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Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nationby Veronica Chambers
The funny thing about my love affair with Japan is that it was never the country of my dreams. The country I loved, the bad boy I could never get to walk me down the aisle, was France. Two days into my first trip to Paris, I called my mother from a pay phone on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. "Sell everything I own," I said dramatically, "I'm staying." Even as the words came out of my mouth I knew they were untrue. I was twenty-four years old. I worked for the New York Times at a job that journalists twice my age would kill for. All that, and I didn't own much worth selling. I had just enough money to cover the cost of my trip and I was too pragmatic to play the starving artist. But the sentiment, the desire to stay, said everything I could not about how deeply I had fallen in love with the city, how I longed to follow in the footsteps of all the writers who had made Paris their home before me.
I spent the next five years trying to get to Paris, watching French movies, reading French Elle, studying French, visiting whenever I could. I was twenty-nine and working at Newsweek magazine when a colleague named Greg Beals suggested I apply for a fellowship to go to Japan. "But I'm not trying to go to Japan," I told him. "I want to go to Paris." He rolled his eyes. Anyone who had spent any amount of time with me knew that I was gunning for Newsweek's Paris bureau. "Yeah, well, they're not giving out fellowships to go to Paris," he says. "You should apply for this fellowship, check out Tokyo."
I had visited my friend Mina in Shanghai just a few months before. I remember overhearing a lengthy discussion among foreign correspondents at a bar in New York about the difference between those who go to China and those who go to Japan. China folks were serious. People who went to Japan, said the journalists I was with, only filed superficial stories about music and fashion. They said this as if it were a bad thing, but it piqued my interest nonetheless. I liked music and fashion. I adored the writer Banana Yoshimoto, author of Kitchen, and her warm, frothy tales of young women coming of age in Tokyo. I took the application from Greg and promptly forgot it.
God bless Greg Beals. Two months later, he came by my office. "Did you apply for that fellowship?" I shook my head no, dug it out from the "Don't Forget" pile on my desk and was sad to see that I'd missed the deadline. "Maybe next year?" I said weakly. An hour later, Greg was back. "You're in luck," he said. "I called over there and they've extended the deadline."
In Tokyo I stayed at International House, or I-House, a kind of Harvard Club for Western writers and academics in the Roppongi section of the city. Roppongi is known for its high-density population of foreigners, nightclubs, and restaurants. Later, I would look down on Roppongi as a gaijin ghetto, gaijin being the Japanese word for foreigners. But for me, it was a good starting place: filled with clubs and restaurants and a lively street life that kept me from feeling completely isolated.
I grew up in New York City, so I knew a thing or two about crowds. But in Tokyo, density is the thing. Tokyo is the most heavily populated city in the world: more than a quarter of the nation's population live crammed into an area that represents less than 2 percent of the country. It's got a good ten million people on Mexico City, Sao Paolo, or New York. So the second most important phrase I learned was "sumimasen," a hybrid of "excuse me" and "I'm sorry." It is the oil that keeps the wheels of social grace turning. You say sumimasen when you bump into someone on the train or when you want them to know that if they don't move, you will bump into them. Sumimasen is used when you want to catch the attention of a friend, colleague, or stranger, or when you want to ask a question, the time, directions, anything.
But it is also a kind of thank you. A way to say, "I'm sorry that I've taken up some of your precious time. I so appreciate it." The first time I took a rush hour train and watched a white gloved official literally shove us into the subway car, I realized that sumimasen was the vocabulary equivalent of those white gloves. In a city of twelve million people, you are bound to step on some toes. But sumimasen smoothes it out.
In one of my favorite poems, Yusef Komunyakaa writes about a black man's sense of isolation and humiliation in the American South. The poem is called I Apologize For the Eyes in My Head. In Japan, I apologized constantly, but it did not make me feel ashamed or isolated. Sumimasen was the thread that wove me closer to the fabric of Tokyo.
It was five years before Sofia Coppola's soporific tale of a young woman in Japan, but I soon began to live out my own Lost in Translation scenario. I had studied Japanese for six months before my trip. I did not yet dream in Japanese, but occasionally, I daydreamed in the language: a kind of Romper Room fantasy where various brightly colored objects would be pointed out to me and I would, correctly, call them by their Japanese name. When I arrived in Tokyo, I was immediately set up with a series of translators. I asked if the translators could take a back seat, filling in where necessary. "Well..." my fellowship adviser said, "we'll see." As any visitor to Japan and I suspect many other Asian countries soon learns, you are rarely told a straight-out "No." Instead, your host oh so politely sidesteps a yes.
During meetings when I greeted the interviewee with a simple "Ohayo gozaimasu," there would be much exclamation about how wonderful my Japanese was. If I introduced myself and said where I was from, there would be more amusement and praise. Once I started to ask a question in Japanese, however, my interpreters firmly stepped in. Later, they would tell me that I could speak a little Japanese, but they were there to make the interviewee feel at ease. It was important to a Japanese artist or executive that he or she not be misquoted or misunderstood.
There were more dangers in my trying to express myself in Japanese. If I spoke more Japanese than my counterpart spoke English, this would cause them to lose face. Losing face being of course, the utmost dishonor. Finally, my translator explained, I was a representative of the United States and the Japan Society, who had been kind enough to give me this fellowship. Did I want to risk repercussions to fall down upon my country and future fellows should I make some sort of careless mistake? This confirmed the comical Lost in Translation scenes that anyone who has worked with an interpreter has experienced. You ask a question to a dignitary, say, the mayor of Yokohama. Your interpreter asks the question in Japanese. The mayor gives a long, elaborate answer in Japanese. There is much gesturing and emotion and nuance. You don't need to understand the words to know this: you can see it, you can feel it. Then your interpreter turns to you and says "He says yes." The interpreters are always filtering and yet it is so easy to put yourself in their hands.
There were two main interpreters I worked with. One I secretly called "Mama-san." She was a fifty-something woman whose only child had gone off to college and who had recently reentered the work force. I called her "Mama-san" because she was a Japanese Doris Day: prim and proper, always in skirts and sensible shoes, a frilly pink umbrella by her side, in case it should rain. She showed up early for every appointment and dragged me, like a child, down the streets of Tokyo at lightning bolt speed. She told me what I should or shouldn't do and what I should or shouldn't say.
It was March when I arrived, and colder than I had expected. Sex and the City was the hit show back at home and following Carrie Bradshaw's stylistic lead, I had stopped wearing stockings. This did not escape Mama-san's notice.
"You aren't wearing stockings," she pointed out.
I muttered something in a twelve-year-old's voice about this being the style.
She sighed, "Maybe no one will notice."
I was stockingless again the next time she saw me. "Your legs must be very cold," she said.
I was, in fact, freezing and I had tried to remedy the situation. "I went to the store, but they didn't have any stockings in my size."
She could hardly argue with this. Japanese women are universally tiny. I am universally not. She clucked, "Maybe no one will notice."
I-House was located on a side street of Roppongi, at the high point of a small hill. If you went down the hill, you found the streets and clubs along the wide street Roppongi-dori. It was great for people watching: men in shiny suits pressing strip club flyers into the reluctant hands of passersby; young club girls teetering around in high heels while looking for foreign boyfriends; salarymen — the Japanese equivalent of the man in the grey flannel suit — working women, students, and lots of foreigners from all over the world. At that time, spring 2000, schoolgirls, the joshi kosei, were all the rage. It was not uncommon on a Sunday afternoon to pass one group of girls dressed up like the court of Marie Antoinette, walk one block down and see another group of girls dressed like Hello Kitty and then turn the corner and bump into a bunch of leather-clad biker chicks. It wasn't so much that these girls pioneered one particular style, as it was that they were fearless and relentless in their ability to cycle through every period in fashion history. These Japanese had long been the master of a certain kind of copycat culture. But the teenage girls, who took care of every detail — from the right period shoe, to a three-hour makeup job to get the punk rock look just right — took the copycatting to another level. This was a case of "Anything you can do, I can do better."
The obsession with teenage girls was not relegated to street culture. For a retrospective of his work at the Tokyo Contemporary Museum of Art, seminal designer Issey Miyake invited over one hundred cheerleaders from local high schools and colleges to perform in the museum's courtyard. It was the very antithesis of the fashion scene, a hundred girls in brightly colored sweaters and miniskirts, shaking their pom-poms around, but Miyake declared that the girls captured the joy he felt when "making things." At the Venice Biennale, the following year, the Japanese pavilion was called "City of Girls" and visitors traversed through a stark white structure, white pebbles underfoot, white trees to the left and right, in and out of hundreds of portraits of Japanese girls. The fact that the girls were both super trendy and trendsetters had morphed into something more. Back home in Brooklyn, my minister always said at every christening, that life was our most powerful answer to death. He would hold the new baby up to the congregation and remind us that whatever and whomever we had lost in the past year, here was new life, here was new hope. I saw Japan as doing the same thing. After the economic depression of the nineties, when big business had been this country's religion, Japanese teenage girls were a symbol that all was not lost. Japan held the girls up, in art and in the media, and eventually in business, as a symbol to the world that new life coursed through its veins.
Any weekday afternoon, you can still spot the joshi kosei in front of Shibuya 109, a legendary department store in one of Tokyo's most popular shopping areas. "Moshi-moshi!" one will screech into her cell phone. It's one of her friends, and if you ask, she'll pull out a fat album of purikura — tiny sticker photos that she and her friends have taken in photo booths at game centers all around town. The phone rings again. "Moshi-moshi!" she calls out again. It's another friend, asking if she knows the plan for tonight's late night karaoke session. With mock exasperation, she rolls her eyes. It's tough being popular.
The cliques of girls who roam Tokyo's streets like to identify themselves by wearing something that matches: they sport the same Coach handbag or hang the same Hello Kitty charm on their cell phone. They believe that the sameness strengthens the bond of their friendship.
The schoolgirl craze, while concentrated in Tokyo, commanded national, even global attention. On my first visit, every weekend in Shibuya, in Ueno Park, in Harajuku, you could find foreign photographers and foreign news crews, shooting pictures of schoolgirls in their blue and white sailor-style uniforms and other more outrageously dressed Japanese teenage girls. In all the Western fascination with these girls, it shouldn't be lost just how sexualized the images of Japanese teenage girls were and continue to be. Google "Japanese teenage girls" and you get a glut of porn sites. Google "American teenage girls" and you get hits ranging from fashion to music to health issues. The teen girls who were being pursued by the foreign press in Tokyo's most stylish quarters, are part of a long tradition of Westerners traveling great distances to see exotic Japanese women. From the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, Japan's borders were closed to foreigners. When Japan was open to the West in 1868 at the beginning of the Meiji era, Japanese women were quickly stereotyped as beautiful, docile, sexual, and selfless. Shuttered from the rest of the world for nearly two hundred years, the Japanese woman was perceived as both exotic and innocent, pure and highly desirable. Such stereotypes continue to this day. In Contemporary Portraits of Japanese Women, Yukiko Tanaka discusses about how powerful and perennial the image of the Japanese female is: small, pale, delicate, childlike, sexually sophisticated, and submissive. This most recent foreign obsession with schoolgirls is in fact part of a much longer tradition.
It is hard to overestimate how the worldwide fascination with Japanese girls plays into the stereotype of the Japanese as a nation of cartoonish, eccentric people — "Oh those crazy Japanese" — who are too polite or too stupid, to know that they are the butt of the joke. In the newspaper I read an outrageous tale — complete with photographs — about girls who were having their lips sewn together to create a Hello Kitty smile. Whether or not this was actually true, I'm not sure — it was a proper newspaper, not the Japanese equivalent of the National Enquirer. But I thought it was telling that the boyfriend of one of the girls pictured said that what he liked best about his girlfriend's new look wasn't how kawaii she looked — kawaii meaning supercute, and the Japanese catchall equivalent to cool. What the boyfriend liked about his girlfriend's Hello Kitty lip job was that now she talked less. (Cue the cameras, "Oh those crazy Japanese!")
I had to admit, I found them fascinating too: laughing elementary age girls, traveling in packs like wolves, their school uniforms immaculate, Hello Kitty key chains and other brightly colored decorations hanging off of their backpacks, with the full confidence that only comes from knowing you are in charge. Before long, I began to realize that as dominant as the schoolgirls were in the popular culture, they're weren't the only Japanese women making bold statements, and not all of those women were playing the part of the shopping-crazed child.
During my Roppongi strolls I developed a fascination with a lurid group of young women who stood out on a street it was hard to stand out on. These were the yamamba girls, slang for old mountain hag, but they were more like Palm Beach divas than spinsters. They had deep George Hamilton-like tans, dyed platinum blonde hair, and wore high platform shoes and white lipstick.
Their behavior and dress was shocking to a nation of conformers and each day, some new tale recounting a yamamba girl's exploits appeared in the paper. One woman in her early twenties said that before she adopted the yamamba look, she was constantly being hit upon — on the subway, at school, at her part-time job. "Now," she said, triumphantly, "nobody touches me." Lascivious salarymen on the train are legendary for their wandering hands and typically, the younger the victim, the better. All around the subways, official government posters portraying a pretty young working girl scolding a red-faced businessman. The poster says, in both English and Japanese, "no touching!" By adopting a look that was so extreme as to be referred to as "old mountain girl" this yamamba girl felt like she was protecting herself from being groped in public.
Yamamba girls were rumored to smell. It was said that to make their tans last longer they showered rarely. They were rumored to be promiscuous and in a shocking F-you to the powers that be, they were choosing to have their babies as single mothers. Baby's Mamas! I thought, thinking of the term that we used in Brooklyn for someone who is more than a girlfriend and less than a wife. As in "That's my baby's Mama" or "She's my brother's baby Mama." In Japan, where even today, fewer than 1 percent of children — in any class strata — are born out of wedlock, feminists applauded the yamamba girls for breaking the rules.
Their fashion wasn't only garish, it could be lethal. One girl was brought up on charges of manslaughter after her ten-inch-high platform heels made her lose control of the car she was driving. Even after they had children, you could still see them on Roppongi-dori pushing their strollers in these same sky-high heels, cigarettes dangling from their exaggerated white lips. They reminded me of a story I once read about Gore Vidal, in which he recounted how his mother covered his head with a burping cloth to catch the ashes, since she smoked as she nursed.
Yamamba fashion has now evolved. You can still find sleeker versions of the blonde-haired tan Japanese girl in Harajuku, emulating — one imagines — Paris Hilton, who is a familiar face in Japanese fashion advertisements. In time, I realized that an even more revealing window into the changes going on in Japanese women's lives was the phenomenon of the parasite single. She is decidedly more upmarket than the yamambas. A parasite is — or at least aspires to be — the Japanese equivalent of the Park Avenue princesses described in Plum Sykes' Bergdorf Blondes.
While Sex and the City remained more an aspirational fantasy than a reality for American women, in Japan women across the country lead a life right out of the HBO sitcom. As Peggy Orenstein reported in her New York Times Magazine article, "Parasites in Prêt-à-Porter," nearly half of all Japanese women thirty and under are single and nearly all of them live at home. They may earn on average the equivalent of $27,000 a year, but they're not expected to pay rent or contribute to the household in any way — hence the term parasite singles. Their money is earmarked for luxury goods, which is why you will see them out in force when you stroll Ometesando, Tokyo's leafy boulevard equivalent to the Champs-Élysées, lined with flagship stores of Prada, Chanel, and the mother ship of luxury goods for Japanese women, Louis Vuitton.
Yet one of the things I was to learn while reporting this book is that the stereotype of the shop-happy Japanese woman masks more complex realities at play in the women's lives. After all, what do all those handbags mean? Opinions differ. To feminist writer Yoko Tajima, the handbags are little handcuffs, keeping Japanese women tied to the purse strings of corporate Japan. "Japan is considered number two in the world in GNP," she says. "Even though the economic position is stagnating, women have the money to spend on brand-name handbags, so they are somewhat satisfied. They have their handbags, so they don't speak up." Case in point: Japan, despite being a relatively small country, accounts for more than 55 percent of Louis Vuitton's global sales. Akira Miura, editor in chief of Women's Wear Daily Japan has said, "Almost every grown-up Japanese woman already owns at least one Louis Vuitton item." The question, as raised by Yoko Tajima, is how much independence do you swap for that Louis Vuitton bag?
The tradition of Japanese women and their obsession with luxury goods goes back much further than the mid-nineties when the parasites made their debut. It started in the years after World War II, when Japan was becoming an economic behemoth and the modern salaryman came into being. He commuted then, as he does now, upward of two hours a day. He left before dawn and worked till after dark. But at the end of the day, he could not go straight home. In Japan, the real wheeling and dealing does not take place between the hours of nine and five. There are company dinners and drinking parties, entertaining clients and the courting of senior staff. The salaryman does not get home until after 11 p.m. At 5 or 6 p.m., in Shinagawa station — in the neighborhood where I now rent an apartment whenever I'm in Japan — it is crowded, but not abnormally so. The real stampede begins at 10 p.m. when thousands of employees try to make the last train home.
If you are a salaryman and you leave the house every morning before your wife wakes up and come home every evening after she falls asleep, how do you make it up to her? If you are the Cary Grant-esque actor Koji Yakusho in the international hit film Shall We Dance?, you seek the answer to the missing passion and dulling bureaucracy in your life by secretly signing up for ballroom dance lessons. If you are the average Joe, or Yoishi as the case may be, you buy your wife a Louis Vuitton bag. In the U.S. we don't really go for the old buying your wife an expensive gift to beg forgiveness anymore (even in the 1969 film, Cactus Flower, when Walter Matthau tried to make up with Goldie Hawn by buying her a mink coat, she thought he was a square). But in Japan, neither public displays of affection nor private displays of affection are common, even among married couples. A Louis Vuitton bag is just so much easier.
The parasite singles, though, have the disposable income to buy the bags for themselves. I wondered, are they really being handcuffed? Retail therapy is a term I've never actually heard used in Japan, but I can't help but believe that it's more than mere materialism that keeps the masses of Japanese women swathed in Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Prada. They want these high-end items because they make them feel loved, adored even. In interviewing so many Japanese women, I quickly learned that the number one complaint was that men, even the young ones, were too reserved and unemotional. There is a phrase in Japanese, ishin denshin, which means that people share a "vibration" and that there is no need for words. In the U.S., love means never having to say you're sorry; In Japan, love means never having to say "I love you."
Japanese women are so widely thought of as materialistic, that it's easy to misundertand all the forces at work in their lives. Take for example, the phenomenon of enjo kosai or compensated dating: wherein schoolgirls and young women agree to have sex with middle-aged salarymen in exchange for luxury goods. Although recent surveys suggest that the initial media outcry against enjo kosai were overhyped, even conservative numbers suggest that an average of 5 percent of teenage girls have participated in enjo kosai.
These are not the poverty driven, teenage sex workers of southern Asia. Enjo kosai is middle-class prostitution at a level never before seen. No pimps. No street corners. The girls merely exchange cell phone numbers with men who approached them in department stores, subways, or increasingly, online. The men then make arrangements to meet the girls at Japan's infamous "love hotels" by calling them on their cell phones, often when the girls are eating dinner or doing their homework under their parents' watchful eye. How the girls are paid is the telling thing: with cash, yes, often $400 or $500 a pop, but they are just as often paid with "tributes" — such as a Louis Vuitton or Chanel bag. One teenage girl in an interview with Time Asia, explained her experience this way:
"I started doing enjo kosai my second year of high school. On most of my dates, I had sex. That's the weirdest thing I've ever done — meeting someone for the first time and screwing him the same day...I was going to school like usual, but I was bored and had no money. My boyfriend, the guy I lost my virginity to, had just broken up with me. I wouldn't do enjo kosai if I had a boyfriend. Losing him was really rough. So I just left a message about myself on a cyber message board and chose a sex partner from the guys who wrote back. It wasn't hard. Guys who want sex and dinner, guys who just want sex, guys who just want dinner — they're all out there...Most guys pay some sort of tribute to me. Guys always pay homage. But all the guys who wanted to screw me were old! Like, in their thirties. And none of them were attractive. One guy gave me a Gucci ring but I didn't keep it. Using it was gross! I sold it and spent the money on snowboarding. I bought lots of cute accessories and went on snowboarding trips...I stopped doing enjo kosai after a while. When I did it, all I was thinking was that it's only for today so it doesn't matter. Stuff like, "No problem, don't worry that it's not someone you like." At the time I didn't think that I was doing anything bad, but now I think it was bad. So I don't go shopping as much as I used to, even though I love Gucci's new stuff. I used to wear kosai fashion too, but not anymore. Now I have a part-time job in a Japanese inn serving breakfast and stuff but I also know some store managers here in town that give me day jobs, so I make about 30,000-40,000 yen a month. My dad gave me this Louis Vuitton purse...Yeah, it's small, but it's a brand name."
Stories like this about enjo kosai are disturbing, but all of the media coverage may have deflected attention from more important issues affecting young Japanese women's lives. Yasuka Nakamara is president of Boom, Inc., a marketing firm that specializes in informing companies about the latest styles popular with teenage girls. To Yasuka, the media reports about enjo kosai and other scandalous teenage behaviors get tiresome. "Teenage girls have such negative portrayals in the global media and the result is that our girls have a bad reputation in other countries," Nakamura says. "All the journalists care about are the high school girls who sell their underwear, wear the short skirts, or the long, loose socks. They look like sexual objects even if they are good students. They may wear short skirts, but they still study hard. Some members of my research team are high school girls who have the potential to go to Tokyo University because they are just so good, so smart. But everything picked up by the mass media is always about their short skirts or long, loose socks — they always pick up the negative side and I just hate it so much."
There's so much hype about how trendy and shop-happy Japanese girls are, it can be hard to get at the complexity beyond the pop culture portrayals. In 2005, Tokyo's fashionable females not only inspired much of Gwen Stefani's multi-platinum solo album, but both her tour and multiple videos featured a quartet of Japanese girls, Stefani's twenty-first century take on doo-wop girls. As she sings in her song, "Harajuku Girls,": You got the wicked style/I am your biggest fan." There's a perception that Tokyo is, as it was portrayed at the Venice Bienale in 2001, a "City of Girls." But all you have to do to learn how much more complex the reality is for Japanese women today, is talk to a woman who is trying to break the rice paper ceiling in corporate Japan.
When I first visited Japan, I thought I was going to find the most forward-thinking society in the world. (If I had been a teenage boy, raised on Japanese animation featuring sexpot girls with big eyes and barely any clothes on, I might have known different.) With all their sleek style and high-tech prowess, I expected to walk into Japanese companies and find a modern day version of the Jetsons. What I found instead was that for the most part, men still played all the key roles. If there was a smart young woman — or even a smart, older woman — she may attend meetings, write reports, develop new products, and contribute intellectually, but she was still expected to make and pour the tea that is served in every kind of Japanese meeting. It was like a Mary Tyler Moore episode: There was Mary, an associate producer, but basically a glorified secretary, in the midst of Lou, Murray, Ted, and Gordy. Even in 2000, in most Japanese companies it was still 1974.
It's hard to imagine when bombarded by images of Japan's crackerjack technology — The cars! The microchips! The itsy-bitsy phones/computers/video players! — just how traditional male-female relationships still are in Japan. I once visited a juku school in Kobe, a cram school where kids go to get the leg up on the competition, and asked a classroom full of eight-year-old girls, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" The answer from each and every girl was, "I want to be a housewife." Similarly, I spent an afternoon interviewing girls at a hip-hop record shop in Tokyo. These girls were tanned, made up, impossibly cool in their miniskirts and thigh-high boots. When I asked them what they wanted to be, they too answered...a housewife.
Japan has the lowest representation of women in government among all developed nations. Forty-three women recently won seats in the Japanese lower house of Parliament — the highest number since 1946, the year that Japanese women were granted the vote. Women represent less than 10 percent of the 480-seat lower house. According to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, with women occupying only 7.7 percent of Parliamentary seats, Japan still ranks below the Arab states where women occupy 8.8 percent of the seats in the lower house.
Yet, what is also increasingly clear is that major change is underway in Japanese women's lives and roles. In 2005, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi wanted to privatize the post office and lost the support of his Liberal Democratic Party, he decided to harness the energy of ambitious women in Japan and invited an unprecedented amount of them — many with no political experience — to run on his ticket in the September elections. Even before the votes came streaming in on election day, the women were already a threat. In particular, three of Koizumi's picks for the lower house captivated the media's attention: Satsuki Katayama, a high-flying finance ministry bureaucrat and a former Miss Tokyo University; Yuriko Koike, a former news anchor and current environment minister, and Makiko Fujino, a TV chef who is often referred to as the Martha Stewart of Japan. These three women were the Charlie's Angels of Koizumi's ticket: beautiful, powerful, and effective. The fifty-three-year-old Koike, for example, was reported as steamrolling through her working-class district, shaking hands and kissing babies, an army of girl power supporters in hot pink T-shirts following close behind her. "This is a ground battle for reform," Koike shouted through her bullhorn, "let's change Japan." No wonder the old boys club began to refer to the women as Koizumi's "assassins."
What I didn't quite catch on my first visit was that just as in the U.S. of 1974, the times they were a-changin'. Though Japanese women may be angry that their country's corporate structure has little room for bright, educated women, women my age are forging their own ways: starting their own businesses, learning languages, traveling. As two Japanese guy friends I made on that first trip, Kazu and Haruki, were to reveal to me later, many Japanese men are absolutely intimidated by Japanese women today — and I think a little jealous. Kazu and Haruki are salarymen now. Kazu works from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on most days, with a two-hour commute on each end. In order to meet me and my husband for dinner, he makes arrangements to stay in a capsule hotel, a men's only establishment where the rooms are literal capsules with a single bed and a small TV suspended inside. At about $30 a night it's a cheap and common refuge for salarymen who miss the last train or are too drunk to make it home. In comparison to Kazu's life, many of the women I've gotten to know in Japan have it made: one has her own cosmetics company, another runs her own comedy troupe, and a third one works a desk job and studies salsa for performance (a la Strictly Ballroom) at night. My Japanese girlfriends are breaking the mold and it is anything but easy. Blazing trails is hard work. And maybe, just maybe, the fires burn brighter when viewed from a distance.
With Koizumi's assasins, enjo kosai and parasite singles so much in the Western news, and such hot debate topics in Japan, it can be hard to get a handle on what real women's lives are like in Japan today. The easiest thing to do when one is studying Japanese women is to see them in extreme contradiction and as victims: of men, in the broadest sense, but also of economics, politics, materialism and a cult of femininity and sexuality that has captured the Western imagination for literally hundreds of years. The hard thing is to marry the very real facts about compensated dating, parasite singles, and other popular darlings of the Japanese and Western media with real women doing interesting work.
It took several trips to Japan after that first one for me to start discovering the more interesting story of the dramatic changes going on in Japanese women's lives. On one trip, I met a hip-hop DJ. On another trip, I was introduced to a comedienne. But it wasn't really until I started writing this book, and made studying Japanese women the sole focus of my work, that I began to break through the shoji screen that separated real women from the public eye. In the U.S., you can pick up a magazine like Glamour or O, The Oprah Magazine and read about an interesting woman playwright, or physician, or comic book illustrator. In Japan, the media is dominated by personalities: especially by insipid teenage "talent-os," young people chosen from giant casting calls to play a role or sing in a band. Like the eighties Latin phenomenon Menudo, talent-os have an expiration date. By the time they leave puberty, for the most part, their time in the spotlight is done. Finding real women who would talk to me was hard. I spent hours scouring through newspapers, looking for mention of smart women with interesting work. If I saw a profile of an interesting looking "real" woman in a Japanese publication, I had the text translated. Once I read it, I would contact the woman for an interview. My contacts at the Foreign Press Center (FDC) were amazed by the scope of women I was able to find. I found award-winning industrial designer Fumie Shibata, on the cover of a design publication I saw at the Hara Contemporary Museum of Art. I figured if she was on the cover of a magazine, she would be worth knowing, or at least worth having the interview translated to get a sense of what she was about.
For a number of months, I sent a series of requests to the FPC in Tokyo. Could I interview women executives, engineers, physicians, and researchers? Some of these requests were denied simply because I'd asked for someone who didn't exist: a female president at a Japanese car company, for example. Eventually, through my FPC connections, referrals from friends in Japan and the U.S., and my own plowing through magazines and newspapers for mentions and profiles of women who looked engaging, I started to meet an amazing array of women of many different ages. One day it would be a high-ranking executive at Canon, the next day a jewelry designer, a prominent industrial engineer, a graphic artist, or a ballet dancer.
Once I'd found the women, getting them to open up to me was the second hurdle. In the U.S., an hour-long interview with even a very famous person, can easily spill into two or three hours if the person feels comfortable. In Japan, settling in for a nice long chat with a total stranger is simply not done. If my interview began at one o'clock in the afternoon, it was expected that I start wrapping things up at a quarter to two. When I interviewed someone in a corporate position, they were always joined by a company minder. For most high-ranking interviewees, a list of questions was requested beforehand. On one occasion, I was handed back a list of typed responses and was expected to leave after the polite handshake and "Nice to meet you." While everyone else stood up, I sat down and tried to figure out how not to be rude and still get what I needed. I had follow-up questions, I sputtered. For the next forty-five minutes I asked my follow-up questions as the entire room wore tight smiles that made it clear how rude they considered me.
My being a foreigner was its own icebreaker. The more I interviewed women, the more people in Japan told me that it was easier to open up to a foreigner. When my time in Japan was over I would go home to my own country. They could tell their thoughts to someone outside of their society because there would be no need to maintain polite relations for years on end. One night, I invited eight women in their twenties and thirties, all of whom who knew one another to varying degrees, for a girlfriends' dinner at T.Y. Harbor restaurant in my Shinagawa neighborhood. The restaurant, one of my favorites, sits on the river and is one of those treasured wide-open places in a very cramped city. The women ordered, ate, and drank for two hours while I asked the most personal questions. At the end of the evening, Mie, who was the common link among the women, admitted that she'd learned more about her friends in a single evening — what their parents did for a living as well as their opinions on marriage and childbirth — than she had in years of acquaintance.
Again and again, when I told people that I was writing a book about the changing roles of Japanese women, they asked me why. Why would a gaijin be interested in Japanese women? Gaijin men, obviously, love the Japanese ladies. Even today, a gaijin woman who lives and works in Japan stands out. The bullet trains, noodle shops, and nightclubs are filled with American and British men whose affection (obsession?) with Japanese women is hard to parse out from their passion and respect for Japanese language and culture. It is all part of the package.
Long before Vegas coined the term, there has been a tradition among men who traveled to and worked in the land of the rising sun: what happens in Japan, stays in Japan. One only has to look at the classic James Bond film You Only Live Twice in which 007 teams up with his counterpart in the Japanese secret service, a raffish fellow (no emasculated images of Asian men here) named Tiger Tanaka. After a long day of fighting the forces of evil, Tiger suggests they take a bath and with a snap of his fingers, a small harem of Japanese beauties appear. Tiger explains that these women will bathe James Bond. When James suggests he is entirely capable of bathing himself, Tiger lets him know that there are only two rules for getting along in Japan:
Tiger Tanaka: Rule number one: Never do anything yourself when someone else can do it for you.
While James Bond movies went on to become dated tales of cads gone by, in Japan, Tanaka's truism remains. Below the surface, what Japanese women really knew was that the depth of their intelligence, their capabilities, and their creativity was far greater than Bond, Tanaka, or their fellow travelers could ever understand or acknowledge.
The more women I talked to, the more obvious it became that women are breaking the traditional mold in many ways, and that a revolution is underway not only in their lives, but in the whole culture. Not a day goes by in Japan that women don't make the front pages of the newspaper and make some waves across the business pages. I chose the subtitle of my book, How Women Are Changing Their Nation, because I can see all the ways that as Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox sang, "Sisters are doing it for themselves."
I was even to find that today, Japanese men are looking to the women for leadership and change. "I think women have always had the opportunity to be educated, but they haven't been given the light to shine," says Takeo Kami, a twenty-six-year-old man who works in finance. There's a perception, especially among men that things have never been better for Japanese women. But this obscures the fact that for working women, especially those who aspire to the Japanese corporate track, there are still many obstacles — and a great deal of backlash. "You look at major Japanese companies and you're not gonna see women CEOs or women on the board — it's very rare — I can only think of one," says Takeo Kami.
In fact, because in Japan, it is still considered true that "the nail that stands out gets hammered down," women are reluctant to proclaim a revolution, or position themselves to be at the front of it. They often demurred when I asked to interview them on the subject. Sometimes it helped to drop the names of some of the more famous women I'd interviewed: Diet member Makiko Fujino (the Diet is like the U.S. Congress) or outspoken feminist and TV personality Yoko Tajima. Other times, mentioning those names provoked a lengthy correspondence wherein the woman I wanted to interview declared herself "not worthy" to stand among this illustrious set, and I paced my apartment, kicking myself, for making her feel uncomfortable.
If successful women were reluctant to speak to me, that's for sure in part because of the backlash in the traditional portrayal of women executives. Women in the workplace, those who are most publicly breaking the traditional molds, have been subjected to the greatest amount of insult. One recent article in Japan Today newspaper proclaimed that "women who become obnoxious while in their cups are on the increase." The article then went onto describe three high ranking Japanese female supervisors and their outrageous behavior. Ms. A was thirty-eight years old and the guest of a salesman for a manufacturing company. Ms. A asked her salesperson to bring along some of his younger colleagues, then proceeded to hit on the men as if they were on the menu. "Fawning over her like that, we felt more like employees of a host club than business associates," the salesman complained. Contestant number two fares no better in this journalistic equivalent of Dunk the Alpha Chick. Ms. B is the supervisor in a small company with fewer than fifty employees. She is also, according to her thirty-three-year-old male subordinate, having an affair with the president of the company. When Ms. B has too much to drink, the employee complains, "She'll start lecturing, for instance, complaining to older employees that their bows are not deep enough...It makes me want to throw up."
The article offers no testimony from the women executives, nor does it offer any concrete advice. Admitting that she is right, the article warns, will only earn you her contempt. The only way to deal with a drunk female, we are told, is to "flatter them for their capabilities at work. Then the next day at the office you can call on them for favors." That some women in power behave as poorly as men in power is no surprise. That such a one-sided article could be presented as journalism is the real shock.
The hundred million yen question is of course: Given how traditional Japanese society still is, why this change in Japanese women now? There are as many answers as there are bullet trains coming in and out of Tokyo Station. One answer was expressed well by finance worker Takeo Kami: "I think one of the major reasons that Japanese women are beginning to stand out so much now is because we have been in a major recession for so long. During that time it gave the general population the time to think: 'Hey this man-driven culture hasn't put us where we're supposed to be,' and it gave women the opportunity to say: 'Hey, we can do this now.'"
In the course of ten years, Japanese women have gone through a massive social, cultural, and economic shift. During the go-go eighties, the nation rode high on the wave of economic groundswell. It was widely believed that this tiny island would swallow the global economy whole. Then the economic bubble burst. While Japan is still reeling from the burst's effects, a new economic paradigm has given way to a generation of women who don't play by the same rules. Until their economy collapsed, the typical Japanese woman in her twenties was married, a housewife with no plans — or need — to work outside the home. It was the eighties, but for all intents and purposes, Japan was caught in a time warp circa-1962, somewhere between June Cleaver and Betty Friedan's problem that had no name.
Post-burst, the men were no longer the financial titans everyone had made them to be, and women began to see opportunities in places that didn't exist before. The birthrate plummeted, the average age of marriage went up by five years and this was when Japanese teenage girls began to drive the national economy with their joyful, trendsetting consumerism. Everything the girls touched turned to gold: from platform shoes to pastel-colored cell phones, from Hello Kitty to Louis Vuitton handbags. Today, it is Japanese women of all ages who drive what Foreign Policy reporter Douglas McGray so memorably called Japan's new GNC, "gross national cool."
The women, in particular teenage girls, now determine the course of the country's cultural economy. It's entirely possible to imagine that Japan is on its way to becoming the Italy of Asia: not a power player in manufacturing or politics, but a timeless travel destination, renowned for its art, its heritage, and its food. You can already see this happening in depopulated rural villages where there is no industry, but where a group of housewives open a soba shop and a gift shop and tour buses soon arrive to show city dwellers an older way of life.
Although no other country in the world speaks Japanese, its fans are growing. According to the Japan Foundation, in 1997, 127,000 people around the world were studying Japanese. In 2004, that number had exploded to three million. Sushi is becoming as easy to find globally as a Big Mac. In Sao Paolo, there are now more sushi restaurants than Brazilian barbecues, and residents consume an estimated 278 sushi rolls per minute. Hello Kitty has become to the twenty-first century what Mickey Mouse was to the century before: a global symbol of wonder and culture, instantly recognizable to children and adults alike.
In this internationalized Japanese culture, women are the ones who are truly international. While a typical salaryman may request his vacation, it's a good sign of loyalty and ambition to not actually take it. You come in on a Monday morning and your boss says, "Sato-san, I thought you were going on vacation." You reply, "I couldn't possibly take vacation when there's so much work." Women, on the other hand, who have less invested in corporate Japan, travel extensively. For many of the women I spoke to, this was not just the difference between themselves and their mother's generations, the global perspective was the difference between feeling liberated and feeling limited.
"When I was seventeen or eighteen, if you traveled outside of Japan, you still needed a visa," says Miyuki Hentona, thirty-six. "You had to show how much you had in your bank accounts. Then all of a sudden there were these cheap tickets and you could see the world without a visa. That happened and the old values started collapsing."
Kazuko Koizumi-Legendre remembers thinking as a student that "Japan is an island country. We can be very happy, just living among ourselves." But she wanted to know more. At the university, she studied American Literature and English. "I wanted to go abroad. English is a communication tool. If I learn it, then I can speak to other people outside Japan." She eventually fulfilled her dream, earning a post at the Japanese embassy in London. Now that she's a manager at the FPC, she notes that it's still the women who learn English, it's the women who reach for the world beyond the borders of Japan. "Ninety percent of the interpreters we hire to work with foreign journalists and diplomats are women," she says. "Very few are men."
Another woman, Ai Fukasawa, twenty-six, says, "My mother lives in a frozen world. She doesn't have any foreign friends. She doesn't speak English or any other foreign language. She can't get information outside of Japan. She can't understand if it isn't written in Japanese." Ai is sympathetic. In her own way her mother made big leaps. When her mother was a young girl, she moved from Kobe to Tokyo, a radical move for a young woman in the 1950s. For Ai, the leaps were bigger. At the same age her mother moved from Kobe to Tokyo, Ai moved from Tokyo to New York.
Award-winning industrial designer Fumie Shibata sees the bubble bursting and the effect of international travel as having a tandem effect on women in the past ten years. "After the economy collapsed, people — especially women — people learned that they need to be responsible for their own life by doing their own thing, not only by continuing to work for companies, because those companies went bankrupt," she says. "And marriage is not necessarily the perfect tool to make them happy. The job isn't either, unless it is their own special something." Fumie, who's forty, says, "In my generation there are many women who made trips abroad to find who they are. If you live in this country you need to get out for a while to find out who you are and to see things for yourself."
The first time I read Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen, I was twenty-two years old and just a few years out of college. I knew nothing about Japan, I did not know that the year I turned twenty-eight, the age Banana Yoshimoto was when she wrote Kitchen, I would move to Tokyo for one magical spring just before the cherry blossoms bloomed. What I knew was that I was completely and totally hooked by the first paragraph:
"The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it's a kitchen, if it's a place where they make food, it's fine with me. Ideally, it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate. White tile catching the light (Ting! Ting!)."
I've read Kitchen over and over again. I even used the rhythm of its short, simple sentences, the stunningly swift passage from grief to love in one hundred and five pages, as a model for my novel Miss Black America. I don't think anyone noticed. Who would think to compare a writer from Brooklyn to a writer from Tokyo? But to me, Miss Black America was a book forged in the soul kitchen of Banana Yoshimoto's words and memories of my seventies childhood — and the combination has made me happy.
In Twenty-One Love Poems, Adrienne Rich writes about the thing outside of ourselves that brings us back to ourselves, that was here before us, and knew we would come. For me, in Japan, this is Banana Yoshimoto's novel. It is a touchstone, the hidden panel that reveals a secret passageway between the girl I was in my early twenties and the woman I am becoming in Japan.
I'm not unique in what critics call "Bananamania." Banana's novel Kitchen has sold over six million copies worldwide; at the 1993 G-7 summit, the Foreign Ministry proudly gave a copy of the book to each delegate. Since then, Banana has kept her fans happy with an array of novels, short story collections, and a book of essays called Song from Banana. The forty-year-old author herself remains intensely private, although she does make sporadic postings to her fans on her Web site. Her site, besides giving out her birthday, also reveals her blood type. In Japan, blood types are considered markers of personality and are studied with the same passion with which horoscopes are read in the West. Not surprisingly, Type A's — Banana's blood type — are considered the most artistic of all the blood groups. She has a partner, and recently had a child, but she has been quoted as saying that marriage is "unnecessary" — perhaps because her own mother fell in love with her father, while married to another man. Her father, Takaaki Yoshimoto, is one of the most well-known philosophers in Japan. Her sister, Haruno Yoiko, is a famous cartoonist. Born Mahoko, she took the name "Banana" while a university student so her readers wouldn't know if she was a girl or a boy. The young woman writer whose early influences ranged from Stephen King to Truman Capote, knew that to launch a writing career in Japan in the days before teenage girls ruled, it might help to if not hide your femaleness, then to obscure it. These days, a writer's female identity is a pure positive.
In many ways, this book is a continuation of a dialogue between Japanese women and I that began the first time I picked up a book by Banana Yoshimoto. It was Banana's books that first got me wondering, to paraphrase Madonna, what does it feel like to be a girl in Japan? As I graduated college, searched for my first job, moved in with my first roommate, fell in love for the first time, I read Banana's books and saw a mirror version of myself, living the same young life in Tokyo. Once I began to visit Japan, I longed to know more about how my Japanese counterparts dealt with issues of career, marriage, and motherhood in a country that seemed amazingly modern and sleek to me and at the same time, a generation behind my own.
It used to be that Westerners, mostly men, came to Japan as students to sit at the feet of Zen masters and learn what they could from what they perceived to be a rich, ancient culture. Like the naive Luke Skywalker learning from his wise sensei in Star Wars, they sought guidance in every part of life, not just work or love. I was after something more narrow, less ephemeral, and, at its core, less hokey: I wanted to learn from Japanese women how they married the traditional with the feminist, how they balanced work with marriage and motherhood. A sensei may have helped in this search, but in twenty-first-century Japan, I already knew that the force was with the women.
Copyright © 2007 by Veronica Chambers
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