In Other Words

Japan’s Hybrid Women

Hybrid Woman By Yoko Haruka 238 pages, Tokyo: Kodansha, 2003 (in Japanese) Kekkon Shimasen! (I Won’t Get Married!) By Yoko Haruka 246 pages, Tokyo: Kodansha, 2001 (in Japanese) Of all the problems Japan faces, the one bound to have the greatest effect on its future is not North Korea’s budding nuclear program, its own unending ...

Hybrid Woman
By Yoko Haruka

238 pages, Tokyo: Kodansha, 2003 (in Japanese)

Kekkon Shimasen! (I Won’t Get Married!)
By Yoko Haruka
246 pages, Tokyo: Kodansha, 2001 (in Japanese)

Of all the problems Japan faces, the one bound to have the greatest effect on its future is not North Korea’s budding nuclear program, its own unending recession, the dispatch of Japanese forces to a restive Iraq, or even the prospect of a new natural disaster like the earthquake that devastated Kobe in 1995. No, what really threatens Japan’s future is the country’s shrinking population and, more fundamentally, the astonishing disconnect between Japanese men and women that underlies it.

Though Japan’s demographic problems may not be news, the figures are astounding. The number of children the average Japanese woman bears has declined almost continuously since peaking at four during the postwar baby boom. As of last year, it had fallen to 1.32 — far below the rate required to maintain current population levels. In three years, Japan’s population will crest at 127.5 million and then begin a long, slow slide to about half that level by 2100. The consequences for the economy — falling production, plunging land values, and soaring taxes — will be dire.

Even more troubling is the cluelessness of the men who run Japan about the cause of this demographic decline. They have never been interested in why Japanese women shun marriage and motherhood; in fact, when Japanese women point out the difficulties they face, men dismiss their complaints as a twittering of birds, unworthy of male attention.

That context has given a truly national dimension to the work of Yoko Haruka on the plight of Japanese women. Haruka, a witty, 30-something essayist and television personality from Osaka, describes with clarity and biting humor the exasperation of Japanese womanhood in two recent books — collections of eminently readable essays called Kekkon Shimasen! (I Won’t Get Married!) and Hybrid Woman.

Haruka begins I Won’t Get Married! by describing her treatment at her own father’s funeral: She was told to sit and to walk behind her five brothers — younger as well as older — and made to understand that she wasn’t wanted on the receiving line to greet relatives and family friends.

Haruka warmly admires her sister-in-law, who must put up with endless verbal abuse from her eldest brother, and her mother, who lives with them. The sister-in-law manages to smile self-effacingly even as she scurries to provide for their material needs, right down to putting a cold beer in her husband’s hand as he steps out of his nightly bath. Haruka is exasperated by a favorite aunt who talks about her search for an "ordinary woman" to be her daughter-in-law. What the aunt means is a woman who will gladly make do with the 200,000 yen (less than $1,800) a month her son brings home, and who has no aspirations of her own.

Haruka is equally turned off by the contented wives of Tokyo’s upper crust, who cook like French chefs and live in beautiful homes. "Serve them. Nurture them. If you devote yourself to your husband and children… they’ll listen to you. Your effort will be rewarded," one of them simpers into her ear. To achieve happiness, a Japanese housewife must forget her aspirations, her dreams, and her own comfort, and subject herself to the will of husband, children, and in-laws. Even if she is smarter than her husband, or can earn more, she must never show it.

To be a Japanese working wife, Haruka says, is to play a cleverly designed computer game that one can never win. A woman who tries to follow tradition and do all the chores quickly runs out of energy. But if she leaves the laundry to the weekend or serves TV dinners, her husband will ask, "What kind of woman are you?" On top of that, he wants her to peel his apple, get his cigarettes, make him coffee — and still have enough love and stamina for sex! Imagine how it would be if she had a baby or two?

Japanese women have three choices, says Haruka: have no career and get married; abandon a career and get married; or plan a life without men. Japan, she says, has perfected the exploitation of women by combining patriarchy with the country’s odd breed of capitalism. For a career woman, emancipated by feminist thought, the only way to true happiness is to stay single — if she can learn to disregard insults from men and rebukes from other women for her status.

Haruka is by no means the only one to commit the sorry state of Japanese womanhood to paper. In 1997, the government commissioned a white-paper analysis of shoshika — the decline in childbearing. The team that wrote it, led by Michiko Mukuno, a married bureaucrat who is childless herself, blamed outdated social codes that condemn married women to 100 percent of the household chores so that husbands can devote 100 percent of their time and energy to their employers. After young women began taking professional jobs in the 1970s, the rules still didn’t change.

Even the U.S. State Department devoted three pages to the abuse of and discrimination against Japanese women in its latest human rights report. It noted that though women make up 40 percent of Japan’s labor force, they hold less than 9 percent of management jobs and on average earn only 65 percent as much as men. The report blamed the dual-track employment system in which women are hired as tea-pouring secretaries and given no chance for promotion. Despite laws that mandate equal employment opportunity (though without any penalty clauses), that system not only persists but has been made worse by recession-strapped companies that replace full-time administrative staff with part timers.

In politics, the numbers are equally discouraging. Only about 10 percent of Japan’s 727 Diet members are women; just 4 percent of local governments have female chief executives. Though prime ministers in recent years have named women to cabinet posts, most got there by following the rules of a male-dominated political structure. Once they start trying to work their wills on the powerful national bureaucracy — becoming the nail that sticks up, as did former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka — they risk being pounded down. Tanaka’s ugly and drawn-out dismissal in 2002 as foreign minister after only nine months in office may have had less to do with her gender than with her prickly personality, but a great many Japanese women, not least Haruka, are convinced otherwise. Tanaka was ousted, Haruka says, because she refused to play dumb to avoid insulting the empty egos of her male colleagues and rejected the cozy world of privilege enjoyed by bureaucrats and politicians.

But to the dismay of true feminists, these lessons have forced Haruka into a defensive crouch. In Hybrid Woman, she advises women tired of swimming against the tide to play cute rather than to challenge male superiority — to trick men into thinking they need empathy and protection. "Let sympathetic men fight your battles with male hostility," she says.

A hybrid woman knows how to use those around her to achieve happiness. "Men, company, marriage… these are things you can use to achieve your goal, but if they are of no use, discard them," she writes. "Don’t blame men, or depend on them…. Don’t live for your husband, much less for your company. Live only for yourself." Who can blame an aspiring Japanese woman for doing what it takes to find success and happiness in a system that would otherwise deny her them?

Indeed, men and women in Japan these days are going their separate ways, interacting and understanding each other less. More and more young women organize their lives — preparing careers and buying condos for themselves — around the principle that they’ll never marry. Though the increase in the number of divorces among those in their 20s and 30s has slowed, it’s mainly because fewer of them now marry in the first place. In contrast, the divorce figures among couples married for 30 years or more are climbing at double-digit rates. In a country that tops the world in life expectancy for women, increasing numbers of middle-aged women refuse to spend their long retirements with self-centered spouses. Some of them are even buying cemetery spaces of their own to avoid being tied to their husbands and in-laws for eternity.

As Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi moves to overhaul the tax and pension systems, the social consequences of Japan’s motherhood-unfriendliness are becoming painfully clear. The government tax commission is now discussing how to limit the tax burden on individuals to a mere 50 percent of income over the next 20 years, without significant degradation of services. The reason: The baby bust means there will be so many fewer workers in Japan over the next couple of decades that taxes would have to rise to 60 percent of incomes or more to fund current pensions and standards of elderly health care. Worried local governments are organizing conferences these days on the causes of and remedies for shoshika.

Even so, Japanese men still don’t seem to get it. At one of those forums, held in Fukuoka in June, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori asserted that women who don’t bear children are unworthy and ought to be denied public pensions. "The government takes care of women who have given birth to a lot of children as a way to thank them for their hard work…. It is wrong for women who haven’t had a single child to ask for taxpayer money when they get old, after having enjoyed their freedom and had fun," Mori said. His comments received many approving male nods.

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