Traditional role of Japanese women changing in the '80's

''Girls love to feel everything rather than think. They must all be nice girls.''

A saying on a Japanese shopping bag is hardly a litmus test of national thinking, but from this small item up to such facts as bars by large corporations against hiring women educated at four-year colleges, it is clear that many traditional attitudes are ingrained in Japanese thinking. While about 34 percent of Japanese women are working today, the institutional expectation is still that most young women will marry early and become the ''good wife, wise mother'' that is enshrined in Japanese thinking.

Independent and professionally successful women are not new to Japan. From Lady Murasaki, who wrote ''The Tale of Genji'' in the 10th century, down through the late Ichikawa Fusae, a well-known and respected Socialist representative in the Japanese Diet, there are many examples of women who have bucked the norm and gone on to pursue unusual interests. But their routes have been far from what society generally expects for the average Japanese woman.

Ikuko Atsumi wants to change this expectation. With her mother's example of an independent-minded educator and classical Japanese scholar ahead of her, Ms. Atsumi went on to become a tenured professor of English Literature and Comparative Literature at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo for 12 years. Founder and editor of the magazine Feminist, poet, writer, and lecturer both in Japan and the United States, Ms. Atsumi has also devoted considerable time and energy toward developing a strong women's ''cultural'' movement in Japan, one which takes into account unique characteristics of Japanese society and attitudes. She then had to make a place for her ideas among a myriad of women's groups with a wide range of differing and often conflicting interests.

Realities in Japan are changing faster than perceptions. Fifty-seven percent of working women are married, a figure that has more than doubled in the past 10 years. While about 22 percent of working women retire because of pregnancy or childbirth, the number has dropped from 50 percent 15 years ago.

The women's movement, as Ms. Atsumi sees it, is simply to broaden men's attitudes toward women's responsibilities, as well as their own, and to give women more freedom in the choices they make: what interests or careers to pursue; when and if to get married and have children; and to change societal expectations that often estimate a woman's success by the academic and work-related achievements of her children.

Ms. Atsumi, a forceful and well-spoken woman who now resides in Stowe, Mass., is not trying to change this overnight, or to push more women to enter the job market. ''I don't like drastic change,'' she comments. ''Japanese think most highly of harmony.''

Her interest in the women's movement grew after an extended period in the US in 1976. After attending a creative writers' conference and a serving as poet-in-residence for the Great Lakes College Association, Ms. Atsumi ''rushed back to Japan,'' only to run head on into the challenges of trying to produce a feminist magazine.

First, there was the title, ''Feminist.'' Feminisuto, in Japanese, meant a man sympathetic or kind to women, not those who were interested in political gains for women. Thus the magazine at first found its way onto the men's magazine racks, among such other publications as ''Body Building'' and ''Auto Mechanics.''

On a larger scale, there was profound disagreement among the women involved as to the best routes to follow. Women specialists in management and law needed to guide the magazine's business were also lacking. Many professional women were unsympathetic to the magazine's cause. And women as well as men felt that society in general benefited from the division of labor where a husband goes to work and the wife stays home.

Looking back on all these challenges, and reflecting on significant barriers that still remain, Ikuko Atsumi sees positive signs of change. ''I think the concept of the women's movement is changing in Japan. The government and other institutions are starting to pay more attention to women's issues,'' she says. She cites changes in discriminatory retirement ages and the right to reply to biased articles on the women's movement as two examples of gains made in the past few years.

Ms. Atsumi is proud of the fact that about 20 universities, in addition to informal study groups, now offer courses in women's studies. And she is clear on what her contributions to the movement have been.

''First, I started a serious cultural and intellectual movement in 1977 when that kind of movement didn't exist,'' she says. ''At first, I was enthusiastic to introduce things from outside. But now I see the movement more in terms of the traditional culture. Of course,'' she laughs, ''if you do that too much you put women down. But Japanese women have many innate strengths we can draw on.''

Where does the movement go in the '80s?

A great deal of attention is being given efforts to revise domestic laws so Japan can ratify the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women by 1985. Currently, such things as sex bias in Japan's citizenship laws are coming under scrutiny, and the Labor Ministry has issued guidelines on equality. In addition, feminists are becoming involved in the antiwar movement, something that could potentially bring many more women into the political sphere.

For Ikuko Atsumi herself, the '80s appear to be a decade for reflection. A year at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, away from the fray of being at the center of the women's movement, brought about the ''very hard decision'' to move permanently to the United States. Here she is working on a book about Japanese feminism, as well as lecturing. After the constant work in Japan, she feels that , at a distance, ''like a photo, the focus will become clearer here.''

This is not retreat, she asserts, but simply a new tack, a fresh approach to work that requires willingness to watch change occur slowly. And Ms. Atsumi is not discouraged. As she said recently to a gathering of the Harvard University's Japan Forum, ''I have seen Japanese women gain growing power to express themselves, to change social conventions, and to influence government policies.''

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