Women’s Equality in Japan

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Happy Women’s Equality Day!

Women’s equality in Japan has come a way–not so long, not so short–but Japanese women are still seen as servants in and outside of Japan.

You can see the inequality by how many women are in various areas of Japanese life. In politics, less than 30 percent of the Diet has female politicians, and only 2 out of 18 people on Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet are women. In business, only 1 percent of senior executives are women and the gender wage gap is around 28 percent. Even in daily life, women’s inequality is visible.

Living in Japan, I’ve seen many Japanese women who work full-time and still make 3 meals a day for their children and husbands as well as care for the elderly. Some people could say that lunch, cleaning, and familial duties are signs of love for women.  “OK, carry this human for 9 months, give birth, clean up, wake up, and raise that child into adulthood, make meals for the child and husband for 30 years, and work the same hours for only 72 percent of the pay.” Does that sound like love? It sounds like servitude. I’m not saying that women shouldn’t cook, clean, or take care of their families. I’m saying that there are other able-bodied persons in a family who can share the duties. Besides, learning how to cook, clean, and take care of others are skills every person should have to live–everybody eats.

Outside of Japan, the stereotype is Japanese women are subservient. When it comes down to Japanese women marrying non-Japanese men, that stereotype is untrue. Why do you think most single, average-looking foreign men who come to Japan marry beautiful Japanese wives? Many Japanese girls and women think foreign men will cook, clean, and take care of the family. Where this idea came from I’m not sure (my money’s on Hollywood). Even my students say to me, “I want to marry a foreigner.” The funny things is the illusion of subservient Japanese women helps Japanese women marry foreigners. Once the curtain falls away, most foreign men realize that Japanese women aren’t as mousy as they thought.

I may be against the way Japanese women are seen, but I greatly respect Japanese women. They raise their families, take care of their bodies, and help each other when help is needed. Even though I don’t have kids, as a married woman, I’m suddenly part of a community of women who trade recipes, talk about their problems, and go walking together. These women are responsible for fostering children’s imaginations while filling their tummies with nutritious foods. It’s better than some women who substitute healthy cooking with cheap blood-clotting burgers, have 3 to 5 children from different fathers, and can’t take care of their physical, mental, emotional, or financial well being. In this way, irresponsible women have a long way to go.

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Stop Saying Japanese Students are Obedient!

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During orientation for a trip to an American high school, I told the students, “If you fall asleep in class, you’ll get kicked out. If you talk during class, you’ll get kicked out. If you misbehave, you’ll get punished.” My Japanese students were shocked. Their eyebrows lifted and their mouths opened after they processed my words.

“Huh?”

I’ve worked at seven junior high schools and two senior high schools in Japan, and 95% of the classes are the same. Kids fall asleep, chat, and read books during class. They destroy the stereotype that Japanese students are obedient students.

When I told my high school students that they couldn’t do those things, they couldn’t imagine what class was like, especially when an immediate punishment followed their behavior. Disruptive and sleeping students don’t get punished right away, that is, if they get punished at all. Teachers wait until the end of the day to lecture students or send them to the discipline committee for punishment (writing an apology essay, cleaning early in the morning or after school, parent-student conference). So far, the best schools I’ve taught at had swift punishments for troublesome students. I’ve seen one junior high school student sit on his knees in traditional Japanese style for thirty minutes listening to three teachers yell at him about his disruptive behavior. In the end, he cried, and I never saw him near the teachers’ office again.

Where does this “obedient Japanese student” come from? My guess is what silence means to a Westerner versus a Japanese person. In the West, silence means that you’re listening and being well behaved. In Japan, silence can mean anything. My students will sit and stare at the clock without feeling bothered. When the test rolls around, students leave nearly half of their tests blank, including multiple choice questions. It’s my students’ way of protesting school.

The culprits of such a bad system? Japanese culture. Learning is not designed to be from Person A to Person B and that’s it. Learning is about taking the new information, reshaping it in certain situations, and applying it. In Japan, the direct approach does not exist except in English class (on a varying level). Ask, “What’s ‘cat’ in Japanese?” and 40 pairs of eyes blink at you as if they don’t know what a cat had two pointy ears and said, “Meow”. English is hard to learn–and so is Japanese–but when administrators just want students to parrot words and sentences, how much of that is learning?

Aside from the classroom setting, Japanese culture has one thing that hovers on the shoulders of all Japanese people: wa (和), meaning peace, or “Don’t rock the boat”. There are over 157 million people in Japan, which is the size of California. That’s a lot of people, and that’s not a lot of space. With so many people breathing down your throat, wa is a way for Japanese people to stay sane. Instead of giving your opinion (from Point A to Point B), you say your opinion in a round-about way (from Point A to Point D to Point C to Point B). What you really feel is hidden beneath a guise called honne (本音) while what you say is seen as tatemae (建前). English has an opposite design–I’m going to give it to you straight. Westerners want to be understood regardless of things such as feelings. We don’t have physical space to worry about. But Japan has a space crisis and overpopulation, and this system of wa permeates all of Japanese life, including school.

Even if my students pretended to be obedient Japanese students in the American school they visited, I know it’s just a front.

3 Things to Notice While living in Japan

Another list about living in Japan, narrowed down to three things.
1. You’ll see foreign men with Japanese women, but not so much Japanese men with foreign women. I don’t know the exact reason, but there are many half-Japanese kids I’ve met with foreign dads. Maybe it has something to do with the ratio of men to woman, or if Americanized imports, like Hollywood movies and Disney fairy tales, play any role in these couples, but there’s a stereotype that foreign men will do chores. Every foreign bachelor who comes to Japan will have a Japanese girlfriend within a few months. (Just look at the 2010 movie make of the popular My Darling is a Foreigner manga!) But for foreign bachelorettes, it’s not the same. The way that Japanese culture is set up doesn’t support Japanese men–who are used to being served first–to be with a foreign woman–who is more likely to see everyone as equals, especially if they are from the Western world. There isn’t much space for outright opinions, which is a stereotype towards foreign women.

My Darling is a Foreigner

My Darling is a Foreigner from icollectmovieshq.blogspot.com

2. You get more for your buck…er, I mean, yen. The quality is better, but so is what you can get. At the convenience store, I can buy breakfast for my husband and I for under five hundred yen. There are already prepared dinners–not the frozen kind– for sale at the supermarket that can feed a small family of four for around a thousand yen (less than $10). And if you like to drink, there’s all-you-can-drink specials for around eight hundred yen. Even car insurance is reasonable and you can easily customize your coverage. It may seem expensive to live in Japan, but the actual value and quality gives a lot of worth.

3. Characters and mascots are everywhere. All products have cute or appealing characters to entice buyers or explain instructions. My students even like putting popular characters to represent their class banners.

Mascots on my students' class banners (Chopper from ONE PIECE, SpongeBob, and Tigers)