An Honest Look At Life In Japan: Living In A Crystal Birdcage
I have so much fun learning about Japanese traditions for my daughter monster. But, momo no sekku (Girls’ Day), really made me think: Why is tango no sekku (Boys’ Day) to make sure boys grow up to become strong warriors? Why is momo no sekku to ensure that daughters get married off?
Then I wonder, “Why am I trying to push my ‘western’ culture and standards on Japanese society? Sure, boys wear blue or black kimono and girls wear pink kimono. But, at the end of the day, no one really takes that stuff seriously anymore. It’s just about taking pictures.”
Or, am I sweeping things under the rug?
It’s difficult to talk about issues like sexism and race in Japan as an “outsider,” because there’s the idea that only Japanese have the right to criticize Japanese.
Well, since I’m technically Japanese, that gives me a “right” to talk, yes? Or, does that put me into the category of, “If you don’t like it, go home!” ?
I still feel it’s not my place to say what Japanese women should or should not do. I believe that all women, deserve the power of agency, whether I agree with those choices or not.
As a working mother and tax paying citizen, however, I will say that attitudes towards women in the workplace and society at large need to change.
Re-examining the Role of a Parent
We need to focus on why it’s a woman’s “duty” to take care of kids. Only less than 2% of men take paternity leave in Japan. (Read more on maternity/paternity leave in Japan here: Oh Baby! Pregnancy, Maternity, and Child Care Leave in Japan)
By the way, I’m so proud to say that my husband falls into that group! I had to practically coerce him to take paternity leave, but he absolutely loved being home with our daughter for 6 months.
We need to address the daycare shortage, sky-high daycare costs, and the ridiculous catch-21 runaround that keeps so many parents from enrolling their babies in the first place.
All of this keeps women out of the workforce and keeps employed mothers in contracted positions with limited social benefits.
As a kindergarten teacher, I see daily the idea that “mom = primary caretaker.” This means that most kids, when they have a fever or anything like that, mom is the one to pick them up from school.
I’ve even experienced it in my own marriage. Why is my job as a teacher deemed less important compared to the duties of my husband? Is my profession not a valid career path?
(But to think rationally, when my daughter has a fever, it’s honestly just better for her sake that I take her home since she’s in my schol, rather than waiting for her father to come all the way from central Tokyo.)
Do these changes start at the grassroots level?
Society should change, but why rock the boat?
You can live comfortably as a woman… depending on your definition of comfortable.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the glass ceiling.
In Japan, it’s a crystal birdcage. Gilded and fabulously decorated – why would you want to leave?
I don’t think of it as a trap, I do love living here. But I can point out a few issues:
An Honest Look At Life In Japan: Living In A Crystal Birdcage
Japanese women overwhelmingly earn less than men, but traditionally women control the purse strings and dish out allowances to their husbands.
There’s plenty of Ladies’ Days/Nights at shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants that offer discounted rates for women. And, I proudly take advantage of them.
As a woman, you’re expected to stay home and look after your kids… but is that really such a bad thing when the alternative is being packed in a crowded train, deferring to others all day, and working insane hours?
Please know that I think homemaking is a wonderful skill that should be valued more. But, I also know that it’s not for everyone, which is why society needs to improve the agency of women.
You can speak out against sexual harassment or maternity harassment in the workplace, but when you’re up against someone powerful, what’s the point?
When you’re expected to quit working after you get married, being harassed is probably just a way to show you the door. After all, you’re married, why do you need to work when you can just be a dependent on your husband’s insurance (with an income cap to keep you “dependent”).
I personally have recently had an incident of sexual harassment in the workplace which was not taken seriously by upper management. I am waiting for things with COVID-19 to calm down a bit so I can return to the Labor Standards Office to examine my options.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the glass ceiling. In Japan, it’s a crystal birdcage. Gilded and fabulously decorated – why would you want to leave?
Back when I worked in Shibuya 109, I remember trying to explain US attitudes toward sexual harassment.. I clearly remember feeling like there was something wrong with me.
The idea that being told by a male superior or coworker, “You look cute/sexy” is harassment was met with “What’s wrong with being told I’m cute? I put a lot of effort into my hair/makeup/etc.”
Being told that women can not sexually harass other women was another one that I gave up on explaining further.
This was, of course, more than ten years ago. The tide is changing; attitudes are changing. Maybe it’s due to the increase in foreign workers and tourists, and/or the way social media nowadays facilitates the exchange ideas.
Still, sexual harassment continues to be a problem in Japan and efforts to treat it don’t actually get to the root of the problem.
We know about women-only train cars. There are women-only areas of comic book cafes. You can even book women-only floors at hotels in Japan. (I’ve actually stayed in one in Sapporo and felt a sense of security, mainly because those floors have access only by a special key card.) But, I believe these measures just create a false sense of security and enable victim-blaming.
Japan is Safe…Or Is It?
I appreciate the safety of Japan, especially its big cities. I can walk down the street at night with no problem. This is a country where you are extremely likely to find your lost items.
Still, crime happens (I am NOT going into the gun debate on this blog, no sir, no ma’am), especially among family members and lovers. Sexual crime, including harassment, assault, DO occur and there is often little justice for victims.
Stalking is a MAJOR issue – I actually chased away one, as in literally ran him down in heels! When I lived by myself, in the heart of Tokyo, I was so sure I was going to get a Doberman, mainly because of stalking and police inaction.
When I was single and living alone, I always shopped online and ordered pizza online using a very stereotypical “manly man” man’s name. I even went as far as buying some boxers and men’s t-shirts from the 100 yen shop to put in my laundry so it would look like a man was living with me.
When I ride the train, I try to stay aware of my surroundings and suspicious people. If I feel like someone is following me, I’ll do the following: change cars, get off at a different station, or pretend to make a phone call immediately starting with, “Ima, doko? (Where you at right now?)
It’s absolutely unfair that as a woman I have to take these precautions. I envy that men don’t have to think about going out of his way to protect himself.
Yet, when I travel to the countryside to visit my in-laws, it’s amazing that no one locks their doors! I’ll be taking a nap and the fish man, mailman, or Yakult lady just opens the front door and walks in. I understand that “cute” anecdotes are a glossy facade for the “Japan is safe” myth that don’t
Life in Japan…Looking Towards The Future
With all the above said, I AM grateful to live in Japan, and for the opportunities I’ve had so far. I’m always careful to check my opinions, and be objective while acknowledging that I have certain privileges here.
It’s not my role to tell Japanese women what to do or to “lead” them. I’m here to listen to their voices and support.
As a parent and content creator/“influencer” I have a responsibility to my daughter and an obligation to my audience to be authentic. I need to seriously think hard about the future and make choices that promote gender equality and will benefit the greater good of society.