Women in Japan's Culture and Economy

THE recent engagement of Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito to Masako Owada has had Americans scrambling to dissect the couple's courtship and predict its consequences. Most first reactions express amazement that the 29-year-old diplomat, Ms. Owada, would give up a promising career for a future so restrictive.

The American reaction highlights differences between the Japanese and American cultures. This chasm seems all the more insuperable when one considers Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has refused to bow to the traditional image of a president's wife. By contrast, Owada appears to be accepting an archaic future as empress.

Sumiko Iwao's book "The Japanese Woman: Traditional Image and Changing Reality" is a good antidote to such speculation and stereotype. The author, who has taught psychology at Harvard University, corrects common misperceptions about today's Japanese women. More significantly, by carefully leading the reader through the many occupations and developments in Japanese women's lives, she makes their society understandable and accessible to Americans.

The book centers first on the home, where women are responsible for nearly all household chores and the raising of children; yet Iwao explains that male chauvinism isn't the only reason women have held to traditional roles. Until recently, few women have opted for the long hours and wearying dedication their husbands often face at the office. Unlike American women, who have fought for equality with men at any cost and at all levels, Japanese women tend to ask the very practical question of how they want to be equal to men.

In many ways, the author argues, Japanese women have sought equality as a guideline rather that as an absolute principle. "In Japan questions of fairness and equality are conceived on a much longer time frame and in a more multidimensional context [than in America]," she writes. "... The ideal is for both men and women to ... emulate the model of the other in some areas if not in others."

Iwao quotes 1991 figures that show women make up 38 percent of the labor force in Japan, and she investigates the varied opportunities open to Japanese women today. Even if they leave work to raise a family, many return once the children have grown. Furthermore, since the Equal Employment Opportunity Law went into effect in 1986, women may also be hired on the "integrated track." They then follow the rigorous, upwardly mobile career path that men do. Most women remain in the more transient and routine jo bs. In keeping with the Japanese view of equality, however, it's a quiet step in the right direction, she says.

Iwao is most controversial when she predicts the future of the Japanese economy once women stay in the work force long term. "There is no question that Japanese industry surged ahead in the postwar period partly because the role of women was such that it allowed men to put work above everything else," she states. As women demand that husbands help out in family affairs, and as they begin to stay at work throughout their lives, "The net result will undoubtedly be that the economy will cease expanding at i ts present rate."

Iwao views this development as positive: "This would be a good thing for the world economy, making Japan's competitiveness less threatening to other countries than it is today."

A daring statement. Yet while the US would welcome a more financially balanced relationship with Japan, the reader needs a more complete discussion of the author's theories. For example, how would Japanese men (and women) face parting with some of their nation's strength?

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