The Ideological State Apparatus, Louis Althusser

Louis Althusser’s concept of a separation between repressive and ideological state apparatuses further demonstrated the means a ruling class has in controlling the ideology leading a community’s way of life. On the one hand, we have repressive state apparatuses embodied by institutions that use violence as a means of enforcement. The RSA acts as a singular unit under the state, such as the military, law enforcement, government and so on, and these groups claim that their use of violence is the only legitimate means of using force to communicate an idea.

Ideological state apparatuses on the other hand are pluralistic and shape other parts of life. This includes influences such as schools, family, the church, trade unions, communication and cultural systems. These organizations are guided by ideas held by the group, and membership to these social orders means accepting and following the rules set forth by them. It is generally these social influences that shape a person’s identity and gives them a sense of purpose or self within the larger society.

When it comes to a culture shaped so much on appearances and what is learned through social groups, Japan comes to mind. In a country so steeped in tradition and customs, it’s amazing how the Japanese way of life can be both so antiquated and so modern at the same time. Where many Western countries seem to place increasing value in individuality and breaking out of the norm, Japan is of the more advanced countries that still sticks to very deeply rooted cultural expectations.

Anne Allison describes both her research and personal experiences of how ISAs operate in Japan in her article “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus.” Specifically, she examines how ISAs shape behaviors among mothers, children and nursery school administration through traditional lunchtime bento boxes.

Having just moved to Japan and enrolling her child into a nursery school, she noticed the practice of mothers meticulously packing their child’s bento boxes for lunch everyday. Traditionally, bento boxes include five to six miniature courses with great attention paid to appearance and arrangement, such as color, organization, attention to what’s in season, etc. It’s feng shui in a lunch box. What makes this practice a good example of Althusser’s ISA at work is what the routine means for relationships between mothers, children and the school.

First, the routine within the education system the children go through provides a gendered identity to the mother as the producer of the bento boxes. She has the task of planning out meals, going shopping for them, preparing the boxes and ensuring her child will like it. Allison mentions the popularity of cookbooks and recipes just to guide the mother to perfecting her child’s bento box. The work she puts into it is “a sign of a woman’s commitment as a mother and her inspiring her child to being similarly committed as a student.”

The way the bento boxes are consumed is also within the frame of the nursery school as an ISA. Allison writes that nursery school teachers monitor eating progress and  make high drama out of it, including singing songs; collectively thanking Buddha, the mother or the father; scolding slow eaters and not letting children out for recreational time until everyone has finished their lunches. The philosophy behind this, she says, is to teach the students to follow the rules and “prepare them to be successful Japanese in the realms of school and later work.” Ultimately, this ritual from the school is about training the children to behave in their specific cultural setting, but it also shapes the mothers’ roles as well.

As far as the Japanese uprooting traditional norms, one example comes from The Guardian asking “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” In this situation, the ISAs of dating, marriage and family are all affected. Althusser would say that as beliefs and actions are changing and if they continue, the next elements to change will include practices, rituals and the ideological apparatus itself. Because young Japanese adults are becoming less likely to focus on romantic relationships and settle down, whole future generations can take on a different social structure from what most of the world is used to. Then again, for every person wanting to delay marriage or family for whatever reason, there is another push for settling down to be like everyone else.


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