VOLUME 28 NO. 13 | MARCH 21 - MARCH 27, 2009

Japan still behind on gender equality?

Last updated 3-19-09 at 9:13 a.m.
Across the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater, a big crowd of Japanese women line up on March 3. A Broadway-style musical was showing that day.
On Odaiba Seaside Park, a group of mostly mothers (above) stroll on the beach midday as they watch their children (below) run a marathon race.


By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly

If you have a hard time telling your wife, “I love you,” join the club of modern Japanese men.

This was the subject of a newspaper article I read two years ago. The same article also caught the eye of Seattle’s former Japanese Consul General Kazuo Tanaka. In fact, he referenced the article in a speech to illustrate cultural differences between Japan and the United States while he was visiting Seattle.

It’s strange how I recalled that story when Northwest Asian Weekly’s editor, aware of my recent trip to Japan, assigned me to write about Japanese women.

The last time I was in Japan was in 1994. I met my uncles for the first time. They were born and raised in Kobe. When I showed them my business card, I still remember how they had a hard time understanding what was printed on the card.

“Your husband is a publisher,” one uncle stated, frowning as if I stole from my husband’s identity.

“No, I am,” I replied.

“Why are you doing a man’s job?” another uncle asked, laughingly.

Japan’s attitude toward women is still backward, despite the fact that it is a global powerhouse, economically and financially.

This year, on March 2, my husband and I saw hundreds of elementary school students participating in a marathon on Tokyo’s Odaiba Seaside Park, a manmade beach. Of the 60–80 parents present to cheer their kids on, only one of them was a male. And he wasn’t even Japanese.

“Are you a dad?” I asked the Black man who was wearing a San Francisco T-shirt. I was wondering why he was the only male there.

“They are all working,” he replied. “I work nights. I am a sound man [in a studio].”

The female parents were all housewives. At the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater one afternoon, I witnessed a similar pattern. About 2,000 women packed the theater, which was showing a Japanese-style Broadway musical. Only a handful of men were there.

In a Tokyo hotel, I met a German woman who married a Japanese man. She complained about the difficulty of meeting new people. “The only friends I know are those who I met in my kids’ school. My [Japanese female] neighbors have the same concern.”

If a woman doesn’t work, she is isolated and cut off from many valuable social networks such as rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, and professional organizations where leadership skills, ideas, connections, and opportunities for personal empowerment and growth are cultivated. What a waste of human talent.

In Japan, no one wants to hire married women for high-paying, important jobs. It doesn’t matter who your father is, how smart you are, or how much education and talent you have. For a woman, marriage means the end of dreams, the end of individual status, wealth, power, and respect in society. Once you are tagged as a spouse, your role becomes limited.

Today, Japanese women find other alternatives. The New York Times has reported that more and more young Japanese females choose to remain single.

Divorce rates in Japan have soared in the past few years, says Donald Hellmann, ąn expert on Japan, who teaches at the University of Washington. Hellmann said that many Japanese women could not stand their salaried husbands and asked for divorces.

Although I have never asked my Japanese stepsister, Irene, who lives in Tokyo, why she has been single all her life, the answer becomes very clear: freedom and independence.

Over the last decade, those women who thrive on independence and career gains “have done it in a unorthodox way,” said Hellmann. “They stay away from early marriages, they become entrepreneurs and are committed to changing the society.”

However, the increasing number of women choosing to stay single is affecting the society greatly — there is a declining birth rate and therefore a workforce shortage. In contrast, the United States has a climbing birth rate.
In a generation, the Japanese population will likely shrink from 120 million to less than 100 million.

The first time I visited Japan, which was more than three decades ago, women literally walked behind their husbands and were treated more like maids than equals. Restaurant owners only acknowledged the men and ignored the women. My grandmother, a Chinese resident in Kobe in the late 1920s and ’30s, often reminded me that she was discriminated against in restaurants. Japanese restaurant owners would serve noodles with fresh and abundant ingredients to men and much fewer ingredients to their spouses. It’s funny how customers, male or female, never questioned this rude practice in those days.

During my recent visit, we walked in several districts of Tokyo. Police officers, all of them male, were stationed on every corner of the neighborhoods. Perhaps dignified and respectful jobs like police officers are not for women. It was wonderful to find one young female officer among nine males at the guarded entrance of Narita International Airport, checking our passports.

Oh yes, Japanese women usually work in low-ranking jobs such as waiting tables or contract work at convenience and retail stores, where benefits and opportunity for advancement do not exist. In the government office, I have seen women with college degrees serve tea and coffee.

On the streets, I was happy to find many young Japanese couples holding hands. These young men say “I love you” more readily than their fathers. It is a milestone in the social context of Japan. To be able to say what your heart wants and not be bound by cultural traditions is a liberating experience for human expression and emotion. This can be a start to liberate not only Japanese women but men as well.

Gender equality is a tough issue in many societies and communities. Encouraging women to interact with men and use them as mentors is a natural step. However, simply raising awareness won’t garner results fast enough.

Changing the law is. Only policy can mandate changes and actions. And Japan needs to act fast. (end)

Ng’s next column, “Culture shock: How to be adventurous in Japan,” will run in NWAW next week.

Assunta Ng can be reached at assunta@nwasianweekly.com.


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Japan still behind on gender equality?

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