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Kickboxing Geishas:
How Modern Japanese Women are Changing their Nation

The author of a new book about gender in Japan sets aside Western stereotypes and talks about how ordinary women are fueling a feminist revolution that's transforming the country.

The American media loves Japanese women, especially when they're dressed in kimonos or school uniforms, or covered head to toe in brand names. But according to Veronica Chambers, a journalist, a novelist and the author of "Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation," those stylish stereotypes distract us from the real story. Chambers claims that there's a major cultural power shift taking place in Japan -- and it's ordinary working women who are shaking things up.

Chambers first sensed the tremors of revolution when she visited Japan on a media fellowship in 2000; her interest piqued, she set out to find enterprising Japanese women who were bucking the corporate system and creating financial and personal success on their own terms. The task turned out to be harder than she expected -- not because the women didn't exist (to the contrary) but because they didn't think their stories were worth sharing with each other -- or with nosy journalists.

Chambers says she started to feel like one of the Western men of the 19th century who were obsessed with the myth of the exotic Japanese female. But instead of following the flash of red lips or the clatter of geta sandals down the alleyways of Gion, Chambers tracked groundbreaking businesswomen and iconoclastic entrepreneurs to their offices and homes. She spent three years discussing ideas of autonomy and ambition with more than 74 women, including young hipsters like a hip-hop DJ and an extreme snowboarder; barrier breakers like a senior executive at Canon and an openly gay Osaka assemblywoman; and dozens of small-business owners, artists and creative types. Through her interviews, Chambers discovered that feminism is alive and even thriving in Japan -- albeit in a way that might seem a little, well, foreign to American women. And as American women continue to strive for true equality in the workplace, the White House and beyond, she hopes it may be helpful to hear how our counterparts across the globe -- who don't have mandatory maternity laws, who have fewer female representatives in government than most other industrialized nations and who earn half of what men do -- are doing.

We spoke to Chambers about "empowered" office ladies, fed-up salarymen, and power-suited female execs who shamelessly play geisha on weekends.

When did you first realize "regular" Japanese women were in the middle of a major cultural shift?

The year I was in Japan for my fellowship was the year of the yamamba girl. Those were the girls with the extremely suntanned faces, the platform shoes and the bleached-blond hair. Also, the subways were filled with these signs that said "No Touching," because there was a big problem with girls being groped on the trains. I read in newspapers that part of the reason some of the girls adopted yamamba dress was to make themselves unappealing to Japanese businessmen. I felt like something really interesting was going on. It wasn't exactly "feminism," but I was hearing girls and women talk about wanting things to be different. I was curious about how women in Japan were changing, and I wanted to look beyond the shop-happy girls in Omotesando, the yamamba girls in Roppongi, the street-fashion girls in Harajuku, and find three-dimensional women doing interesting and pioneering things.

How did you go about finding them?

I started going to the newsstand and picking up magazines and newspapers that looked like they had profiles or stories about women. I'd come back to the U.S., pay to get these articles translated, then fax the translations [about] women who seemed interesting to the Japan Society, with requests for them to help me find them. My contacts at the Foreign Press Center in Japan were almost all women. I'd usually bring a translator with me on interviews, and the women from the Foreign Press Center would say to me, "Can I come with you? I've always wanted to meet someone like this."

Now, these are the people who set up press conferences when Hillary Clinton or Sofia Coppola comes to Japan -- they're not easily impressed. But you don't see a lot of People magazine-type stories or Oprah segments in Japan about regular people doing inspiring things. So the women at the center were really excited to interact with these Japanese women, and that made me feel like I was on the right track.

Just about every major Japanese company is filled with "office ladies," who are uniformed secretaries and administrative assistants. Why is it so hard for them to advance up the corporate ladder?

When I'd go to meetings at companies, I'd meet almost all men. There'd be one woman, maybe -- and she'd be pouring tea. Even at the copier giant, Canon, all the women who work at the front desk wear pink blouses, pink skirts, white gloves. It's like Renée Zellweger in that movie "Down With Love."

When I interviewed Canon's Masako Nara, one of the few women in Japan who is a senior executive at a traditional company, she didn't even acknowledge these women. Here in the U.S. it's understood that you've got to get on the good side of the secretaries and the receptionists, because they tell you everything that's going on. But there it felt like a huge divide between Masako and her female subordinates. Masako later told me that once she got on the corporate track, another woman -- her mentor -- warned her to never pour tea. "Once you do," said the woman, "the men in the office associate you with the women in pink who pour tea; they'll think that's all you can do. You'll never gain back their respect."

If the few women who are making strides in corporate Japan aren't lending a hand to those below them, who is?

It's true that Masako Nara wasn't really feeling the sister-woman thing. She was at a point in her career where she was realizing that she had seven or eight years left to make a mark on the company, and then she was just going to be waiting out retirement. For her, making her mark meant bringing about innovation, it meant becoming powerful -- it didn't necessarily mean bringing in more women. But the fact that she is a woman in a high-level position at a big company like Canon means something, and because she's really good at her job, it will make it easier for the next woman who comes along.

There will always be individuals slipping in the door; the question is, how do you open the door wider so that more women can participate? When Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian head of Nissan, announced in late 2005 that he was going to double the percentage of women in the company's Japanese sales force from 5 to 10 percent, people said it wasn't a big deal. But at car companies like Honda and Nissan, you have to do all the jobs -- including selling cars -- before you can become a V.P. So Ghosn is actually giving a lot of female Nissan employees an opportunity they didn't have before. But it was telling that it took a foreigner to make that decision.

Is there even a female equivalent for the Japanese word "salaryman"?

No. But then again, who wants to be a traditional salaryman? They work long, grueling hours and have little time to spend with their families.

Here's the classic Japanese situation: A salaryman puts in for his vacation, which he's entitled to. The dedicated thing to do is to show up at work on the first day he's supposed to be out. His supervisor sees him and says, "What are you doing here?! Aren't you supposed to be on vacation?" The salaryman replies, "I was, but I have too much work to do!" Another example: It's rare for salarymen to have a lunch hour or to go out for a big expense-account lunch. They usually take about 15 minutes to slurp noodles at the train station, or they eat quickly at their desks. At lunchtime, restaurants are all full of nicely dressed Japanese women -- no men.

How does the presence of modern women in the office affect the way men behave?

The women tend to take their vacations, and their sick days too. Men see their female co-workers taking advantage of their vacation time, and enjoying long, leisurely lunches, and they think, "Hey, the world didn't fall apart while they were gone. And besides, I'm entitled to this, too!" The men start taking their vacations; they start going out to a real lunch. Their world opens up a little.

The women you talked to didn't seem negative or bitter about their position, though. One woman even said that being an office lady can be empowering. What did she mean by that?

If a Japanese man leaves a company, it's not like here, where you can quit and find a new job at the same level or even higher. It's a huge risk. Even though the financial bubble has burst in Japan and lifetime employment there isn't what it used to be, the fact is that most people still spend their lives at one company. But so few women really have a chance within corporate Japan; they're not on the fast track at a major company, so they can afford to leave and start their own businesses, or to take a couple of years off from work to travel and study different languages.



Suzanne MacNevin, Feminist Writer


Suzanne MacNevin, Feminist Writer


If Japanese women aren't clawing their way to the top in the traditional sense, what are they doing instead?

There are more women entrepreneurs than men. They're exploring new paths to economic and personal fulfillment -- like Makiko Fujino, who ran for office after years of being a television chef and won a seat in the Diet, and Junko Asazuma, who became an internationally ranked snowboarder after spending years as a "freeter," or part-time worker.

What about working moms? You write that in Japan, maternity leave isn't that common, and neither are nannies or day-care centers. How on earth do Japanese women balance work and family?

You have to really love your job to go back to work after having a kid, and there aren't many women in corporate Japan who love their jobs. So, once they get married and pregnant, most women simply quit. The women who do make it to the upper levels at corporate companies tend not to have kids. For example, Masako Nara was divorced, and didn't have any children. It's not that there's a stigma against working women or mommy executives, it's just that there aren't that many of them. It will be the younger generation that will have to test that out.

What kinds of messages about work, family and home are young Japanese women getting from their mothers?

Out of the 75 women I interviewed, there were five, maybe 10, women whose moms were not housewives. If the family had a business or owned a farm, the mother might work, but for the most part, if you grew up in the '60s, '70s or '80s in Japan, your mom stayed at home. They're now telling their daughters, "I was trapped by the money. If I had the financial means now, if I knew what to do with myself, I'd get a divorce. Don't let yourself get into this situation."

Japanese women are delaying marriage and not having as many kids -- if any -- and it's because they got smart. They hear this stuff from their moms, And they're like, "Once you get married and have kids, you're locked into an 18-year job." If you can delay that, then you can travel, you can learn languages, you can make your own money, do your own thing. So there's actually this worldliness and sophistication that you see in young, single working women.

Compared with Japanese women, it sounds like Japanese men work more, take fewer vacations, have less free time, are less valuable to their global companies and are less sophisticated than their female counterparts.

It becomes hard to say who has the better -- or worse -- deal. There are women, especially young women, who would really like to run a company and have the opportunities that the men have. On other hand, you have men saying, "Company life isn't that great. I'd love to learn a foreign language, travel, have hobbies ..." The sexism is obvious, but at the same time, that sexism has created what one might call a sort of freedom. But it's not truly freedom, because the fact is that women should have a choice. Right now, women don't have a choice to be part of corporate Japan, and so what they've done is made these interesting other choices, like starting their own businesses and creating new roles for themselves within traditional companies.

You compare women's situation in Japan today with that of women in the U.S. circa 1974. What do you mean by that?

Think about what was going on here, with the ERA, with women getting some opportunities in the workplace but also talking more about what else they could do. Think of [TV's] Mary Tyler Moore: She was an associate producer on a news show, but she still answered her male boss's phone. In Japan, women might have a title and an opportunity to get their foot in the door, but they still don't necessarily have the power to do what men have traditionally done.

But in the U.S. in the '70s, those feelings and frustrations led to a major, organized push for women's equality. Is there an organized feminist movement in Japan?

This is a revolution without a movement. With the birthrate dropping, women getting married later and the level of women's entrepreneurship increasing, there's a feeling that things are changing. But I couldn't find the Japanese equivalent of NOW or anything like that. There's this one female media figure, Yoko Tajima, whom everyone refers to as the Gloria Steinem of Japan, but she doesn't represent an organized movement or agenda. She means a lot to a lot of women, but she's acting individually. Part of that is because Japan doesn't have a sit-in, petition, rally, movement type of culture. That's not the way that things get done there. When I first arrived, I actually thought all of this was going to grow into a movement by the time I left. I thought things were going to change, and I still do, but I'm not sure if it will be organized in a way that I or other American feminists can understand.

Do you think American women can learn from the way Japanese women conceive of work, home and success?

In the U.S., there seems to be a big divide separating women who stay at home with their kids and women who work in the office. It feels like you need to take a side. But most of us carry both of those ideas within ourselves: Women who work want nothing but the best for their children, and women who stay home still want to be intellectually engaged and challenged.

I think Japanese women are a little more comfortable taking from the old and new without feeling bad about either. Like American women, the Japanese women I interviewed were trying to construct a life with a meaningful sense of work and with satisfying relationships. But there's more of a "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" sense in their regard for tradition. Japanese women are trying to create a more modern sensibility, but there is also a connection to the past. I don't think the Japanese feel like they have to be career women or mothers; they don't feel like they have to be feminist or traditional. You can find a woman who works as a vice president at Canon and also really likes playing the shamisen, which is one of the traditional geisha arts, or a snowboarder who spends her off-season doing ikebana, or flower arranging. And that's not an embarrassing admission at all. The old is always with you, and not something to reject in order to create a new definition of yourself.

How did the women you interviewed greet the idea that they are part of a national "revolution," and that the choices they make at work and at home could impact other women's lives?

Japan is a very humble nation. One of the biggest hurdles was convincing women that they -- as individuals -- were important and interesting enough to be featured in the book. I spent a lot of time wooing women, trying to put across how important I thought they were to the project. At the same time, I was assuring them that I wasn't singling them out as "the nail that stands out and should be hammered down," to paraphrase the old Japanese saying.

It sounds like the changes taking place are positive, but they're not as earth-shattering or widespread as American feminists might expect, or want. Why should we feel optimistic for women in Japan?

It's easy to say that they are so far behind us because there's so little room for women in corporate Japan, and that corporate Japan is a chauvinistic system that locks women out. But it's more like corporate Japan is a strict and difficult taskmaster, and both sexes are trying to deal with that. At the same time, we're seeing a lot of highly educated American women, who were on the fast track in the corporate U.S., simply walk away from it all.

Which is all to say, is it possible that 30 or 40 years from now, Japanese women and American women could end up in a remarkably similar place? I think it is. It could be that Japanese women will carve a thoroughly modern existence and paths to opportunity without those early 10 or 20 years that American women spent in big corporations, feeling our way around in our skirt suits and blouses with floppy ties, some of us wanting to fast-track it in the Fortune 500. But many of us -- maybe most of us, like most men -- do not.

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