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Japanese women roar: Maybe not all of them, but a U.S. author finds plenty who do
Christina Kuntz / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation
I have to admit--I had my doubts about this book. Not to say that I haven't met my fair share of strong, intelligent Japanese women. But I just haven't seen many examples to support author Veronica Chambers' claim that those women have started a "revolution" and are dramatically "changing their nation."
After all, this is a country where women are commonly labeled "office ladies" or "housewives"; where a prominent politician referred to women as "birth-giving machines"; and, perhaps most disturbing from a foreign perspective, where most Japanese women appear to be OK with it all.
Thankfully, Chambers has proved me wrong.
In Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation, Chambers introduces a wide variety of Japanese women who have cast off those labels and stereotypes to pursue their dreams, whether they be climbing the corporate ladder or becoming professional athletes. These women are not content with a salaryman husband and a Louis Vuitton bag. They are deejays and photographers, politicians and executives--the list goes on and on. Some have chosen careers over marriage and children; others have discovered that starting up their own business is the best way to combine career and family.
Through a series of interviews that took place over several years, Chambers draws out these women's thoughts on everything from shopping to sex and reveals a side of Japanese women that many foreigners--and perhaps even other Japanese--rarely get a chance to see.
One interesting example is Masako Nara, a woman in her 40s who is a senior executive at Canon. She was one of the first women to reach the executive ranks at a Japanese company, and, as Chambers points out, one of the few fortunate enough to have had a female role model at her company. Nara explains how her mentor gave her tips and one important request on behalf of the female employees: Never serve tea at the office.
And in all her years with the company, Nara admits that she has never once served tea. A fairly minor point, perhaps, by North American standards, but an interesting example of the ways Japanese women have tried to command respect in the heavily male-dominated workplace.
In other chapters, Chambers explores how Japanese women are taking a stand at home. Perhaps the most prominent examples of how Japanese society is changing are the rising marriage age and the plummeting birthrate. Marriage, once considered a form of "lifetime employment" for women, no longer holds the same appeal to a generation of women that have the means and the opportunities to support themselves. Chambers also presents a rather simplified look at the complex issues of dependable maternity leave and accessible child care, as many of her interviewees point to the lack of support for working mothers as part of their decision to hold off on having children.
But it's not just social policies affecting Japan's marriage and birthrates. The young women Chambers interviews express a growing dissatisfaction with Japanese men in general. These women--often dubbed "parasite singles" because they earn a decent salary but mooch off their parents well into their 30s--are traveling the world, learning other languages and experiencing other cultures, and frankly, leaving Japanese men in their dust.
And at the other end of the spectrum is "jukunen rikon," the growing trend of older Japanese women who--after 20 or 30 years of marriage--have decided they would rather spend their golden years alone than with their "clingy" retired husbands.
Yet to her credit, Chambers is careful to keep Kickboxing Geishas from falling into male-bashing territory and even appears sympathetic to the plight of the hardworking Japanese men who are struggling to deal with these increasingly independent women. She dedicates an entire chapter to "Men in the Kitchen," presenting a number of Japanese men who are also challenging the traditional gender roles and facing just as many obstacles as the women.
In the case of jewelry designer Yoko Shimizu and her husband, Aki, she runs their company while he is the main caretaker of their daughter. Yet instead of being applauded by women for taking on a role that few Japanese men have, Aki describes the isolation and patronization he encounters when dealing with teachers or mothers at his daughter's school.
Examples such as this indicate that Japanese society has a long way to go before it is truly "changed." The bursting of the economic bubble may have opened doors to women in Japan that were closed before, but a lot of old-school attitudes have remained the same. Even Chambers is well aware that her "kickboxing geishas" are the exception rather than the norm, and many Japanese women still want to get married and live the life of a so-called charismatic housewife. By including interviews with these women and revealing their reasons for choosing the more traditional route, she presents a realistic and well-rounded picture of today's Japanese women.
At times, Chambers spends a little too much time dwelling on her own experiences and thoughts on Japan, which takes away from the engaging stories of the women this book is supposed to be about. But, as a young black American woman, she does provide some interesting insights in comparing the two cultures.
One could argue that Japan's changing society is simply the result of a number of individuals choosing to follow the path that's best for them, rather than some kind of feminist revolution, as many of the women featured in this book show little interest in being role models or paving the way for future generations. However, Chambers does present a number of inspiring stories of intriguing Japanese women who, whether intentionally or not, are nudging the country in a new direction.
(May. 12, 2007)
Geisha grrrls - Interview with Veronica Chambers, author of "Kickboxing Geishas"