Thursday, April 05, 2007


How Does Change Happen in Japan?

KB Geishas

Two books I’ve recently finished reading offer portraits of women in contemporary Japan, but come to very different conclusions about their prospects.

There is the eponymous subject of the Ben Hill’s biography, Princess Masako.

“There is no happy ending to this story . . . . as the fourteenth anniversary of their wedding loomed . . . there was nowhere to go, no alternative to Masako continuing to sacrifice herself for the sake of her country’s outdated imperial institutions—and her father’s family honor . . . She will live to regret the rainy summer’s day that she surrendered to well-meant notions of duty and honour and gave up her life for her country.”

Oh, the oppressive Japanese and the poor women who live in that society.

Then there is the thesis of Veronica Chamber’s excellent new work of non-fiction, Kickboxing Geishas (Note to the publisher: Why did you put a non-Japanese woman on the cover? Or am I missing something?). From the flap copy.

“Forget the stereotypes. Today’s Japanese women are shattering them—breaking the bonds of tradition and dramatically transforming their culture . . . the . . story is that of legions of everyday women . . . who have kicked off a revolution in their country.”

I really enjoyed the Chambers book, title notwithstanding. In it, I found all the members of my family and many friends in Japan: my brilliant scientist cousin who gave it all up to have two children, her sister who dabbled in art but also gave it up to be a mother, my cousin who stubbornly refuses to get married, lives in an all-women’s complex in Chiba and works a demanding corporate job (she’d like a western boyfriend). The women Chambers presents to us are neither cartoon characters nor pinups, but people with real lives and real histories. Just this morning I received an email from a reader who asked me “what the deal” was with Japanese women. He couldn’t imagine having a conversation with the airheads he sees on Japanese television. I encouraged him to read Chambers’ book to get a more well-rounded picture of Japanese women today.

But as I read the Chambers book, I kept looking for the “revolution” which the book jacket promised I would find. Time and again, I kept finding the same information that we’ve been discussing on Japundit.

>Women delaying marriage
>An increase in divorce rates
>Women traveling abroad while the men stay home
>An increase in Japanese women/foreign men marriages
>The declining birth rate

I have yet to see—and did not see in her book—how these changes were actually affecting Japanese society as a whole. Yes, she mentions the magazines that show fathers with children and the television commercials in which men do the laundry (certainly not something I saw on TV during the 70s or 80s). But where are the significant changes? The actual enforcement of the 1985 Equal Opportunity Law? The increase in women helming corporate jobs and smashing the rice-paper ceiling?

Here’s an interesting answer Chambers gave in an interview.

What kinds of messages about work, family and home are young Japanese women getting from their mothers?

“Out of the 75 women I interviewed, there were five, maybe 10, women whose moms were not housewives. If the family had a business or owned a farm, the mother might work, but for the most part, if you grew up in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s in Japan, your mom stayed at home. They’re now telling their daughters, “I was trapped by the money. If I had the financial means now, if I knew what to do with myself, I’d get a divorce. Don’t let yourself get into this situation.”

Japanese women are delaying marriage and not having as many kids — if any — and it’s because they got smart. They hear this stuff from their moms, And they’re like, “Once you get married and have kids, you’re locked into an 18-year job.” If you can delay that, then you can travel, you can learn languages, you can make your own money, do your own thing. So there’s actually this worldliness and sophistication that you see in young, single working women.”

This, to me, reads like so many of the discussions we’ve had on Japundit. Put simply, many women are choosing to get married and quit work, or are working and becoming “Parasite singles.” There's very little in between. It doesn’t read to me like a society that is changing, ie finding ways to accommodate women and adjusting its expectations of them. To me, this portrait of Japan looks and feels stagnant, like a cold war where parties take positions and hold fast to them, but make no significant changes to the way they interact.

Some time ago, I made the point that Princess Masako’s situation, far from being unusual and easily dismissed, was in many ways emblematic of the challenges that many Japanese women face. Chambers and Hill portray her in the same light, so I know I’m not alone in my thinking.

I don't believe, as Hills seems to, that Japan can't change--even to accomodate a princess. But I'm not as optimistic as Chambers who sees that Japan is undergoing a revolution. The real changes, I think, are yet to come and will most likely surprise us.

What about you, Japundits? How do you think change will/does happen in Japan?

First posted over at Japundit

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