The Role of Women in a Changing Japan

Trends & Culture - April 3rd, 1970

A British acquaintance of mine arrived in Japan re­cently for a few weeks’ stay. It was her second visit to Japan and her interest is mainly among the socialists. Soon after her arrival, she was with a mixed group where she was asked during the conversation: “What do you think of the Japanese?”

“I like Japanese women more than I do Japanese men,” was her answer and she meant it. This is a com­ment I have often heard; nevertheless, it started a round of questions in my mind. “What is it in Japanese women that you like better?” I asked her.

“She is gentle, sincere, con­siderate, polite—oh, a number of qualities,” she smilingly answered.

BRITISH VIEW

It reminded me of a de­scription of Japanese women found in an old edition of the British Encyclopedia. “She is entirely unselfish; exquisitely modest without being any­thing of a prude, abounding in intelligence which is never obscured by egotism, patient in the hour of suffering; stong in time of affliction, a faithful wife, a loving mother; a good daughter; and capable, as history shows of heroism rivaling that of, the stronger sex.”

Well, whatever you think of this description, whether you like it or not, you are most unlikely to find such a specimen among Japanese women; at least, among the present day generation! I personally would love to have a chance of meeting the man who was responsible for this passage! But I must admit that some sort of a myth about the Japanese woman does exist. It is true that in the past her training re­stricted her from being opi­nionated. She was never to be outspoken—to be seen but not heard— smile sweetly when she did not know what to say, or when she secretly nurtured different ideas from those expressed by the better sex.

2ND-CLASS  CITIZENS

Women certainly were sec­ond-class citizens. They were given no social or legal status in the past. They belonged to their father before marri­age, to their husband in marriage and to their son when widowed. Women, it was said, had no home of their own in the three worlds of the past, the present and the future.

This attitude towards wom­en developed, no doubt, dur­ing the feudal days when to be heroic in war was the noblest deed and the useful­ness of women was more or less restricted to her capacity for child-bearing and keeping the lineage of the family un­broken. She was schooled in the ethical code of Confucia­nism and what is commonly known as the “High Learn­ing for Women,” which spel­led out for her in detail all the musts and the must nots. She was to be obedient, thrifty, modest, hard-working and above all not to be jeal­ous under any circumstances.

MEN VERBOTEN!

At the age of seven, she was separated from her brothers and was not allowed any male acquaintance. Among the good families, she was taught the three Rs, but the emphasis was put on sew­ing, cooking and other necessary refinements such as painting, poetry, flower-ar­rangement, embroidery, and tea ceremony.

It was only natural for parents to arrange marriages because it was considered a family affair, not that of the individuals concerned. Things began to change after the Meiji restoration 100 years ago, hut until then it was considered unladylike to fall in love. Falling in love was the privilege of the lower class.

It is interesting that when the universal system of edu­cation was promulgated in 1872, the leaders of the new Japan considered it impor­tant to give basic education to women as well as to men. However, high schools and universities in general were barred to women, except for few institutions especially for the female sex.

Today women are not bar­red from entering any uni­versity or any profession. Compulsory education is now increased to nine years and according to the 1968 statis­tics, 76.4% of girls enter higher school, (the figure is 77% for boys) and 21.4% for girls entering colleges and universities (24.7% for boys). In 1955, the figures were 47.4% (55% for boys) and 14.9% (20.9% for boys) re­spectively.

EFFECTS FELT

The effect of this higher standard of education for women must be felt in the years to come. But already I have heard men in respon­sible positions noting the re­sults in employment. This, no doubt, will affect the character of Japanese women and I think that in years to come, the qualities so often thought of as plausible to outsiders will diminish.

Already young girls seek­ing marriage give as their conditions the possession of a car, a home and no mother-in-law!

Japan is going through a great social revolution with­out being too conscious of it. The postwar-generation is a new product yet to pass the text of the years. It is too early at this stage to pass judgment on them. Naturally, there is a tendency to criticize them: “The young generation! They are undis­ciplined; they have no man­ners; they live only for the present; they are pleasure seekers,” etc. But can one think of any time when the forthcoming generation was not criticized?

With all their short com­ings, I am inclined to think that they have improved in many respects, as compared to us in the prewar generation. Physically they have outgrown their parents; they have received higher educa­tion; they live in a freer so­ciety; they have learned to express themselves.

SLOW CHANGES

So we are definitely chang­ing, but maybe not so fast as some well-meaning Wester­ners would like us to move. While, on the one hand you have people who, without thinking too deeply why we have been that way, appre­ciate qualities that are the result of our age-long feudal­ists teachings. You have on the other, people who would like to see us express and demand our rights with ade­quate force, especially to­wards the men.

I read of a comment by an American lady, who, ‘after seeing a TV broadcast by former Ambassador Reischauer describing the life of an average Japanese couple: “Why haven’t the Japanese women learned to live by her rights, yet? After all we taught them?”

Ever since I became con­scious of myself as a woman, my one aspiration in life was to see the status of women change in Japan. I remem­ber sitting in class rooms fuming over lessons in how I should behave as a lady given by male teachers and even going to them to ex­press what I felt, at the risk of being branded “no-good.”

RIGHTFUL PLACE

But today my wish is to find the rightful place of woman, where she can be herself, exercise her God-given qualities in the family, in society and in the world at large, playing her role for the betterment of human so­ciety where there is always enough for her to do.

I do not wish to restrict her role as a protector or a demander or as a non-think­ing follower enjoying her pri­vileges without taking responsibility.

Japanese women have all the necessary legal structure to uphold their rights. What she needs is to implement consciously what are already there. Japan is undergoing a tremendous change and her role is also important. I would hope that she emerge into full blossom taking the best out of the past, which, no doubt, can be a great asset if used wisely and discreetly, selecting from all that she can lay her hands on today and creating a new pattern of womanhood fit for this new, promising age.