National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Japanese women can't get no satisfaction

Several weeks ago, star economist and self-help guru Kazuyo Katsuma was the special guest on the TBS variety show “Kinyobi no Sumatachi e.” The program’s title conflates “kinyobi no tsumatachi” (Friday Wives), which once referred to Friday night “trendy drama” series centered on well-to-do housewives, and “SMAP,” whose leader, Masahiro Nakai, is the series’ host.

The program covers topics that are of interest to women, and Katsuma, who has parlayed her success as a CPA-cum- single mother of three into a career as a pundit, has become an icon for working wives and mothers. She has written more than a dozen books that have sold 2 million copies, and though much of her output is in the area of economics and time management, it’s her self-improvement aspects that attract attention. Female devotees, popularly called “Katsumaa,” follow her methods because they worked so well for her.

“Kin-Suma” had popular TBS staff announcer Shinichiro Azumi tag along with Katsuma during one of her typically busy days, including riding behind her as she pedaled her famous bicycle, which she takes from one appointment to another because it saves time. The program made an effort to show her personable side. When she’s a guest on talk shows discussing economic matters Katsuma displays a forceful personality that tends to intimidate her interlocutors, especially men, who either take offense or laugh derisively at what they see as her naive understanding of financial realities.

On “Kin-Suma,” she talked about her obsession with cooking and love of comics. She and Azumi competed in a trivia quiz on the cartoon robot-cat Doraemon (Azumi won). Katsuma was in the studio watching all this on monitors with Nakai and other guests, and at one point the SMAP man turned to her and said, “You’re not as scary as your image.” He then read a letter from Katsuma’s daughter that brought tears to her eyes.

The show was an obvious attempt to reboot Katsuma’s brand in the popular imagination, which wasn’t difficult to do because her appeal has more to do with the kind of person she is than what she actually does or says. Her lifestyle advice is hardly novel. Basically, she tells people that they have to set goals and then make efforts to achieve those goals.

Popularity inevitably leads to backlash, and Katsuma’s comeuppance had occurred from within her own cult. Last fall, magazines started reporting on “Katsumaa” who weren’t quite achieving the level of satisfaction they thought they would if they followed their guru’s example. The weekly Aera, whose career-oriented female readership dovetails nicely with Katsuma’s, reported in detail on one anonymous woman who referred to Katsuma’s ouevre as her “bible,” in particular her standards for a successful “independent” life: make at least ¥6 million a year, find a sympathetic partner, and strive to be “better” as you get older.

But though the woman had switched jobs several times in accordance with her career ambitions and had found a boyfriend who seemed to care about her, she was not satisfied. If anything, she was tired of all the effort. She told the reporter that she estimates she has 95 percent of the things she set out to achieve, and that she’s obsessed with the remaining 5 percent. “Shouldn’t I be happy with 95 percent?” she asked.

Consequently, she started reading the books of psychiatrist Rika Kayama, who has been positioned as the anti-Katsuma, both by herself and the media. In fact, the same issue of Aera included a conversation between Katsuma and Kayama that eventually was expanded into a best-seller. Even The Japan Times jumped into the fray when it published a long interview with Kayama in December after publishing a long interview with Katsuma in March.

Kayama has written even more books, and though most of them are about her work as a counselor, her main utility in the media is as an antidote to Katsuma’s go-go ambition. Kayama’s position is that women who endeavor to reach Katsuma’s lofty standards risk psychological damage. She herself admits to being “lazy” and thinks it’s an attitude that is more general than anything Katsuma represents. Ambition is a relative term to Kayama: you should know your limits and work within them — or don’t. Either way, it’s nothing to get upset about.

In fact, Kayama believes that a majority of the women who come to her saying they think they’re depressed are simply disappointed. They’ve been presented with a model of life by the media that is difficult to achieve much less live up to. In the Aera conversation, she said that many of her patients, who are apparently comfortable in material terms, tell her they won’t feel fulfilled until they publish a book or start a blog that is read by millions. In that regard, they aren’t just aspiring to be Katsuma, but Kayama as well.

Aera set up another conversation between the two women in February at a theater in Tokyo and distributed tickets to 300 people. The published version of their talk makes the most of their differences, but it’s a difference of temperament and taste, not really a difference of convictions. Katsuma loves to cook while Kayama is “happy” with a store-bought bento (lunch box). Katsuma gets a charge out of housework because it’s a daily goal she can accomplish easily. Kayama hates housework, period.

The usefulness of the Katsuma- Kayama dialectic is limited, except, of course, to the media, who can use it to provoke anxieties that are ripe for exploitation. The problems that Japanese women face are many, and both Katsuma and Kayama have acknowledged that what’s really important is to tackle issues like equality in the workplace and help with childcare. Self-actualization is something of a luxury when you can’t make ends meet and fear losing your job if you decide to have a baby.

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