When thinking of some of the world’s most modern societies, most people tend to expect a certain amount of technological and social advancement. While there can be no doubt that Japan is right up there with the best on the technology front, as a society it remains somewhat lacking in anything along the lines of gender equality.
The other day, I met a Japanese friend (Miss Kitty, in case I ever need to refer to her in a later post) to discuss the possibility of my participation in her extremely ambitious plans for her startup business. About halfway through this meeting, I was honestly shocked to hear the details of what she had decided would be a reasonable fee for her customers to pay. But what shocked me wasn’t the actual amount of money she required, but the fact that she had calculated her fee differently for men and women.
Last month, I stumbled upon a sign announcing the existence of a ‘Gender Equality Promotion Center’ in the vicinity of a train station some distance out of central Tokyo. While I have yet to check it out, just knowing that it is there gave me some hope that Japan was at last starting to make real progress towards equality. Of course, Miss Kitty’s plans were a real kick in the face for my pretty dreams. Not only does she expect men to pay double that of women – but she also intends to offer a 1/3 discount to every woman who brings along a man. That is to say, a 1/3 discount for each man a woman can convince to accompany her; there would conceivably be some women who would receive Miss Kitty’s services for free. Crazy, right?
The truly shocking part of Miss Kitty’s plan is that it is genuinely conceivable. Even these days, it is very common in Japan to see entertainment-related services charging more for men. This is limited not only to places like clubs, where the thinking is obviously “men want to meet women, so we’ll attract all the women and the men will flock to pay more”, but is also a policy encouraged by the local cinemas, all of which host a ‘ladies day’ once a week allowing women to see films at almost half price. Although some few cinemas are recently beginning to incorporate a similar ‘mens day’, these fee-related policies are continuing evidence that Japan, as a society, is reluctant to let go of two central ideas which promote gender inequality. These ideas are namely: That a gender wage gap is completely normal and acceptable, and; That men should naturally provide the financial support that women require.
All of which leads directly to another problem. “If you get married and start a family, do you think you might still be able to participate in this business?” asks Miss Kitty, quite seriously. Japan has one of the highest rates of university education in the world, for women as well as men. But it is still more conceivable than not that a Japanese woman will quit working and become a fulltime housewife as soon as she has children. This is not to say that Japanese women are not interested in a career, and do not have goals they wish to pursue outside of the family. Rather, Japanese society as a whole has failed to provide any decent support for working mothers. The childcare system is exclusive and expensive (as another friend trying to get into the workforce after giving birth complained extensively), prospective employers are unwilling to hire a woman who does not have a guarantee of finding childcare for her baby, and anyway, even if a new mother had a job, trying to divide parenting and career responsibilities with the father just seems ridiculous when you take into consideration how much more his employers likely pay him for his time.
And so, all my pretty dreams of an egalitarian Japan are all gone to dust, and seem unlikely to be resurrected anytime soon. Of course, I certainly hope that something soon will precipitate real change, and trigger a genuine step towards gender equality. But with the country still run on such a conservative basis, we’ll have a real fight on our hands to make anyone with power even see that the situation is broken, let alone that it needs fixing.