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Equal but different

by Louise George Kittaka

My 18-month-old daughter, Marin, was involved in a tug-of-war over a toy with a little friend a few months older. The boy gave my daughter a small shove and won possession of the coveted toy, and Marin promptly burst into noisy sobs. The other mother hurried over. Handing the toy back to Marin, she scolded her son. “Don’t push Marin-chan like that. You have to be gentle with little girls!”

Actually, my daughter is no shrinking violet. With two older siblings, she is more than capable of standing up for herself. But she already knows that it doesn’t hurt to turn on the tears when she wants to get her own way.

Over the last few decades, Japanese women have made inroads into many previously male-dominated fields and their status has improved considerably. Girls no longer have to wait for dinner while their brothers are served the choicest morsels first. In fact, according to recent surveys, if Japanese parents were to have just one child, more than half would prefer to have a girl.

Yet the idea that girls and boys are to be treated differently still persists — equal but different. From early on, parents think nothing of saying to a little boy: “Stop that crying! You’re a boy, aren’t you?” Similarly, a little girl whose behavior is less than decorous may be admonished to “act like a little lady.”

The mass media also helps to promote this idea of “equal but different.” When my oldest child was a toddler, I subscribed to a popular Japanese children’s magazine. Every month, they had a regular feature called “On the go,” with a little boy sitting on a toy bulldozer or in a mini police car. In another section of the magazine was “Let’s play Mama,” which always showed a little girl brushing her teddy bear’s “teeth” or putting shoes on a doll.

Such blatant gender stereotyping would doubtless be frowned upon in the West, but in Japan the view seems to be that there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

When I became a mother, I provided my son with dolls and a toy kitchen set, and encouraged his younger sister to play with trains and building sets. However, despite my best intentions, once the children were old enough to notice that certain toys were for “boys” and others were for “girls,” they naturally gravitated to the same playthings as their peers.

Similarly, the differences in language used by Japanese men and women show up at a young age. In early childhood, little girls and boys alike tend to use the sweet generic “baby speak” used by their largely female caregivers. But as they grow older and enter the wider society of kindergarten or day-care, little boys begin to copy the rougher speech patterns of older boys and men, while little girls imitate the women around them.

My son, Tsuyoshi, was born overseas and didn’t know any Japanese until he was 4. On entering Japanese kindergarten, at first most of his friends were little girls, so his Japanese tended to sound feminine. But toward the end of his fifth year, I noticed a marked difference as he mimicked the speech of other little boys. Now a second-grader, Tsuyoshi’s rough-and-ready language blends perfectly with that of his peers.

In contrast, his 4-year-old sister, Reina, has developed a style of speech that, quite frankly, is almost too cloying and syrupy at times. Whether she is describing a friend’s new dress, a baby animal or Hello Kitty, Reina can trill “Ka-wa-iiiiii!!” in perfect imitation of the ubiquitous female tarento on TV. When my children converse in English, however, I perceive no such differences in their style of talking.

Reina has to wear shorts or trousers for day-care, a sensible and practical choice. However, on the weekend she loves to wear “round and round” dresses that flare out when she twirls in them. While her older brother is still content to throw on whatever clothes I put out for him, choosing her daily outfit can be an agonizingly long process for Reina.

But once we’re at the local park, both kids head for the sandbox. It’ll take some extra washing, as always, to get the stains off the back of Reina’s favorite dresses. But I find it oddly reassuring that my decidedly feminine daughter can still make sticky, black mud pies with her brother.