Japanese women: how to measure equality

A Japanese newspaper recently carried a story about an anguished young Japanese man who called a staff meeting in his office. His object: to change or share the daily tea-making duties that are automatically and traditionally bestowed on women employees in his office.

The young man's wife had just had a baby, and since he had suddenly found new housekeeping duties thrust upon him, he thought it was about time he also liberated his male colleagues from the assumption that all domestic chores come under the rubric of ''women's work.'' To his consternation and embarrassment, the meeting unanimously voted his suggestion down. Curiously the women voted with the men.

The older women said they had always made the tea and saw no need to break with tradition. A younger woman later confided to him in private that she agreed with the proposal, but since she felt she was an exception, she didn't wish to stand out. Group conformity is a strong influence in Japanese society.

Not all Japanese women wear kimonos and shuffle several paces behind their husbands these days. At the same time, they are not exactly in step with Japanese males when it comes to status and employment opportunities. And yet, while women do lag behind their counterparts in Europe and the United States, the status of Japanese women is by no means static. This is particularly true in the employment field where, in a marked departure from tradition, large numbers of married women have joined the Japanese work force.

So you're a woman and want to enter journalism? Make sure you're on the daytime shift. Women are not allowed to work after midnight, which effectively precludes them from many responsible duties on the morning dailies, which go to press after midnight.

Japanese men journalists find no fault with this restriction. Instead, they regard it as a chivalrous act - an act of protection that is somewhat at odds with the fact that Japanese justifiably boast that their cities are so safe that men and women can walk the streets alone, day or night, without fear of being attacked.

Three American women journalists traveling together with seven male counterparts on a news media exchange visit to Japan were aghast to hear that women office workers are given two working days off a month because of their monthly period. They insisted they would never take it since it merely reinforces a male chauvinistic attitude that women are inferior or need to be treated differently.

Significantly, the 10 Japanese journalists selected to visit the United States as part of the exchange program were all men.

If Japanese women feel they are treated with less equality than Japanese men, foreign women living in Japan find their troubles are doubled. A European woman economist at a leading Japanese university said she found she had innumerable strikes against her: ''First, I was a woman; second, I was a foreigner; third, I was an economist (If I had taught music or art it would have been all right, but not economics, which is 'a man's field'); fourth, I was a married woman with no children.''

But differentiation in the sexes, whether it be Japanese or European or American, is to some extent built into the Japanese culture because the language makes a distinction between male and female.

For the response: ''Yes, it's good isn't it?'' a Japanese woman would say ''Soo oishii-wane,'' but a man would say ''Soo oishii-ne.'' With verbs and adjectives women use the polite prefix ''wa'' before ''you'' or ''ne.'' The result is that Japanese usually can tell whether a recorded conversation is between man and man, woman and woman, or man and woman, just by looking at the transcript.

While such differences remain, it would be misleading to give the impression that Japanese women are set only on fulfilling their husband's wishes. Some 13 million women now constitute one-third of the Japanese work force. And in what is regarded as a very new phenomenon, about 70 percent of these working women are married.

Women are represented in politics, even though their numbers are scant compared to male politicians. There are 25 women in the two houses of the Diet (parliament) - nine out of 511 in the House of Representatives (the lower chamber) and 16 out of 252 in the House of Councilors (the upper chamber).

One member of parliament, Mayumi Moriyama, was recently part of a Japanese trade mission to the United States. Mrs. Moriyama said her American colleagues were surprised not only to find she was a member of a Japanese trade mission but also that she had an independent point of view.

Mrs. Moriyama emphasized this point to show Japanese were not as submissive as generally portrayed. But she conceded that work restrictions on women reinforce an impression that ''women are weak, women are stupid, women are very inferior, and this makes us furious, and we want the government to change.''

She doubted whether Japanese women would take a militant line to redress such inequalities.

''There are no organized women's groups in Japan like there are in United States, and there won't be. Women don't like to look aggressive because Japanese men don't want them that way.''

Yet she insists there is a popular misunderstanding that Japanese women are inferior, are silent, and have scarce opportunity to appear in society.

At home Japanese women dominate. ''It's a very common custom for the Japanese businessman to work very hard and hand his salary over to his wife without breaking it. She gives her husband pocket money out of which to pay for his lunchbox and his other (incidental) expenses, so she holds the managerial post for the house.''

As to equality under the law, she noted that Japanese men and women already enjoy such rights, adding archly: ''A little better than your country, which recently lost ERA.''

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