Ain’t No Mountain High Enough?

Few of those who know and teach young Japanese women of a certain age will have been surprised by the statistics released in the past week indicating that around 40% of women aspire to the life of The Domestic Goddess; in other words, to give their energies to being wives and mothers. Unsurprisingly, roughly the same percentage of men were reported to have concurred that women should be stay-at-home wives.* Of the women’s choices most of us said: Who can fault that? One of the subtexts being: . . . in a society which often does not justly see or value a woman’s worth in the workplace? Why not put your energies into something where you know you have real work and do not have to battle social prejudice every step of the way? A large majority of the women polled hold that a wife should dedicate herself to child-rearing when children are young (which I think is eminently sensible and is supported by law).

Family values are laudable; traditional Asian gender roles and expectations, not so much.

The WSJ post reporting the findings, written by a woman, unfortunately betrays just the kind of bias that is often considered the “natural” way of things and seems to pass unnoticed, like water off a duck’s back. For starters there’s the title of the article, supposedly focused (look at its tags) on Japan’s population woes and the PM’s strategy called ‘womenomics’: “Survey Finds Some Single Men with Relationship Woes.” (I know single women in similar straits! And now they’re being ‘handled’ by the government, too.) The writer indicates in the first paragraph that Japan has some mountains to climb to reach a more equitable society. So far, so true.

Then come the results of the poll. It starts with the finding that 40% of unmarried men in their 20s have never had a romantic relationship with a woman. (See this excellent and balanced write up on the so-called Japanese Herbivorous Male phenomenon). Alas, hot on the heels of the image of the (possibly?) Lonely Young Man conjured up from that statistic, we get the Gold-Digger Woman archetype [or is she intended to be the Practical No-Nonsense Woman?] roaring up from her shadowy realm (Is this meant to explain and justify the poor men’s suggested backwardness?): ‘

More than 2/3 of women in their 30s said they were looking for an annual income of at least 4 million yen/about $40,000 from a marriage partner.’

Then, back to the Male Marriage Aspirant, who, it turns out, is ineligible because ‘fewer than a third of unmarried male respondents in their 30s earn that much.’ What is the country to do? Where can we begin to dialogue on these sticky traditions for the sake of a flourishing society?

I found myself over the week thinking on these numbers and on the ways that this gender equity conversation (and it is becoming a conversation in Japan, which is good, even if it is for reasons rather more cold and instrumental than would be my ideal) connects with my life work, educating in a women’s university which claims itself as mission school. I’ve isolated a few questions that I’ll be pondering:

  •  (How?) Should a woman’s education be different than a man’s? (We all agree, don’t we, that equality does not mean sameness; difference is both inevitable and it is good. Without it cooperation & collaboration is impossible.)
  • (How?) Could/Should education in a mission-school offer something different from the run-of-the-mill university? Do we have a prophetic [and possibly counter-cultural] word to speak? Here, I am thinking in particular of Noah Berlatsky’s review in The Atlantic of Anne Allison’s book, Precarious Japan (which I have yet to read). His concluding paragraph reads:

Perhaps the problem […] is not with the methods we are using to link education to economic advancement, but linking education and economic advancement in the first place. Uncertain work and falling wages have contributed to the precariousness in Japan […] but aren’t its only cause. Rather […] the unified emphasis on economic achievement and global advancement as the social purpose has left people with few resources with which to confront hard times. The path from family to school to corporation in the context of expanding capitalism underwrote people’s social place to such an extent that without it, many individuals become placeless. (my emphases)

  • What are the purposes of a 21st century liberal arts education for Asian women?
  • Are the behaviours of young people criticised by politicians (e.g. marrying late, if at all; opting for ‘freeteristic’** options rather than the corporate ladder and its ominously low bamboo ceilings) actually a kind of wisdom that represents resistance to capitulating to the spirit of the age? (OK, that is a romantic and vague one but I sense there is something to it. I’m thinking of Leary’s ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ or its interestingly apposite updated, if already slightly obsolete, version: ‘turn on, boot up, jack in’? Grist for another post one day, perhaps.)

It’s been an awful news week around the world, oh, the birth pangs of creation! Somehow, and oddly, perhaps, I found solace in these lines of Ilia Delio’s from the wonderful article in NCR last week by Jamie Manson:

“We are dying — and that’s OK . . . It just means something new is emerging. We need to become young again.”

Amen, amen!


*I was gratified to see at the close of the article the following acknowledgement:

“Several of the questions were worded in a way that associated women, but not men, with household chores and child-rearing. The survey didn’t include questions about a male role in the home. “Indeed, there may have been some bias to these questions,” said an analyst at the Meiji Yasuda Institute. He said the institute would consider in the future surveying responses to the statement, “Men should be stay-at-home husbands.”

** This is what a ‘freeter’ is. More depth, here.

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