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Growing up to the idea of fighting back

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Special To The Japan Times

Psychologist Toshio Kawai has an interesting hypothesis. We may, he says in an article written for the Asahi Shimbun’s Globe, be entering an age when “becoming an adult will not be necessary.”

What makes an adult an adult? Autonomy, the ability to stand on one’s own two feet. What hones autonomy? Conflict — with exacting parents, authoritarian teachers, personality-stifling society, competing peers, what have you. As anyone who has ever grown up knows, it’s a hell of a passage, painful but stimulating.

But conflict is waning, Kawai fears. Population decline is one factor. Competition is no longer what it was, especially among students, who used to have to fight their way into university through a vetting process aptly known as “exam hell.” Now they can pick and choose among universities desperate to fill increasing vacancies.

Tolerance is another. It’s a good thing, surely — an acknowledgment that many ways to personal fulfillment, not just yours or mine or society’s, are valid and worthy of respect. The trouble is, it minimizes the need for self-assertion. Whatever you do — marry or stay single, follow this sexual preference or that, build a career or drift along the margins — fine, no problem, good luck to you. That’s as it should be, no doubt. But when things are as they should be, the fighter in you dies; the individual becomes less of an individual; the adult, potentially, less of an adult. Kawai doesn’t say it has happened, or that it necessarily will; only that it could.

He might see in a woman named Sayaka Osakabe hope that it won’t. And he might see in the situation that spurred her into action proof that tolerance in Japan has a ways to go before it challenges the need for people to grow up.

Osakabe’s name is indelibly linked to a neologism that would have been incomprehensible a very few years ago — matahara, “maternity harassment.” What kind of crazy hybrid is this? The harassing of pregnant women? Of women for being pregnant?

Of women for being pregnant at work. Corporate Japan, speaking generally, is made queasy by pregnancy. Reproduction and employment don’t mix, in its view. Matahara is the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure it exerts on pregnant employees — slighting them, demoting them, ignoring or mocking their special needs in the hope they’ll quit, regardless of the Equal Opportunity Employment Law of 1986, which bans workplace discrimination against women. More than a quarter of working women — 26.3 percent — know matahara first hand, a 2014 Japanese Trade Union Confederation survey shows.

And most of them do nothing about it. Osakabe herself almost did nothing. Her profile in Josei Jishin magazine last month does not portray a born activist. She was roused slowly, but once roused proved formidable. She took her case to a labor tribunal, won from her employer a financial settlement and an apology, co-founded a support group that is mobilizing women nationwide, and was honored with an International Woman of Courage award by the U.S. State Department — not, be it noted, by the Japanese government, despite its showy but superficial advocacy of “a society in which women shine.”

Osakabe, 38, grew up in difficult circumstances. Her father was ill; her mother supported the family on part-time jobs. “Get qualified,” she’d tell her daughter. “Equip yourself to live on your own.” Good advice, the value of which Osakabe was slow to appreciate. She started law school, dropped out, went to art college, got a job with an advertising agency and seemed on her way, but the long hours got to her and she quit after two years. Now what? “Before I knew it,” she tells Josei Jishin, “I was 30, unmarried, with no job.”

A time of drifting followed, months turning into years, one part-time job flowing aimlessly into another. Then she got lucky, on two fronts. A full-time job opened up editing a PR magazine. And a chance Facebook encounter with an old flame led to marriage. “We wanted two, maybe three children …”

She’d wasted away one career opportunity and wasn’t about to waste another. She threw herself into her work — till nearly midnight, night after night. It was paying off — she was being noticed; she’d go far.

Then — pregnancy. Some things in life always take you by surprise. The news was wonderful, the timing not. “It was like there were two ‘me’s,'” she says — “the pregnant ‘me’ and the working ‘me’. Looking back now, I think I would have ‘matahara’d’ myself.”

She said nothing at work: “I didn’t want to cause trouble.” The body, however, can take only so much — she worked herself into a miscarriage.

So far her employer is blameless. But when she returned to work after a leave of absence and asked for an assistant because “I don’t want to miscarry again,” the reply from her immediate superior was, “You’d better not think of getting pregnant for two or three years.”

“I was at a loss for words.” She was 35. Well, men by nature are less intimately knowledgeable about biological clocks — it can’t be helped.

The story proceeds through a second pregnancy, a second miscarriage, an intensifying conflict between a company’s demands for the undivided commitment of its employees and the biological and social impossibility of such commitment if family life is to have its due — or have any kind of a future at all. Japan’s failure to acknowledge that elementary reality is costing it dearly, its demography ominously unbalanced in favor of the elderly and its international reputation marred by a ranking of 104th among 142 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 gender equality ratings.

Now the happy mother of a baby whose first birthday will be celebrated next month, Osakabe is the motive force behind Matahara Net, the support group she cofounded to give her personal struggles a wider meaning. It’s largely thanks to her, and to it, that matahara ranks as high as it lately does on the popular social agenda. Not yet on the national agenda, despite “womenomics” and all that.

Osakabe is a sign of her times in more ways than one. Her work, together with swelling nationwide demonstrations in opposition to the government’s attempted end run around the Constitution to undo 70 years of pacifism, suggest something happening. What? Kawai, the psychologist, might say Japan is growing up. Or, alternatively, that it’s waking up.

That’s a good thing. Neither eternal childhood nor eternal somnolence is good for democracy.

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.