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Sunday, April 9, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Bringing the lady-makes-tea debate to the boil


In the early 1990s I interviewed a representative of the vending machine industry who told me that one of the most revolutionary developments in his business was the installation of coffee and tea dispensers in new office buildings. "Think of it," he said excitedly, "women office workers will no longer have to make tea for their male colleagues. They'll have time for more productive work."

It didn't sound revolutionary to me. Why didn't the male colleagues just make their own tea? The representative smiled at my ignorance of how the world really worked. He believed that Japanese business culture was on the cusp of a great change, where the kind of housekeeping chores that female office workers traditionally handled would be automated. Women could then take their place on the front lines of business.

News photo
Kuniko Inoguchi (third from right) is honored at the Avon Awards to Women ceremony in 2003. The minister of state for gender equality and social affairs works while her husband does the housekeeping.

Based on what went down on NHK April 1, it appears a change still hasn't come, automation or no automation. As part of its occasional series of discussion specials titled "Nihon no, Korekara (Japan From Now)," the public broadcaster tackled the gender divide, inviting a cross section of men and women from all walks of life to talk about "Women's Anger and Men's Real Feelings."

It was an apt subtitle, though it might have been truer if the two terms had been reversed. From what I saw, women are angry because of men's real feelings. Though the men on the program professed sympathy for women's situations, most maintained that society worked better when gender roles are more clear-cut and steadfastly supported the " male-centered" company model. The women could only respond with open-mouthed astonishment.

The producers tried to set a positive tone by showing a video clip of how the traditional husband-wife role model was reversed in the home of the program's main guest, Minister of State for Gender Equality and Social Affairs Kuniko Inoguchi. She works and her husband does the cooking and housekeeping. Another guest, writer Yoko Haruka, wasn't fooled, implying that the video clip looked more like a set-up for the cameras than real life.

Inoguchi didn't take offense because she knows her situation is special. For the most part, the program presented examples of how difficult it is for women to break out of their traditional role as homemakers and into the corporate world. None of the circumstances depicted -- the legal and bureaucratic obstacles faced by single mothers, the shortage of affordable day care, the fortress-like mind-set of corporate management -- constituted news. These problems are covered by the media every day. What was news was that men still resent it when these issues are brought up.

"What you are saying is that all men are your enemies," said Kensaku Morita during a discussion about day care. Morita is an actor and former conservative politician who harps on abstract concepts like responsibility and loyalty as if they were exclusive male virtues. When the subject of "paternal leave" came up for new fathers who wanted to take time off from work to be with their babies, he found the idea repulsive. "I would never want to inconvenience my colleagues," he said. "A real man takes pride in his work and doesn't want to give it up to anyone."

But what the women on the show really wanted was for men to be more independent, or at least less hypocritical. If the men thought of their jobs in idealistic terms, it's because they could afford to. The women who worked still had to take care of their families. Their approach to work was practical. The whole argument about serving tea comes down to the notion that men are basically helpless. Whether they're being served by women or buying their tea from a vending machine, they lack the wherewithal to do without either. So when a woman refuses to serve tea to her male colleagues at work, they take it as a show of hostility, when all she's doing is questioning a task that she deems pointless.

On the NHK show, some men complained that the reason women weren't cut out for the corporate world is that they cannot easily adapt to certain social "requirements": working late, going out drinking with clients or colleagues, etc. But as one woman pointed out, the only reason men can fulfill these obligations, whose contribution to productivity is questionable anyway, is that they have spouses or mothers at home to support them. Most women don't, and those interviewed wondered why they were always being forced to choose between family and work.

The men kept saying that they work hard for the sake of their families, but they nevertheless always choose work responsibilities over family ones. This tradeoff was illustrated in a report about a baby products company whose male employees are encouraged to take paternity leave, not because it's good for their families, but because they will gain valuable experience for their work. In a bizarre twist, one young man whose wife was about to give birth applied for the leave but was turned down because he was needed in the office.

The program's bottom-line issue was Japan's falling birthrate, which is why Inoguchi was there, since her main official task is to solve this problem, and if any conclusions could be drawn from the fracas it's that women resent the implication that they are to blame simply because they're the ones who procreate. They would like a little help from men, who become defensive whenever they ask for it. As one middle-aged woman put it, "The only things men can't do that women can is give birth and produce milk." Theoretically. Apparently, they still can't make tea, either.



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