TV & Radio
'Kickboxing Geishas' by Veronica Chambers
How modern Japanese women are slowly changing their country
By Janice P. Nimura
Special to The Los Angeles Times
January 15, 2007
"THE funny thing about my love affair with Japan," Veronica Chambers begins, "is that it was never the country of my dreams." In 2000, craving a posting to Paris, the journalist settled instead for a fellowship in Tokyo. That accident led to her new book, "Kickboxing Geishas," and it raises a question: Did serendipity make her objective or obtuse?
As the cartoonish title indicates, this is not your average analysis of inscrutable Japan. Chambers is black and from Brooklyn, proud of her accomplishments, including having written several books on the experiences of African American women. She is not shy, and her attitude can get in the way of her interview subjects. Most of the time, she sounds like a journalist: "I wanted to learn from Japanese women how they married the traditional with the feminist, how they balanced work with marriage and motherhood."
But Chambers also wants to be a character in her own research: "Sure, I've danced to hip-hop in clubs where Diddy and Mariah Carey hang out in velvet rope VIP areas. But what I love is searching out the beat in unexpected places: Indian bhangra music in London, reggae español in Barcelona, hip-hop in Sapporo."
On her first visit to Japan, Chambers was dazzled by the shiny stereotypes glittering in downtown Tokyo. There were the joshikosei, gangs of teenage girls elaborately costumed like Hello Kitty or Marie Antoinette. There were the uniformed schoolgirls involved in enjo kosai, or "compensated dating," with men three times their age. There were the "parasite singles," young working women living at home and spending their salaries on international travel and Louis Vuitton.
What saves "Kickboxing Geishas" from becoming "The Girlfriends' Guide to Japanese Women" are the voices of the women Chambers meets later and the parallels she teases out between them and their Western peers. She returns repeatedly to the idea, for example, that Japanese women base their ambitions largely on how they perceive their own mothers' happiness.
That's not so different from us. But Japan is several waves of feminism behind, and its current generation of young women was raised almost exclusively by housewives. When Yukiko Oka speaks of her mother, the 31-year-old echoes U.S. women of three or four decades ago: "She's been telling me my whole life that I should have a good career so I can be independent." A licensed tour guide operator, Yukiko was one of the first in her company to take maternity leave — most women quit as soon as they're married. "I have to make my own role model," she says.
Americans love role models, but Chambers is struck by how little that concept applies in Japan. Masako Nara, 45, a senior executive at Canon, made a pact with her female colleagues never to serve tea, the role most women fill in office settings. Satoko Seki, 29, at IBM Japan, hated the mandatory late-night drinking sessions that were part of the job. Her clients now are mostly foreigners who prefer business lunches.
Both women have carved spaces for themselves in Japan's corporate world, but they have kept their struggles and successes private. "My sense, again and again, was that women told me stories they did not share with their colleagues, or even sometimes with their friends," Chambers writes. "It occurs to me that in order for someone to be a role model, they must reveal not only their strengths, but their vulnerabilities."
In the absence of models at home, Chambers argues, many Japanese women look elsewhere. Whether they have traveled as tourists, students or the children of executives on foreign postings, Japanese women return with new ideas about independence, individuality and romance. Japanese is an indirect language; English is at first alarmingly, and then empoweringly, direct. Social expectations are more relaxed abroad, labels less permanent. This, Chambers finds, makes Japanese women intensely critical of Japanese men. Marriage, though increasingly delayed, is still the goal of most women, but they tell her that finding an enlightened husband is tough.
Chambers is an unreconstructed idealist when it comes to gender equality, in odd contrast to her quietly pragmatic subjects, who cobble together personal and professional compromises to create balanced lives. For the most part, she is interviewing her peers, but she can sound considerably younger. She asks, "Shouldn't a woman be able to choose any career and have a family? And why is it just the woman's job to make it work? All I can think is that life just isn't fair. If it was, then I could eat French fries every day and fit into my skinny jeans."
Now in her mid-30s, Chambers is married but has no children. In the context of this book, she is a foreigner twice over: in Japan and in the borderless world of women trying to combine career and children. She may not be the most acute cultural critic, but the stories she has found are a valuable reminder of how far we've come — and how far Japan has yet to go.
Janice P. Nimura's reviews have appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Veronica Chambers' Website
How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation
By Veronica Chambers
This Edition: Hardcover
Publication Date: 01/2007
Our Price: $25.00