An Honest Look At Life In Japan: Living In A Crystal Birdcage

Last Wednesday was White Day, the day in Japan when men give chocolates, sweets, or other gifts to women.

What’s that, you say? Isn’t that just Valentine’s Day?

Why do the Japanese celebrate Valentine’s Day on March 14 and call it White Day on top of that?

Let me just shamelessly copy and paste an excerpt from my Gaijinpot article, “Beyond I Love You: 5 Tips For Navigating Romance in Japan.”

During Valentine’s Day in Japan, “[i]t’s customary for women to profess their love through 本命ほんめいチョコ (honmei choco, or ornate handmade chocolates or expensive boxes of sweets), while begrudgingly gifting male coworkers mini boxes of 義理ぎりチョコ (giri choco, or obligatory chocolates).

“The counterpart to Valentine’s Day, White Day, is held on March 14. On this day, men return gifts of お返かえしチョコ (okaeshi choco, or returned favor chocolates) and reciprocate their feelings of affection with a 三倍返さんばいし (sanbai kaeshi, or a gift that is expected to be three times the value of the first one).”

So what does  this “tradition” have to do with sexism, and sexual harassment, and safety?

The reason why I put these three topics together is that they go hand-in-hand. Especially in the wake of the #metoo movement, there has been a focus on “safe” Japan and how the movement is prompting Japanese women to speak out against “cultural sexism” or “ingrained sexism.”

Related: Working Women in Japan – Thoughts on a National Issue

I had so much fun earning about Japanese traditions for the little monster. But, the last celebration, momo no sekku, really made me think.

Why is tango no sekku to make sure boys grow up to become strong warriors? Why is momo no sekku to ensure that daughters marry?

Related: Hatsu Sekku: Celebrating Heian Japan Customs With Baby

Then I wonder, “Why am I trying to push my ‘western’ culture and standards on Japanese society? Sure, boys wear blue kimono and girls wear pink kimono. But, at the end of the day, no one really takes that stuff seriously anymore. It’s just about taking pictures…Right?”

Am I sweeping things under the rug?

Speaking Out

It’s difficult to talk about issues like sexism and race in Japan as an “outsider,” because there’s the idea that only Japanese have the right to criticize Japanese. What gives me the right to judge Japanese culture and society and its traditions? Why impose western norms on a culture that’s been around longer than western nations?

Well, since I’m technically Japanese, that gives me a “right” to talk, yes? Or, does that put me into the category of, “If you don’t like it, go home!” ?

I still feel it’s not my place to say what Japanese women should or should not do.

And I’m aware of my privilege of an “outsider” that lets me get away with/dodge some social norms. But having a Japanese husband also means that I should be more “in tune” with Japanese roles, more so than a gaijin with a Japanese wife.

As a working mother, however, I will say that attitudes in the workplace need to change if Japan wants more women in the workforce. And that means addressing sexism.

We need to focus on why it’s a woman’s “duty” to take care of kids. Only less than 2% of men take paternity leave. 

I’m so proud to say that my husband falls into that group! I had to practically coerce him to take paternity leave, but he absolutely loves being home with the monster. I seriously doubt he wants to go back to work!

We need to address the daycare shortage, daycare costs, and the ridiculous catch-21 runaround that keeps so many parents from enrolling their babies in the first place.

When parents divorce just for the sake of racking up points for the daycare entry score card, you’ve got a problem.

Related: Guide to Navigating the Hoikuen System – Application Process and Tips

Do these changes start at the grassroots level? Probably. Society should change, but why rock the boat? You can live comfortably as a woman… depending on your definition of comfortable.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the glass ceiling. In Japan, it’s a crystal birdcage. Gilded and fabulously decorated – why would you want to leave?  I do love living here. But, I can point out a few issues.

Is It Really So Bad Being a Woman in Japan?

When women get married in Japan, the wife traditionally takes on the husband’s family name. She literally marries into the family. Her name is added to her husband’s family register (戸籍謄本/koseki touhon).

But it’s more than the family name — it also involves the family crest (家紋/kamon) and family altar (仏壇/butsudan) or family shrine (神棚/kamidana).

The pay of Japanese women is less than men. But traditionally women control the purse strings and dish out allowances to their husbands

There’s plenty of Ladies’ Days/Nights at shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants that offer discounted rates for women.

You’re expected to stay home and look after your kids… but is that really such a bad thing when the alternative is being packed in a crowded train, deferring to others all day, and working insane hours?

Women In The Workplace

You can speak out against sexual harassment in the workplace, but when you’re up against someone powerful, what’s the point? When you’re expected to quit working after you get married, being harassed is probably just a way to show you the door.

Back when I worked in Shibuya 109, I remember trying to explain US attitudes toward sexual harassment. I clearly remember feeling like there was something wrong with me.

The idea that a male superior or coworker, telling you, “You look cute/sexy” is harassment was met with “What’s wrong with being told I’m cute? I put a lot of effort into my hair/makeup/etc.” Being told that women can not sexually harass other women was another one that I gave up on explaining further.

This was, of course, ten years ago. The tide is changing; attitudes are changing. Maybe it’s due to the increase in foreign workers and tourists, and/or the way social media nowadays facilitates the exchange ideas.

Still, sexual harassment continues to be a problem in Japan and some efforts to treat it don’t actually get to the root of the problem.

Safety

We know about women-only train cars. There are women-only areas of comic book cafes. You can even book women-only floors at hotels in Japan. (I’ve actually stayed in a few and felt a sense of security, mainly because those floors are accessible only by a special key card.)

I appreciate the safety of Japan, especially its big cities. I can walk down the street at night with no problem. This is a country where you can lose practically anything and be reunited with it.  

Related: What Really Happens When You Lose Your Stuff In Japan

Still, crime happens (I am NOT going into the gun debate on this blog, no sir, no ma’am), especially among family members and lovers.

Stalking is an issue – I actually chased away one, as in literally ran him down in heels!

When I lived by myself, in the heart of Tokyo, I was so sure I was going to get a Doberman. This is mainly because of stalking (all those scary cases that make the evening news).

Related: From Pet Shop to Family – Kokuto’s Story – A Shiba’s Tale

I always ordered delivery online using a very stereotypically “manly man” Japanese name. I bought some boxers and men’s t-shirts from the 100 yen shop. They went my laundry so it would look like a man was living with me.

It’s absolutely unfair that as I woman I have to take these precautions. Yet, when I travel to the countryside (田舎/inaka) to visit my in-laws, it’s so amazing that no one locks their doors! I’ll be taking a nap and the fish man, mailman, or Yakult lady just opens the front door and walks right in.

(Then again, when your father-in-law is a career police detective, that probably has a lot to do with super low neighborhood crime rates!)

Looking Forward

I am so so grateful for the safety of Japan, and I know that sexism isn’t so much of an issue in my workplace. Aside from “mom = primary caretaker,” meaning that most kids, when they have a fever, mom is the one to pick them up from school. Still, I can’t deny society needs to address serious issues.

That’s my honest look at life in Japan. Obviously, I’m still here. But now that the little monster is in tow, I need to seriously think hard about the future. Her education is one thing, as well as being in an environment that fosters her development and creativity. Oh, and race/ethnicity and being “half,” that’s another issue for us!

An Honest Look At Life In Japan: Living In A Crystal Birdcage

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2 thoughts on “An Honest Look At Life In Japan: Living In A Crystal Birdcage

    1. I appreciate the encouragement! A race/discrimination piece is in the works. Would love it if you read it once it goes live!

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