Being a Feminist in Japan; Watching the Election From Afar

As I have been reading about the ongoing primary election battle in the States and thinking about the choice of democratic candidates, I have done a lot of thinking. Rebecca Traister’s article on Salon.com, “Hey, Obama Boys: Back off already!” in particular made me think about the current political climate and about what Hillary Clinton running has done to American feminism. I agree with most things in the article, from the uncalled for Hillary-bashing that has characterized the primaries, to the fact that it has shaped feminism in young women. And what I really realized was that living in Japan, combined with the issues of sexism raised by the primaries, have made me more of a feminist than I ever was when I left the States.

In Japan, the traditional gender roles reminiscent of the American 1950s are thriving. There are few women in high positions within companies and even fewer within politics. The media inundates women with ads aimed at the dutiful housewife and the overworked businessman. While I have noticed change in the media over the past few years, for example I recently saw a business woman in an ad for an energy drink looking every bit as professional as her male counterpart rather than wearing the typical “office girl” uniform, the change is still slow to come.

At the board of education where I work, responsible for education throughout the entire prefecture, there are 7 women, including myself, out of the 50 or so employees who work here. Needless to say, one of them is the mail and tea lady, and none of the department heads or division heads are women. In visiting over 15 schools throughout the prefecture I have only met one female principal and one female vice principal. Intelligent students at the girls’ high school where I used to work had dreams of being bakers, cosmeticians, and entertainers at Disney Land, rather than lawyers or doctors. The “Future Homemakers of Japan” newsletter the school recieved had tips for how to be the best mother. I wonder what sort of newsletters were distributed at the boys high school? Probably nothing about childcare or home life.

School nurses “tsk” about mothers who do not get up at 5:30 A.M. to prepare a proper Japanese breakfast of rice, fish, and miso soup. Even worse are the mothers who don’t have the time to pack their husband’s or children’s lunches. None of the men in my office pack their lunches, nor did the male teachers at the girls’ high school; it was always wives or mothers who did it. Every time I brought lunch made by my husband men and women alike released a collective gasp at the idea that a man could cook.

Everywhere I look, I see women in skirts, from business women, to the girls school uniforms which never include pants. Some Japanese women, when around men, raise their voice an octave and use the most feminine forms of speech such as “atashi” instead of “watashi” meaning “I”, to create wholly feminine airs.

That is not to say that I disapprove of women wanting to be feminine, or women wanting to be mothers, or stay-at-home mothers for that matter. Caring for children is an important and worthwhile pursuit. But I do find myself wincing when I think of being a housewife as a career. For me, that path would hold no satisfaction. As I look around Japan, I truly appreciate how lucky I am to have so many options as I woman.

When Hillary first decided to run for office, I found myself understanding those women who Traister calls the “second-wave feminists”. They are of a generation who never thought they would see a women get this far. And while I am leaning toward supporting Obama, I have tremendous respect for Clinton making such a powerful stand. Maybe she isn’t best woman for the job, but the fact that she is a strong woman who has gone so far and done so much is deserving of a little more respect than she has been given by the media, and certainly by the men who seem to hate her disproportionally to her failings.

Watching the election from Japan has certainly given me a different perspective than what I would have were I living in the States right now. Surprisingly, the election has been a hot topic here, especially in discussing who is better for the job as president: Obama or Clinton. I can’t help but wonder if the reason for this hype is because the idea of a black president or a female president is such an alien idea to the Japanese. Regardless of the reasons, this election is being watched by Japan the world and whatever the outcome, history is being made. Let’s just try to do it with a little less debate about which is more relevant; racism or sexism.

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3 Responses to “Being a Feminist in Japan; Watching the Election From Afar”
  1. EKSwitaj says:

    I have similar feelings about understanding second-wave feminists after spending two years living in Japan and (so far) a year and a quarter in China. I teach in a rural university where gender roles play out in selection of majors. The vast majority of my students, English majors, are female, while the ratios are reversed for computer science.

    The female students I’ve discussed this with adore Hillary Clinton; something that particularly impresses them is that she is a mother as well as Senator and presidential candidate. Some of my brightest students have told me that they not only have to choose between continuing their studies and having children (since then they would have to spend all their time on childrearing) but even have to choose between further studies and a committed relationship (necessarily, in this culture, leading to marriage) since that would force them to have a baby.

  2. Bahia says:

    I think one thing that makes it particularly difficult in Japan is that there is currently little childcare available, so working mothers don’t have many options. Couples I know living in Japan, where one is Japanese, have to rely on the grandparents to take care of the kids, because babysitting doesn’t exist and there aren’t organizations like the YMCA setting up afterschool care. Additionally, workplaces don’t have any sort of childcare center, either.

    Combining those factors with the vestiges of the “job for life” system, means that companies are reluctant to hire, or especially promote, women if they think they will take a long absence when having children.

    Women are put in a position where they have to choose work or a family. I speculate that one of the reasons that Japan has a declining birthrate is because more and more women are choosing to work.

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  1. […] to 2008, I got a look from the outside at American politics.  In the lead up to the 2008 election, the Japanese people focused on the primaries between Hilary and Obama.  To them, the fact that a woman or a black man were the top contenders was intriguing.  They had […]



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