International Women's Day Conference

March 6, 1993, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo.

As I walked down the steps of the hall that had hosted about 200 women for the 1993 International Women's Day conference in Tokyo, I was looking forward to stretching my legs at the rally scheduled to conclude the day's events. The speakers had raised a series of critical topics. Nakajima Michiko, who has valiantly fought against discriminatory hiring and retirement policies for women since the 1970s, spoke eloquently of the need for stronger equal employment legislation. A Korean woman spoke with great dignity about the double difficulty she encounters in society as a Korean and a single working mother. Another woman addressed the aging of Japanese society and argued that the tightly knit familial social structure has forced many women into eldercare roles they are neither prepared for nor interested in.

A lively discussion followed. The women who walked to the front of the room to take the microphone spoke passionately about their struggles to juggle family with work and the challenges they face daily from colleagues, family members and friends who pressure them to stay at home. These were neither demure nor submissive women. Indeed, the only difference between this gathering and womanist gatherings I had attended in the United States was that this one was held in Japanese.

And so when I stepped outside I was expecting to participate in a loud, high-energy demonstration through the crowded streets of Shibuya. I had noticed that the program listed the rally as a "paredo" (parade). Sounds like Disneyland, I thought to myself. But words taken from other countries and adopted into Japanese often lose track of their original roots. For example, the Japanese use the word "feminisuto" (feminist) to refer to a man who is "nice" to women, ie. a man who allows women off the elevator first, since traditionally in Japan men always went first (an indication of their higher rank). So, I thought to myself, using a flip kind of logic, "parade" could just as easily mean demonstration, right?

Then I saw them. Eight women dressed in cat outfits, complete with perky ears and red tails trailing to the ground. They were the official pamphlet distributors (see grahic). They were our public relations people. Before I could recover from my confusion I was distracted by a noise at the front of the line. There, being hoisted up on the shoulders of three women was an enormous pink paper mache cat, with two pink balloons tied around its neck.


(Insert graphic here)

I've been flipped into an alternate feminist universe, I thought to myself. This is bizarre. The slogans we began reciting (not shouting) were in the invitational, not the command form of Japanese. "Seku hara yamemasho" (Let's stop sexual harassment together) "Shokuba de sabetsu yamemasho" (Let's stop discrimination in the workplace together). Between the kind tone and scenes of cat-women darting into the crowd to deliver pink pieces of paper explaining the cause, I found it hard to recall the intense, charged atmosphere of the hall. These were the same women. Yet as I walked along, chiming in on the "yamemasho" (Let's stop!), all I could think was how ridiculous we looked and how placating we sounded. How could anyone be taking our messages seriously when we looked so cute?

Unable to contain myself any longer I tapped a foreign woman on the shoulder, and asked what she thought of what was going on. "Well," she said, sounding puzzled, "all I can think is that they know the audience better than we do. They probably know best how to reach people." This seemed sensible, and it made me wonder about American culture, where it appears that most people only listen when the voice is loud and the crowd is passionately stirred up . . . even rageful. Later I asked a Japanese friend about why the approach was so gentle and non-threatening. "If you yell," she explained, "people just don't hear. If you're angry, you're considered worse than a little child."

Some Japanese women are angry. As individuals they sometimes bitterly express resentment about living in a society which, despite legislation and government announcements to the contrary, still limits opportunities and choices for women who desire to work, stay single, or start their own businesses. They can broach these subjects individually or in meetings like the conference I attended quite directly. But when interacting as part of society, the operative dynamic is "harmony": the price paid in ostracism if an individual disregards this cardinal rule is wrenching for many Japanese, both men and women.

What is striking about change in Japan, and what was so clear during the "parade" was the emphasis on cooperative work. We the demonstrators were not a group of individuals with an identity separate from our audience, we were perceived as inextricably tied to them, and to their reactions. This makes for murky boundaries. Once, when my mother was at a full stop at a red light she was rear-ended by an oblivious driver. From an American perspective the blame clearly fell on the operator of the other vehicle -- but this was Japan. She was held 25 percent responsible, because if she hadn't been there, occupying that space, the accident would not have happened. The interwoven, interdependent nature of all relationships in Japan is a paramount factor in all social interaction.

This is a huge psychological and sociological difference between the United States and Japan. As editor Shimomura Mitsuko once said, "The American way to change society is surgery. You operate right away, no matter how much blood is spilled, and mop up later. We Japanese prefer to take a vitamin pill each day, to effect change slowly" (Condon, 1986: 320). Whether the issue is deregulating the rice or financial markets, moving the government headquarters out of Tokyo or addressing women's rights, slow, consensus-driven change is the name of the game.

For me, the International Women's Day parade demonstrated that Japanese women are rising to the challenge of scripting meaningful lives separate not only from Japanese men's dictates, but from Western women's as well. As Iwao Sumiko, noted sociologist and observer of Japanese women notes as the thesis of her book, Japanese women have actually been gaining a tremendous amount of freedom without the fanfare and disruption experienced in the United States. She asserts that pragmatism, non-confrontation and a long-term perspective govern this change, and that these strategies have successfully led to a "quiet revolution" (Iwao, 1993: 2). Perhaps not every woman needs to burn her bra to come to a deep appreciation of her wisdom, power and ability.

Copyright 1993, Debra Carlson, Japanese Women in the Workplace, WorldWeave Publications.