A recent blog entry entitled “Women in Japan: Conversation Remembered” on the site feministing.com is a classic example of the tendency among women in the west to insist that Japanese women are victims, because Japanese feminism doesn't seek the ends that western feminism does.
The writer tells us about Ayuko, who she worked with at an English school in Japan; we can presume she teaches English in Japan. She writes:
“I couldn't help doing a bit of western-tradition feminist indoctrination from time to time, which I now somewhat regret.”
And poor Ayuko thought she was just chatting with an English teacher! But then the writer continues:
“The more time I spend in this country, the more I see that whenever Japan gets around to having a major feminist revolution it's going to have to happen Japanese-style.”
I suppose this will be a disappointment to Gloria Steinem, but then again as long as the end in Japan is western feminism, the means can be Japanese.
Yet our western feminist was dedicated to bringing enlightenment to young Ayuko and she saw her progress:
“Still, there were a few fun lightbulb moments when Ayuko noticed close-to-home examples of things I liked ranting about.”
Our hero understands that Japanese culture is full of sexist, and patriarchal families who see it as their duty to turn Japanese women into obedient wall flowers. She was onto this error in Japanese cultural thinking and was determined to correct it:
“(Ayuko) was always saying, "We are told that..." … Well look here...it would seem that, contrary to the common wisdom, humans want to want what they want after all. I don't think she had even noticed the gap between what "we are told" and her own experience.”
The lesson is clear. What we are told (i.e. Japanese tradition, education, Japanese history) is false, while what we experience (our feelings) are always an infallible guide.
But our feminist hero soon discovered the real tragedy that afflicted Ayoku – she wanted to get married:
“Ayuko herself…was husband-hunting. When I asked her why she felt the need to go get married if she had a nice boyfriend she enjoyed spending time with, she said, "Actually, I don't like working!"
Marriage, oh no! I recently blogged about a British female Buddhist priest in Japan, which addressed some of the issues of marriage from a western feminist point-of-view.
Now if our young Japanese women simply wanted to get married to quit her job, this is certainly problematic. Yet here is where we must deal with a fact that western women (since about 1968) have found unacceptable, and that is that most women in the world believe that their main vocation is to get married and have children! It’s important to stress that Ayuko and Japanese women like her are normal – they are not oppressed or victims.
Now, having said that, there is real discrimination against Japanese women in the Japanese workplace that needs to be remedied; but the answer is not to convince Japanese women that their authentic desire for motherhood and marriage is problematic. In the area of Japanese women and jobs in Japan, our feminist writer captures the situation quite well:
“I couldn't blame Ayuko for the way she felt about work, though, as her full-time salary provided only spending money (she lived with her parents, at age 28-nothing unusual in Japan, but had she wanted to move out her salary wouldn't have supported it). Upon graduating college, she had gotten a good salaried position that looked to be a lifetime job, but when the company started doing badly she had to leave, and now she was fatalistically certain that as a female nearing 30, it was impossible for her to land a second good job.”
She is quite right. Japanese companies view women over 30 as women who will soon get pregnant and "leave" the company. This is foolish. Japanese women who wish to return to their companies, should be allowed to do so.
Japanese culture and Japanese society is out of whack, not doubt; and Japanese men need to step up to the plate and become better husbands and fathers. Yet it is rather condescending to think that western-style feminism is the answer to a complex Japanese cultural problem. We now see that American women in the west are finding that the choice between careers and motherhood/marriage is a false one.
Japanese women, I suspect, reject this choice.
While Japanese business should allow “older” women to work and Japanese mothers to return to work after pregnancy if they choose, I still believe that careers are not primarily what Japanese women (or Asian, Indian, African, Middle Eastern or Latin American women) want – they want respect and support to be wives and mothers first and foremost. And right now Japanese women can't even find proper OB/GYN care in Japan, which is a real hardship.
In this area Japan and Japanese culture have a long way to go. Let's see if a Japanese solution to a Japanese problem arises.