08 January 2010

The dark side of Japanese traditionalism

It’s a familiar travel-guide cliché: Japan is a land of contrasts, where tradition and modernity coexist in harmony. While many elements of Japanese traditional culture embody all that is refined, sensitive, beautiful and noble, there are aspects of such traditionalism that aren’t as flattering, which fall far from the lofty reaches that the best in Japanese culture attains. Two that are especially pervasive are gender inequality with its attendant discrimination against women, and negative attitudes towards migrants.

An anomaly among developed nations, women in Japan are grossly under-represented in both politics and business. The successive waves of feminist fervor that spread across the Western world over the last century – a movement that emancipated and empowered millions of women to take part in political, cultural and commercial life as the equals of men – failed to reach Japan’s shores with any significant impact. This sad fact partly accounts for the deeply entrenched patriarchal power structures that (gently) coerce Japanese women into accepting their second-class role in society.

But the women of Japan are not entirely blameless either. As a symptom of the greater malaise that is Japanese traditionalism, many Japanese women accept, tacitly or not, the ideal of the ‘good wife/mother/daughter’, ‘good’ being an euphemism for ‘obedient and dutiful to a male authority figure’. A legacy of Chinese-Confucian influence in Japan’s antiquity, the concept of women submitting to men is considered by many Japanese – male and female – to be a ‘natural law’. Still, there are encouraging signs that the younger generation of Japanese women are becoming more assertive and self-reliant. From politicians and culture creators to entrepreneurs and educators, the feminine influence is slowly making inroads in this still largely patriarchic society.

In another example of how Japan’s past echoes in its present, the island nation’s history of isolationist policies has cultivated an indigenous aversion to gaijin. While foreign ideas and technology are variously adopted, reverse-engineered, improved upon and adjusted to suit local needs and mores, foreigners themselves are discouraged from settling in a mostly homogenous nation that asserts a unique ‘Japaneseness’ supposedly unattainable by those not native-born (even then this is no guarantee of ‘Japaneseness’; children of Korean or Chinese migrants born in Japan are not considered fully Japanese). Yet in a rapidly globalizing world where population movements between countries are at the highest ever in the history of humanity, Japan’s reluctance to accept larger numbers of migrants isn’t just impractical, but also baldly anachronistic.

With a population that is both aging and shrinking, Japan will need a generous injection of human capital – physical and intellectual – if its citizens are to maintain their comfortable lifestyles and current levels of prosperity. And whether they like it or not, that injection has to come from the outside, with all the uncertainty and initial instability that might entail. No developed nation can continue to stay economically and socially robust without diluting their homogeneity. A purist stance on cultural integrity is naïve and also dangerous, dangerous because it feeds xenophobia, nationalism and cultural stagnation.



  1. Still waiting for bugersJanuary 25, 2010 at 1:47 AM

    Finally, a piece of writing that I can read and not make me feels the need to consult the oxford concise. Unfortunately, negative attitudes towards migrants are everywhere including Australia. People do not wish to lose identify and the last thing I believe, the Japanese want to hear, is for foreigners to tell them what’s right for their country. Immigration may be the only solution to Japan’s aging problem and it is easy to suggest as a solution but is it realistic? The first thing for migrants to overcome is the language barrier. English is taught and used all across Asia and Europe. Most migrants to Australia will have some form of knowledge about the language whereas in Japan, they will have to learn Japanese for the sole purpose of migrating to Japan. It takes years and sometimes decade to master the language to a level that is acceptable by the locals. Many Japanese companies also have a non-performing management structure where seniority is preferred over personal skill. These two problems already make Japan an unattractive place for skilled workers. There are just too many other issues that must be resolved before immigration can be made practical. Difficulty in obtaining loans, finding accommodation and foreigners are excluded from the Japanese pension system are just a few that comes to mind. Now that I have commented, where are the bugers?

  2. Again, interesting arguments, put forward with beautiful writing which mask the way in which you dealt with absolutely no complexity.

    A few points:
    1) Japanese women are underrepresented, yes, but can this really be said to be anomalous compared to other developed countries? What standard are you using? What would be adequate? Parity? --> All these need answers.
    2) Japanese women 'complicit'. By whose standards are you judging what is right or wrong for women, if they, as you suggest may be choosing for themselves.
    3) Again, I think you miss some of the complexity of the 'choice' issue, where a lot of choice is socially constrained --> needs more consideration.
    4) gaijin... more complex. Not just negative discrimination, but A LOT of positive discrimination that gaijin surprisingly don't complain about --> needs more consideration.

    Finally, I really question whether it is worthwhile talking about matters which clearly are only read about second hand. I think probably you need to go out there and see these things for yourself, and THEN form your opinions. Philosophy can be done in the armchair, but even that is questionable. Social commentary on the other hand, when done in the armchair is just yelling at a tv screen or at a book, which may itself not be all that complete.

    Your fear of complexity really brings your articles down.

    1. "Women need the right choose what and only what I think they ought to choose."

  3. @ anna

    1) In a list of 150+ countries showing the percentages of women in parliament or its equivalent (http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm), Japan ranks at 96, with 11.3 percent in the Lower House and 17.4 percent in the Upper. Compare this with other developed nations on the list and then tell me that I’m wrong to state that Japanese women are grossly underrepresented in politics, relative to their developed nation peers.

    2) Call me idealistic, but the standard I apply is a universal one: that every individual has a right to his or her own life, regardless of any social mores that insist otherwise. If a woman, any woman anywhere in the world, feels compelled even in the slightest – whether internally or externally – to defer to a man, I believe that is a lamentable situation.

    3) Tying to the above, yes, a lot of choices are socially constrained. But this shouldn’t be an excuse, a get-out-of-jail card usually played by those with a vested interest in constraining women’s choices in the first place. Like freedoms, choices often have to be taken from those in power, not passively waited to be given by them.

    4) I’m not surprised that there’s positive discrimination against gaijin. What I am surprised by is your suggestion that the negative discrimination is somehow counteracted by the positive. So I guess all those hurdles faced by gaijin mentioned by ‘waiting for burgers’ above are insubstantial, since gaijin get some perks too?

    And now for your last point regarding the supposed impotence of armchair social commentary. While I do agree that first-hand knowledge of anything is of great value, I think your low opinion of second-hand knowledge is baseless. As Andrew Keen observed in his book ‘The Cult of the Amateur’, there’s a declining respect for professional journalism and authorship in this Web 2.0 user-created media culture (and no, I don’t consider myself a journalist or even a pundit. I’m pretentious, but not that pretentious). Like him and many others, I prefer to rely on the professionals with their years of experience, expertise and resources for my information. So I haven’t logged as many air-miles as I’d like. How is this supposed to make my (second-hand) informed opinions less accurate or valid than if I had gone to such-and-such a place myself? Or perhaps in your epistemic world, people are only allowed to express opinions on subjects that they have first-hand experience of? Shall we all then consign our personal libraries and internet-connected PCs to the flames?

    You accuse me of being afraid of complexity. Well, it seems to me that you have an aversion to decisive judgment calls, not to mention an infatuation with first-hand experience to the exclusion of everything else.

  4. I really am not one for sitting-on-the-fence-ism, Darrick, but I am certainly not one for crass pseudo-journalism.

    Going over the points that I made before:

    1) I still think that in many respects the 'developed world' if we shall use that term is not the ideal standard that your article seems to suggest and that the situation in Japan is not great, but nor is it in other nations. I think this is what I mean by maybe not anomalous. Sorry for the ambiguity that may have been raised earlier.

    2) Again, I think this faux-universalism is dangerous. What you call 'universal' is only 'universal' to you. Ask someone else and they may give you a different account. Cf. discussions within feminism between 'Western' and other types of feminists. Women from other countries, I think rightly, have made very compelling cases for 'universal' feminism actually being simply a mouthpiece for 'Western' feminism, and that there is something terribly patronising, if not 'patriarchal' about this. Please read up about it, I'm not an expert, but I do think there is some value in these points.

    3) I'm certainly not proposing any 'get out of jail' card. Rather, I am saying that the issue of what people choose is very complicated, and needs to be given some acknowledgment.

    4) Again, I am not saying that one type of discrimination negates another. Please don't take the crudest possible interpretation of my comments and blame me for what I have not said. What I do, however, say is that BOTH forms of discrimination need to be considered. It is true that Westerners in particular, but not only, DO confront a great many advantages as well as disadvantages, a situation which needs to be dealt with more consideration.

    Finally, I am not saying that ALL second hand information is useless. Again, I feel that you take the worst possible interpretation of comments, and then respond shrilly for it. Really, what I am saying is that if you are going to do a journalistic piece, then this should be done like good journalists, with reliable first hand information. On the other hand, if you are developing thoughts from second hand literature, then you need to consult a variety of material in order to corroborate and test the information that you have gained, and also simply to complete your knowledge.

    This may sound patronizing, it certainly is not the point. I find these things difficult, too. But I do think that they are worth considering, if only to fortify your own arguments.

  5. 1) If you look at the IPU list, Japan is the lowest ranking country among the liberal, democratic, secular, developed nations (and unless you wish to split hairs over the definition of 'developed', I think you'd agree that there's a distinctiveness about such countries re. their infrastructure, political and legal systems, GDP, educational levels, healthcare quality etc that warrant the term, however contestable it may be). Given this fact, I think I'm right to refer to Japan as an anomaly, in that it's peculiarly underrepresented by women in government compared to its peers.

    I'm not talking about ideal standards here, but simply comparing Japan to its fellow developed nations.

    2) I know you're not advocating moral relativism, and I agree with you about the dangers of proselytizing one's personal convictions as 'universals'. And your info on disagreements within feminism is new to me. Fair enough. But I'm concerned that those critics of 'Western' feminism may be enjoying priviledges denied to their discriminated sisters, on whose behalf they claim to speak for.

    Yes, feminism, like any ideology, can carry the 'accent' of its parent culture. But surely feminism's core values of mutual respect, female dignity, equal opportunity, financial autonomy etc are universal, in the sense of being values any human being can only benefit from. That is the universalism I'm arguing for.

    As for your other points, well put. Correct me if I'm wrong, but basically you're suggesting that I refer to and/or supply a wider range of source material to form my arguments, and to consider all sides of any issue. Fair enough.

    I'm sorry for my overreactions and for misrepresenting some of your points. Thank you Anna for taking the trouble to comment. Much appreciated.

    1. Western feminism comes out of a very particular period in western history. To apply its principles to every nation and culture ubiquitously is harmful. Economic and political autonomy, for example, are clearly the product of early industrial capitalism, and to apply these principles to a tribe in the African savanna is ridiculous. Only in a culture where economic autonomy means political autonomy can such a principle apply. Mutual respect and dignity, moreover, may not, in all cultures, correspond to equal economic opportunity. Mutual respect and dignity are a product of the roles of both genders being VALUED equally, but not necessarily being the same. Only once economic productivity or direct political activity are the highest measure of value do these become equated. You must always account for the conditions which created these western "universal" values before you can understand what they actually mean and the extent to which they are actually universal.

  6. Interesting exchange of ideas. I just happened across this, and want to comment on what I perceive is an "understandable on its face," but almost "allergic reaction" to any woman "deferring to a man." I and my wife enjoy a wonderfully powerful and peaceful arrangement of a loving and respectful woman (my wife, in this case, who is certainly my equal) who accepts and encourages my leadership in our relationship as her husband and the father of our children (I feel and willingly accept the burden of providing, protecting, loving, and sacrificially dying for my wife and kids if need be). This arrangement spurs me on to be the best man I can be, and at the same time frees her of the burden of carrying the load of a variety of matters she trusts me to handle, which actually enables her to securely attain all she is meant to be and do!

    I'm new to this post, and signed as anonymous, but can be reached at wanhome2@hotmail.com.

    By the way, we've lived in Japan for the past four years, and in our experience, both of your observations are quite accurate in their own ways.