the housewife traders' desire for privacy, the FX Beauties' own voices have only the lightest presence on the website. Journalist Karen Sofie Egebo's profile of celebrity trader and the founder of the FX Beauties club, Mrs. Yukiko Ikebe, is as compelling as the enigmatic woman Bjerke interviewed when she travelled to Japan. It is only by reading Mrs. Ikebe's quiet, understated responses in conjunction with other research essays on furnishing the social fabric of her world that we recognize how the FX Beauties have disrupted conventional economies.
Egebo describes how Japanese housewives like Mrs. Ikebe began trading furtively "while the washing machine gently hums and the children are away at school." (4) The sentence normalizes trading as merely part of the housewife's routine, an activity that is not at all disruptive to her family responsibilities. But this sentence also poignantly illustrates how this activity occupies almost no physical space, since the housewife's workplace is next to the washing machine, a shared space that she can only appropriate temporarily when her children are away at school.
Sixty-year-old Mrs. Ikebe would likely have occupied a typical post-war working-class Japanese apartment when she began trading forty years ago. In these ubiquitous apartments, the washing machine sits alongside the kitchenette in a small vestibule or enclosed balcony. This space is sealed off from the rest of the living spaces to allow for better ventilation, and to keep grease and fumes away from areas for living and sleeping. It averages two "tatami," or 3.3 square metres, a tatami mat of 180 x 90cm being the standard unit of measurement for residential space in Japan (5) and is a strictly utilitarian space. It is not designed to be used for anything other than cooking or washing, especially when other family members are at home.
In "Housewifization," British architect Jack Self argues that the compact, minimalist interiors familiar to fans of Japanese modern architecture are designed for a full-time housewife, whose only job is to in turn support the male worker. That is: the modern Japanese home contains only enough space for the basic domestic functions of eating, bathing and sleeping. During Japan's rapid industrialization after the Second World War, domestic space became separate from the spaces of production in the capitalist city. Meanwhile, the mechanization of the workplace was paralleled by the mechanization of the home, with state-funded architecture magazines featuring household appliances in highly stylized designs inspired by traditional Japanese aesthetics, thereby reframing new domestic technologies as consistent with traditional roles. Self describes an increased need for the home to function as a site of reproduction and consumption that could manufacture healthy workers for the ever-accelerating production of the factory. (6) Homes function as an auxiliary for the corporate machine (an ethos seen elsewhere in Japan through the eponymous capsule hotel: rentable dormitories designed for Japanese businessmen with only the minimum space required for sleeping.)
Success stories of women running online businesses have become increasingly prevalent nowadays, especially in Western society, where it is undeniable that the immateriality of an online business model has expanded definitions of what income-generating work might look like and where the workplace can be. The story of the Japanese housewife trader emphasizes these spatial and social constraints: in the compact modern Japanese apartment, housewives have found a space of agency in an invisible virtual dimension. While prevailing contemporary cultural narratives continue to ask women to choose between career and child rearing, activities that take place in segregated spaces in the capitalist city, what seems radical and appealing about the FX Beauties is their apparent ability to seamlessly merge earning a significant independent income with the traditional roles of homemaking and childrearing. In interviews, the traders are careful to note that trading never sidesteps their roles as wives and mothers (7). Mrs. Ikebe situates what might be perceived as an aggressive, masculine profession of stock trading in a milieu of other feminine hobbies, telling Bjerke how she took classes to learn to read stock charts after her Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) lessons. She likens the delicate analyses of stock charts to the sensitivity of deciphering kimono embroidery. She uses her profits to collect traditional kimonos. The FX Beauties are careful, even in their chosen name, to identify with the desirable feminine attribute of "beauty." Perhaps this works to minimize the perceived impact of their actions.
The Western world is frequently charmed by Japanese culture because it appears to occupy stereotypes of both technology and tradition. Self describes the Western perception of Japan as that of a “people at once rooted in patterns of life unchanged through the millennia and yet also occupying some kind of digitally advanced future,” (8) a carefully constructed trope he attributes to Japanese state's parallel investment in both modernization and ancient cultural practices. This paradox of technology and tradition is echoed in the FX Beauties' self-presentation. Conforming to traditional feminine roles of wife, motherhood and beauty, yet wielding enormous financial power through the use of digital technology for trading, the housewife trader carries a certain mystique.
Other contributions from designers and researchers working in a British and American academic context imagine how the FX Beauties' collective actions have the potential to challenge the future design of space. For instance, academic Ryan John King theorizes how the blockchain—an algorithmic technology encrypted with timestamped strings of text that allow sales contracts to be publicly and permanently written into its code in absolute time—can form the basis for a "decentralized autonomous society" with architecture that "owns itself," (9) collecting and redistributing profits via the algorithm of a cryptocurrency. (New smart cities are, in fact, being developed by cryptocurrency billionaires.(10)) While King's speculative research, like most of the pieces published on “(On the Floating World of) the FX Beauties”, contains no direct discussion of the FX Beauties, his insight into how built space is entangled with financial markets illustrates the power of instantaneous movements of capital via decentralized technology, power that ordinary and unexpected users like the FX Beauties wield.
Bjerke’s presentation and curation of the project stems from her own interest in Japanese culture and aesthetics. The bilingual English and Japanese website, designed by Studio Atlant, is a spillover for Bjerke's continuing research which began during her graduate studies when where she composed a handmade book using contrasting colours and textures such as Japanese marbled paper and lacquered card to symbolically represent the FX Beauties' elusive "world." (11) The interface is reminiscent of the early world wide web, with a hex code colour palette and slender Courier font appearing in scrolling iframes. Graphic elements mimic icons found on popular Japanese online bulletin boards. "(On the Floating World of) the FX Beauties" is an online portal into a digital landscape one can get lost in, a virtual world that gains breadth and depth through the click of a mouse, not unlike how the FX Beauties access an online subculture of currency trading blogs, forums, and tutorials, uncovering repositories of knowledge and possibility.
The micropolitics of space furnishes the setting for the FX Beauties' story, allowing a story of empowered women quietly subverting conventional dichotomies to emerge. Clear spatial separations between the domestic and the commercial in the capitalist city have been blurred by dispersive digital technologies, happily to the profit of historically marginalized user groups. It remains to be seen how the contemporary city will adapt to this new distribution of commercial activity and wealth, and who will have the capital to change this landscape—but while the boundaries between commercial work and personal life continue to be renegotiated, it is notable that a group of women investors are making up to 4 million a day (12) while also getting the laundry done.
(1) Martin Fackler, “Japanese Housewives Sweat in Secret as Markets Reel,” The New York Times online, last modified September 16, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/business/worldbusiness/16housewives.html.
(2) Ibid. The article quotes currency economist Masafumi Yamamoto at Nikko Citigroup in Tokyo saying “Mrs. Watanabe [slang for the Japanese housewife investor] got burned this time,” and questions “whether these newcomers have the stomach to ride out markets in a time of volatility.”
(3) Anjani Trivedi, “Handbags and Champagne: Japan’s Young Forex Divas Make Their Mark,” Time Magazine, last modified August 9th, 2013. http://world.time.com/2013/08/09/handbags-and-champagne-japans-young-forex-divas-make-their-mark/
The percentage of female traders worldwide is estimated at 19% in 2017, with a higher percentage of female traders in Asian countries, according to The Modern Trader Report by Broker Notes compiled using data from popular online trading platforms. “The Modern Trader Report,” accessed March 15, 2019. https://brokernotes.co/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/BN-research-report_2018-FINAL.pdf
(4) Karen Sofie Egebo, “Mrs. Yukiko Ikebe,” (On the Floating World of) the FX Beauties, accessed July 5th, 2018. http://thefxbeauties.club/en/yukiko-ikebe
(5) “Guide to Japanese Apartments: Floor Plans, Photos, and Kanji Keywords,” Real Estate Japan, accessed June 5th, 2018. https://resources.realestate.co.jp/buy/guide-to-japanese-apartments-floor-plans-photos-and-kanji-keywords/
(6) Jack Self, “Housewifization,” (On the Floating World of) the FX Beauties, accessed July 5th, 2018. http://thefxbeauties.club/en/housewifization
(7) Egebo, ibid.
(8) Self, Ibid.
(9) Ryan John King, “Equity and Space. Part Three: Decentralized Architecture Office” (On the Floating World of) the FX Beauties, accessed July 5th, 2018. http://thefxbeauties.club/en/equity-and-space-part-three-decentralized-architecture-office
(10) Eleanor Gibson, “ Cryptocurrency millionaire plans blockchain smart city in Nevada desert” Dezeen, last modified November 6, 2018. https://www.dezeen.com/2018/11/06/blockchain-innovation-park-smart-city-nevada-jeffrey-berns/
(11) Nicholas Korody, “Between the home and the market: an interview with Christine Bjerke from Next Up: Floating Worlds” Archinect, last modified March 27, 2017. https://archinect.com/features/article/149999813/between-the-home-and-the-market-an-interview-with-christine-bjerke-from-next-up-floating-worlds
(12) Kosuke Goto, “Housewives Outmaneuver UBS, Deutsche Bank Trading Yen,” Bloomberg online, last modified June 18, 2007. http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=asGCOUapuCyg Mrs. Ikebe was reported to earn 407 million yen via forex trading, roughly $4 million USD.
Miriam Ho is a writer, editor, installation artist and architectural designer based in Toronto. She also writes fiction and narrative essays. She previously worked for internationally renowned architects Philip Beesley and Shigeru Ban.