Western societies have long viewed Japan as a heavily 父権社会 (fuken shakai, patriarchal society), often 封建的 (hōkenteki, feudal) and hugely discriminatory against women. No arguments there.

One of the first things American women balk at is the amount of housework the average Japanese 主婦 (shufu, woman of the house) is expected to do — without a car, outsourced help or even any appreciation from her family. "How can you stand it?" wailed my friend Emily from Boston as I bent over a sink full of dinner dishes. (Emily's arguments with her husband largely revolved around whose turn it was to stack their gorgeous energy-efficient dishwasher.) "Where's your self-respect?"

女だから (Onna dakara, "Because this is what women are") is a refrain I heard from childhood, spoken about my mother and female relatives, and later about myself, by way of explanation for the tremendous amount of 家事 (kaji, household chores) that fall on a woman's shoulders, whether she happens to have a job or not.