Japan’s road to gender parity is rocky and potholed. Aera magazine this month chronicles a stumbling, faltering journey.
A young father takes a month’s paternity leave. A day care center staff member greets him warily: “We usually deal with the mother.”
“Yes,” says the father, “but I’m looking after the child now.”
The staff members exchange glances. The father stands his ground. He wins his point. The point is that there’s a point to be won.
“When my son was little, he liked books and building blocks,” a 46-year-old mother tells Aera. “‘That’s for girls,’ his father and other family members would say. ‘Boys should play outside.’ I’d say, ‘Boy or girl, children should play as they please.’” Now in grade 5, the boy enjoys helping with housework. Dad’s not happy. Sometimes he gets testy. Eventually he’ll have to accept that gender is not what it used to be.
What it used to be is succinctly summarized by an 18th-century text known as “Onna Daigaku” (“Greater Learning for Women”) — a staple of feminine education down the premodern ages: “The great life-long duty of a woman is obedience. … A woman should look on her husband as if he were Heaven itself.”
Men’s nostalgia for lost values so favorable to them is understandable but retrograde. It defeats seven years of “womenomics” touted by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The World Economic Forum this year ranks Japan 121st worldwide in terms of gender equality.
What’s “masculine?” What’s “feminine?” Kids barely out of infancy absorb subliminal messages. A DVD teaching English to small children, Aera says, introduces “daddy words” and “mummy words.” “Office,” “presentation,” says dad — while mom busies herself with her “frying pan” and her “apron.”
On it goes into elementary school, where social studies textbooks typically show men as firefighters and office workers and women as nurses and day care workers.
“I myself struggled to be economically equal to men,” says a woman whose father evidently wanted her cast in the “Onna Daigaku” mold. “I want my children to grow up taking gender equality for granted.” It’s unlikely they will.
To earlier generations, what separated the genders was more obvious than what they had in common. What did they have in common? Humanity — not much else. Even the rational faculty was deemed a masculine rather than a human trait. Men at war or at work, women in the kitchen and nursery, seemed to follow self-evidently from masculine strength and female childbearing. Modernity challenged those stereotypes and, over time — in some places more than others — defeated them.
1975 was International Women’s Year. Japanese women, Aera tells us, rose to the occasion. Around that time a TV ramen ad showed a young woman, a young girl and a young man in front of a steaming bowl of ramen, the woman saying, “I’m the one who makes it,” the man rejoining, “I’m the one who eats it.” Women protested. The ad was withdrawn.
The wind at their backs, women strode forward, out of the shadows. In 1985 came Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Law, addressing gender discrimination in the workplace. Subsequent amendments toughened it. In 2013, then-Prime Minister Abe addressed the United Nations, vowing, according to the Foreign Ministry website, to “cultivate the power of women as the greatest potential for the growth of the Japanese economy… (and) creating ‘a society in which women will shine.’”
Was it all for naught? Smoke and mirrors? The persistent stereotyping of both genders, the perpetual barbs that demean and belittle women, are “mostly unintentional,” says the mother of the fifth-grader. “No one means any harm. It’s just so deeply rooted.”
“Don’t tell anyone you sleep with a teddy bear,” says a mother to her elementary school son. “It’ll be our secret, okay?” She doesn’t object, but “others might think it strange. My husband says, half-jokingly, ‘You’ll turn him into a girl.’ To me, that’s discrimination. And what if he grows up preferring boys? Well, if he does, he does.”
A 17-year-old girl, reflecting on her past schooling, wondered why it seemed so depressing.
“When I became class president in elementary school,” she tells Aera, “the teacher said, ‘That’s really good for a girl!’” At her girls’ junior high school, male teachers, echoing conventional wisdom, would say, “Girls can’t do math.” She heard the word “gender” for the first time in the second year of senior high school — from a female teacher. “I thought, ‘That’s why I was depressed!’”
Each thrust, small in itself, can sting and discourage. A male TV journalist reporting from a supermarket on the rising price of mackerel says, “It’s very hard on housewives!” Do only women shop? Only married women?
A female company employee notices that office drinking parties are arranged so that each executive has a pretty young woman sitting beside him. The message is clear, and dispiriting to a woman building a career on effort and ability.
Men too — some of them — find stereotypes exasperating. Why, asks one, do insect repellent ads feature only women? Aren’t men allowed to shudder at bugs? Then there’s the young PR man whose office colleagues, 90% women, pounce on his every mistake: “That’s inexcusable in a man!” Might they be avenging their gender on him as a representative of his?
Postgenderist thinkers argue the irrelevance of gender as a shaper of character. Gender’s sole significance, they say, is reproductive. The postgender society they envision would take us beyond gender equality to gender homogeneity. The World Economic Forum report’s top rankers — Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden — may or may not be on the way there. Japan certainly is not.
This past spring, there occurred in Japan a flurry of child molestation episodes involving male babysitters as alleged perpetrators. Parents panicked. Male babysitters were viewed with suspicion. Agencies began declining to deal with them. “Gender discrimination,” protested male sitters, according to an Asahi Shimbun report in June. A handful of malefactors should not tar an entire gender.
Of course they shouldn’t, and, in an ideal world, it would not be permitted to happen.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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