Still, I think I have it a lot better than American woman did even fifty years ago. I have a good job that has nothing to do with my gender. Even though I'm not married and have no plans to be, I never got hassled about it back home. Even though people tend to dismiss my desire not to have children as me being too young to know better, they never make a big deal out of it.
Japan is different, and it's going to take a whole lot of very fundamental changes for anything to get better. Let's start this exercise by creating ourselves a Japanese woman. We'll call her Kyoko. Happy birthday, Kyoko! And happy Mother's Day, too. Here's the story of Kyoko's life:
Here, Kyoko is faced with one of the most important decisions of her life. She's a Japanese woman, and she knows what that means. She can decide to study business, or marketing, or chemistry. She can try for pre-law, or pre-med. She can study literature and environmental studies. Maybe art.
Whichever she chooses, there's going to be some fine print, and she'll be very aware of what her choice will come to mean. Her course of study will become the first step in her life as either a career woman or a house-wife.
Kyoko the House-wife will spend her last year of college desperately searching for a husband. She will turn down a few hopefuls, because this is the man she's going to spend the rest of her life with and it pays to be picky. She'll meet Keisuke at some college party, and he'll be handsome enough for her to say yes when he asks her on a date. Keisuke is a computer sciences major, and it's obvious from their first converstation that he's going places. He's smart, and driven, and he's not losing his hair yet like some of the other guys she's dated. They'll graduate. They'll be happy together, and eventually they'll follow through to the next logical step and get married. Keisuke will find a job with an IT firm and Kyoko will get hired part-time as a secretary at some business. Keisuke will work 70 hours a weeks, and Kyoko will work on figuring out the best way to get stains out of whites.
In a couple of years, Kyoko will get pregnant, and they'll move to Keisuke's hometown--another small town in a different small prefecture. Keisuke will hopefully get transferred from his position in Osaka to a differnet location within the same company, but Kyoko will quit her job and won't look for another one. After all, once the kids are born Kyoko won't have any time to make copies and answer phones.
Keisuke will continue working 70 hours a week. He'll get home after 8:00 almost every night. Some nights he won't come home until the next day, and he'll leave for work bright and early the next morning. Kyoko will be responsible for every element of child-raising and home-upkeep. Eventually her children will be old enough to go to school, and she might decide to get another part-time job to pass some time. Eventually, her kids will grow up and move away and Keisuke will retire. She'll hardly know what to do with him.
Kyoko the Career-woman will spend her last year of college desperately searching for a job. She will turn down a million and one secretarial openings because she wants to go all the way--she doesn't want to be a secretary. She wants to be a manager, a lawyer, a doctor. She knows that her job will become her entire life, and she wants a good one.
Eventually she'll find the right offer, and she'll start slowly climbing up the corporate ladder. Her climb will be slower than that of her male coworkers, but she'll get there. She won't date--after all, no man is interested in seriously dating a women so focused on her career, and the only other options are those looking to cheat on their wives with her. She won't have children. She has spent an incredible amount of time and energy on her career and she doesn't want to throw it all away just so she can raise kids.
Kyoko and her girlfriends will go out after work and complain about how hard it is to be a woman in the workplace. People will touch her without permission on her daily train ride home from work, and her bosses will make inappropriate comments about how she might further boost her status in the company.
Even so, she probably won't ever reach the top. That honor is still almost always reserved for men. She probably won't even think about aiming for it. Still, after years of working too much, drinking too much, spending too many nights away from her tiny apartment, she'll eventually retire. Whether she looks back on her life and feels satisfied with her choices is up to her.
While I was visiting Denver a few months ago, Dad showed me an article he'd found in the Economist about Japanese businesswomen. It said that the Japanese government is doing their best to make the workplace a more reasonable option for Japanese mothers. They've begun making changes to how maternity leave is handled, and childcare facilities are becoming more and more prevalent in Japanese businesses. The real problem that I see isn't about a lack of female amenities, though. It's about the generally horrible working conditions of the modern Japanese business. If Kyoko the Career-woman didn't seem to be having a great time at work it's only because no one is having a great time at work in Japan. It's a system that separates the worker from their families and keeps them going at 100% until they drop. If that's what a woman in the workplace has to look forward to, it's no wonder they choose to stay at home and raise children instead. Mom can't be working 70 hour weeks. The only reason why men don't take the same way out is that it's not an option for them.
As a teacher, it's not frustrating but completely demoralizing. My description of Kyoko as a student could apply to any number of my female middle schoolers. They're smart, they're driven, and even so only a handful of them are ever really going to make it in the business world, and that handful of women are going to have to give up a whole lot of things to get there.
Neither of Kyoko's lives seem all that great to me. I don't picture myself ever being a mother, and I don't picture myself being a businesswoman either. The difference between Kyoko and I is that I have a choice. I can do what I want with my life, and for the most part my gender won't get in the way. I can't say the same thing for Kyoko. I can't say the same thing for my female students. This is the form of Japanese sexism. There are any number of other issues (don't even get me started on the make-up and fashion culture) but this is the one that is going to make or break Japan unless it finds a way to change.
Anyway, that's what I've got. Happy Mother's Day to all you mother's out there, and happy Career-Woman Day to those of you who fall into that category. You deserve a day too.