By Orsola Battaggia
In Japan, and particularly in Kyoto, it’s hot during the summer, very hot – the sort of stifling heat that makes it hard to breathe, which instils fatigue and lethargy. On one of these summer days given over to battling the heat, and punctuated only by the routine of work, I was able to set aside some time to have a coffee with Junko.
Junko is truly special, one of those people who knows how to put you at ease, and who expresses their opinions freely, unhindered by social or cultural differences. In fact, especially here in the Land of the Rising Sun, cultural and social differences weigh considerably on interpersonal relationships, and foreigners in particular often come up against the (iron curtain?) of formal politeness, a soft barrier which prevents deeper and more intimate comprehension and communication.
We started to talk about her experiences as a working woman, because I wanted to understand the point of view of a woman who had been born and grown up in this country. Junko is clearly a brave woman who, in order to nurture her passion, decided to leave a full-time post for a part-time one, in order to be able to dedicate more free time to that which she most cares about, painting on ceramics, which has in fact recently become her second part time job.
She’s not worried that she still isn’t married at the “ripe” age of 45 years, either: here in Japan, at age 25 women are already subtly labelled “Christmas cakes”, that is, cakes that “no longer taste good” the day after Christmas – an expiration date that Junko has long passed. But, as she tells me, Junko has always been against this way of thinking, to the extent that she didn’t restrain herself from criticising the negative comment of a man towards his 28 year old friend, in a relationship with a woman aged 30. The young man alerted the friend to the fact that his girlfriend was probably already thinking about marriage given her “advanced” age. Clearly Junko is a non-conformist, something that isn’t easy, living in a society which is still so attached to a range of stereotypes. When we think of Japan, many of us picture Tokyo, a city saturated in modernity, but the reality, especially in the countryside and in other cities, is very different.
Gender differences, for example, in the country which boasts some of the most advanced technologies, are still very marked; to give an example, when a firm receives a visitor, it is always the woman’s role to prepare and serve the tea: they are the “flowers of the office”, responsible for welcoming guests and serving tea, even if they have a degree in statistics.
Moreover, talking about her experiences as a full time employee in a small firm making kimonos in Kyoto, Junko confirmed that even differences in salaries are noticeable: women make around 500 euros less for the same title and job. A difference which is highlighted also by the fact that while for women there is an age limit (40 years) within which they can build a career and earn a pay rise, for men this limit does not exist, and they can even become bucho, that is, office directors, at any time before retiring.
Another aspect which I knew nothing about is that, still on the subject of small to medium firms, women do not hold titles like those of their male counterparts, at least formally, insofar as women’s work is deemed merely a support to the work of male peers. Junko told me that she only contacted other companies on behalf of her boss, and at most she would choose the colours for the designs of the kimonos, but the decision and the creation of the design obviously rested with her superior and she had absolutely no say in the matter.
Added to this was the fairly questionable behaviour of one male colleague in particular, who, seeing it as the job of a woman, instead of throwing away his own papers, would let them pile up on a table near Junko’s desk without saying anything, expecting her to undertake this task. “Obviously I didn’t let myself be walked all over” and therefore, without touching anything, Junko wrote note after note asking whether all those papers should be thrown out, or what should she do with them; in the end the situation was resolved by her boss, who threw everything out himself in order to keep the peace. “But it has to be said that he was particularly strange” she finished the story, laughing. As much as this colleague was undoubtedly an odd character, the attitude which considers women to be incapable of complicated tasks or responsibilities isn’t that rare; at times the head of the firm would blame his own errors on a female colleague of Junko’s, deeming himself authorised to do so become women are subordinate.
Such behaviours are probably one of the causes of the recent trend for women to marry less and less, and phenomenon which has both economic and social roots. Junko claims that a lot of it is down to how children are educated, and resulting attitude of men towards their female counterparts. Men pay little attention to their children’s education, partly because here working hours are often very strict, and so it is mothers who are tasked with bringing up children. But while they are severe with daughters, educating them about what they deem to be their social role, towards their sons a certain distance can be noted: not quite knowing how to handle their education, mothers instead serve and revere them as they do their fathers. This nurtures expectations among boys regarding their future wife or partner, and consolidates the strict division of labour and gender roles among men and women. This still pronounced mentality often leads, among Japanese men, to absolute inability to relate to modern women who work, and who doesn’t want to be subservient to anyone.
Journalist Kaori Shoji, in her article “I hereby take myself as lawfully wedded yome”, published in the Japan Times, declares that she is convinced that men want a “yome”, that is, a wife who instead of being married to her partner and enjoying and equal role, is tied to her so-called ‘man of the house’ and is transformed into her husband’s dependent. Her role consists of washing, ironing, cooking, and bringing up the children while he can make his career and have extra-marital relations without any problem. This no doubt influences communication between, and comprehension of partners.
As Junko tells me, in many cases, due to shyness and because of these age-old stereotypes, Japanese men struggle to have serious discussions with their female partners, preferring the image of ‘cute’ and accommodating women, and feeling more relaxed and at ease passing the evening with friends of the same sex.
Another factor is the modern trend, quite accentuated here in Japan, to create a truly alternative life on the internet, in the search for online relations which are easy and without the conflict or confrontation that deeper but more demanding relations bring; the result is that many young people are increasingly unable to relate to others in flesh and bone.
Moreover, having children here in Japan isn’t easy: to begin with, there isn’t enough support for working women, something proven by the high percentage of women who leave work when they become pregnant. Obviously, it’s possible to take a year of maternity leave and to receive 70% of one’s salary during that time off, but the support that is missing is that following maternity, given the small number of nurseries and the never-ending waiting lists in the rare, and very expensive, existing institutions.
It’s not surprising then, that women who want to build careers or follow their passions, prefer to remain single: Junko, instead of fulfilling a role determined by society, instead chose to dedicate herself to personal growth without worrying about what other people think. It is interesting to note how, among the youngest generation, the opposite trend is beginning to emerge. Some, having witnessed the difficulties which their mothers have experienced by both working and acting like “yome”, ask themselves whether it might not be better to go back to the lifestyles of their grandmothers, that is, to be housewives. Who knows whether one day these girls will have the strength to, like Junko, follow their own passions, free and independent from the heavy weight of societal opinion.
Photo creator: a special thanks to the talented Elyssa Ryder, illustrator who co-worked with Orsola!