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Tuesday, May 18, 1999

Progress is fleeting in the fight for sexual equality


By FIONA WEBSTER
THE MOUNTAIN IS MOVING: Japanese Women's Lives, by Patricia Morley. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999, 240 pp., $39.95 (cloth).

The mountain is moving, according to Patricia Morley, but mountains are, by nature, difficult to budge, and this particular one is demonstrating a firm attachment to its foundations.

Morley is writing about Japanese women's lives and the progress that women have made in Japanese society in recent years.

As Japan moves toward the millennium, social issues loom large. Notwithstanding its current financial turmoil, it is a nation coping with significant social change. The population is rapidly aging and a steady decrease in the average birthrate is only exacerbating this trend. The average age of marriage is rising, and more women are choosing to remain single for all the social, moral and financial freedom it provides and ensures.

Is the increasing number of young Japanese women who are opting for the single life a sign of an active feminist revolution? The short answer is no. In fact, for the most part, Morley paints a dismal picture of the current state of affairs in Japan, and although she strikes an optimistic note in the final chapter of the book, it must be read in the light of the damning critique of Japanese society that precedes it.

"Certainly the last 15 years have transformed some aspects of life for women in Japan," Morley says, "yet the basic 'social grammar' . . . appears to be much the same a generation later."

Morley provides a short historical account of the changes Japanese women have experienced in the last century. The most significant legislative change came in 1945 when the new Constitution gave Japanese women the right to vote, to run for Parliament and to enter national universities. In this early postwar period, she says, "many women must have felt exhilaration and hope."

Despite the grounds for optimism, Morley argues that the traditional role for women in Japanese society has not been transformed. Even today, the ideal of "good wife and wise mother" is not an anachronism. Indeed, Morley tells us that "the weight of tradition continues to bear heavily upon Japanese society."

Throughout the book, Morley argues that it is Japanese history and culture that is ultimately holding back Japan's transition to a gender-equal society.

Japanese society, she argues, is group-oriented and hierarchical, and individualism, a highly prized ideal in the West, is understood as "selfishness" in a Japanese context, representing "antisocial behavior." "The importance of harmony and the acceptance of the authority of the group is inculcated in early childhood," Morley says.

There is a tendency to value homogeneity and harmony above difference and diversity. Furthermore, the education system in Japan continues to foster these values, perpetuating a society in which autonomy, independence and creative thinking are discouraged.

Two prominent public figures receive Morley's particular attention: Sumiko Iwao, chair of the Japanese government's Council for Gender Equality, and Ichiro Ozawa, president of the Liberal Party.

Morley notes Iwao's view that "a long-term perspective, based on perseverance and endurance, preserves stable relationships." For Iwao, patience is key, and the road to gender equality is one of "quiet revolution."

But Morley find's Iwao's positive twist on the nonconfrontational behavior and reactive (rather than proactive) response of Japanese women to their position in society unconvincing and calls for a more active approach to change.

She appeals to Ichiro Ozawa's "Blueprint for Change," which calls for increasing choices for women and underlines the need for Japan to take advantage of its female workers. The basis of Ozawa's argument is clearly economic. Economic conditions, nationally and internationally, are driving change, and Japan needs to become more competitive. Furthermore, the rapid aging of Japan's population necessitates better use of what is in reality a shrinking workforce. In short, women play a vital role in Japan's economic future.

Despite the economic imperative for change, Morley argues that traditional attitudes about a woman's role in society persist. "The feudal concept that women should perform domestic tasks and support the lifestyles of men remains alive and well in Japanese male culture."

Even though Japanese women are changing their attitudes about their social roles, Japanese men, it seems, are not necessarily going along with that change. This opinion is echoed in a 1998 report released by the Foreign Press Center in Japan ("The Japanese Family in Transition"), in which the author notes that "although on the surface the attitude toward division of roles by gender has changed, there has not been any substantial actual change in the division of roles." Women remain responsible for most domestic chores and are the primary carers of children.

Morley cites as a further example of this lack of substantive change the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, passed by the Diet in 1972 with the proviso that it should come into effect in 1986. "Not only did the law come with a built-in delay of 14 years," Morley writes, "but as is true of similar pieces of Japanese legislation, it has no teeth: no penalties for those who break it, no mechanisms for enforcement."

It is unfortunate that Morley's book is being published shortly after revisions to the EEOL came into effect April 1, and curious that Morley makes no mention of them, even though they have been under consideration for some time. Although it is not clear what impact they will have, the amendments give more "bite" to the side of the legislation she so vehemently attacks (that is, its punitive provisions and enforcement measures). This is a serious oversight.

There is also good reason to question whether Japanese women strive for the same kind of equality so resolutely fought for in the West: Morley does not address this issue at any length. Japan is not the sort of society that responds positively to the bra-burning antics that accompanied feminist campaigns in the United States, and the Japanese reluctance to pursue aggressive feminist campaigns stems partly from a distaste for such behavior.

Nevertheless, Morley's book provides a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature in the West addressing feminist issues in Japan. She is right to suggest that more needs to be done in Japan to "kick start" a change in social attitudes, and to turn the strengths that leaders such as Iwao emphasize into more than just private strengths that are confined to the domestic arena.

If reaction to the EEOL revisions is anything to go by, there is almost certainly a considerable amount of dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. Where opportunities arise to respond en masse to discrimination, it is clear that Japanese women can and will take action.



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