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.