Woman Plus...
  #1, 2000

Woman in a car, sunglasses and a kimono

Anna Sevortyan

We are often captives of our own ideas of people and things. Once we have firmly believed that Japan is a deeply traditionalist, "male" country, we think of Japanese women as dolls with porcelain faces whose main occupation is serving at a tea-ceremony. After I came to Tokyo I spent several days looking for the well-know image – a woman with whitened face, kimono and umbrella. Alas, I happened to see a woman in kimono only a week later. And to make things worse, she had a stylish leather bag in her hand… Yes, kimono is undoubtedly beautiful, but it takes more than and hour to put on, besides it’s more convenient to walk the streets of one of the most up-to-date capitals in the world in European-style clothes. Even more so if you are a head of your own company, or are selling cars, or work as a journalist. Today’s dynamic life made the Japanese reject many stereotypes and accept the universal Western style. And women of the Country of the Rising Sun were not satisfied with their traditional roles as soon as they got a chance to become equal with men in the society.

"Deliverance" of the Japanese women , or in other words liberalization of the lifestyle started in the end of the last century in the time of Meijy(?) reforms and entered its crucial phase after the Second World War. Today it is obvious that women of the Islands gained much thanks to the economical flourish of their country: their level of education is very high, they can take care of their health, life in abundance. Modernized household and material well-being allow them to give much more time to travelling and entertainment. Nevertheless, as for the majority of the population, the "family duty" – childbirth, household activities and taking care of the husband – is one of the most important life missions for a woman. Until recently it was the prevailing point of view in Japan that a man should be the earner, while a woman is to work around the house.

But "home" for the Japanese is more than just a place of living, or family – it is the social environment. Besides taking care of the household and managing the family budget married Japanese women also have to accomplish "representative" functions. The latter include maintaining the ties with other families of the household – endless meetings, tea parties, congratulations on holidays, taking part in all major events, be it New Year illumination, celebration of the day of sakura blossom, bonseki circle studies (a traditional art of making sand pictures), visiting a respected dame in a hospital or helping a heighbor with her little children. The necessity to carry out such a duty makes Japanese women highly influential in the society. They are actually responsible for their family and children’s socialization, while their husband give all their time to work (the love of Japanese men to overtime working hours is well-known, and not only due to the pure love of work, but also of compensations) or rest – playing golf, travelling or spending free time in the company of colleagues. So after retirement many men would lose all ties with the outside world, if not for their caring wives.

Of course, no feminization will free the women from these functions, the more so, because the national character is strongly oriented to the family values, politeness, respect to a man. And still, as shown by the after-war decades, the Japanese women’s potential was too high to be limited by the family sphere. Women wanted to start working – not just plant rice in the fields (what they always used to do side by side with men) or sell kimonos, but do expert work, take part in the administration of large companies, indulge in science. There began the struggle for admitting Japanese women to such "forbidden" areas as management and designing. Today, at the turn of the century and millenium it would be reasonable to speak only of intermediate results… According to the official data, the proportion of women in the technical sphere is 44.6%, administration – 8.9, sales and marketing – 34.7, service – 53.3, agriculture – 31.7, traffic and manual labor – 26.3. In general it makes 39.2% of the total number of employees in Japan.

In 1985 Japan joined the UN agreement of giving equal opportunities in labor and work and ratified the Convention of liquidation of all forms of women’s discrimination. It seemed that the new position was very stable. But before long the Japanese economy entered the phase of decline, and women were the first to be affected. For example, many corporations reduced the number of people engaged. Female graduates of higher schools suddenly found out that companies which had been hiring women were not doing it anymore or changed the proportion between men and women dramatically. Male applicants were obviously preferred by employers. In some sectors of business and administration the presence of weaker sex is almost "invisible".

The rigid Japanese system of senior administration has not overcome all its "barriers" still. Nowadays Japanese women hold less than 10 percent of serious managers’ positions, while in large corporations their number is even smaller. The inequality between men and women is still substantial – one should just look at the percentage of women in politics to claim it. There are only several ladies working in the Parliament and Assemblies. The chosen few got a chance to realize themselves in politics; even the less number of women received appointments that involve making responsible decisions.

As the demands of the system are far from easy, Japanese women have eagerly concentrated on self-improvement. The eagerness to get higher education, increase one’s qualification – all this reflects the new view of life acquired by Japanese women from westernization. Like in the rest of the world, Japanese women have other interests but marriage and bringing up children. It is confirmed by the average age of marriage: 26 years. The eldest child is usually born when mother is 28. Before that there is learning (48% women enter universities or colleges), intensive search of one’s calling, an interesting job. In the last years Japanese women set to learning foreign languages. Though it is hard work, their zeal and diligence make everything possible. Many parents send their teen-age girls abroad to learn English or German; many university students "take" two-three foreign languages deliberately.

In the streets of Tokyo I met more than once people of both sexes who spoke several languages fluently. Among them was a young female reporter whom I met near the TV-center. She spoke Russian surprisingly well and almost without an accent. I found out that Eshiko studied Russian in the university, loves Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, is interested with Russian poetry. She hopes that "Asahi" TV company will send her to Russia in two-three years. And what about a family, children, home? No doubt, all that is important to Eshiko, but being 27 years old she thinks mainly of her work, of gaining a good position on TV, making a career. And this is quite a common point of view adopted from American women.

In general, women’s attitude to work has undergone serious change over the last years: career and professional growth took their important place along with the family and traditions. According to the statistics, the half of female population of the country are employed, about 12 percent work in family companies, 2 percent are students and about 33 percent are housewives. (On the 1st of October 1995 the total number of women in Japan was 64.2 million, or 51% of the population).

And still the image of a woman taking care of the household is more traditional in Japan. Often women stop working after they marry and give birth to children, even if they dreamed of making a career in younger years. Some of them don’t have any such dreams at all. For example, my 20-year old acquaintance Kayo who is now graduating from a university wants… just to be a good wife for a loved man. The government hopes for an increasing number of children due to such women – according to the contemporary views, two children is too much already. This is the reason for demographic processes beginning in Japan similar to the ones in industrially developed countries: decline of the younger population and growing number of elderly people.

The shifts in demography and the way of life as a whole have certainly affected the views of Japanese women to marriage. First of all, young women can afford to be "fastidious": there are 2.5 million more bachelors aged 20-39 than unmarried women. At the same time the women who have found a good job and become financially independent tend to postpone marriage until they are nearing 30. Their parents also prefer that the daughters would marry consciously. According the social studies, Japanese women prefer to get married but have a serious approach to marriage, think long before making a choice. And here traditions are strong again: the prospective husband should be "beneficial" in financial and dynastic senses, not just loved by the wife-to-be. Marriage means moving to a new, more responsible phase of life. The couple goes through a long period of mutual adjustment before exchanging their rings, and the level of divorces in Japan is one of the lowest in the world. For those who have spent together more than five years, divorce is almost an impossible thing to happen. A certain part of Japanese women are interested in meeting a foreigner - after marriage the couple usually leaves to the husband’s country of living.

Children follow soon after marriage (though the number of childless couples has gone up recently because both spouses are working). As a rule, the youngest child marries when mother is 58. Thus begins the "gold age" of a woman – about quarter of a century just for herself. The elderly have many privileges, they are well-off and can afford practically everything – travelling, various kinds of entertainment, learning, volunteer jobs for the benefit of the society, traditional arts. And this is indeed a wonderful period of life: the Japanese themselves are ambitious enough to declare that one can live well in any place, but age with pleasure only in Japan. One should mention that this is not only the time of high social activity for Japanese women, but also the time of independence and respect. At this age they are treated with honor by neighbors and friends and play a higher social role than men. They can even begin their own business after reaching retirement age.

The possibility of choice is one of the consequences of economy modernization. Household equipment has become available for everybody and made work around the house easier. Only about half a century ago women had to spend most of their time for cooking, sewing clothes for all family members, hand-washing, not to mention that there were more children in the family then. Countrywomen had to tend domestic animals and work in the fields beside all that. Now everything changed: today Japanese women prefer to go to restaurants instead of house work, visit exhibitions, watch movies, go travelling, take up sports or a hobby.

They spend considerably more time for self-care and more money to replenish their wardrobe. Japanese women are known fashionmongers; it is not by chance that word-famous couturiers often show their new collections in Tokyo before London, Paris, Milan, New-York. There is demand for all models, and buyers have more possibilities to wear only exclusive dresses. The majority of clothes seen in the streets are European-style; it is more convenient, practical and less expensive (traditional Japanese silk articles are high-priced). Kimonos are worn on holidays, solemn occasions, at formal parties. And, unfortunately, less and less often at that. Fifty years ago all participants of a wedding ceremony were wearing kimonos – both men and women. Today – just a bride and a bridegroom. Men have tail-suits on, women wear dresses or two-piece suits. So if you wish to see a kimono in Japan, better go to a museum…