Made in Japan: History and Changing Gender Roles in Japanese Culture
By Ayumi Ikemoto
(Ayumi is an exchange student—a nursing major—from Japan currently attending LASC)
In 2004, I lost my grandfather to lung cancer. He used to smoke a dozen cigarettes a day, drink black coffee with three teaspoons of sugar, and eat a slice of slightly burned toast with plenty of butter on it when he came back from fishing in every single morning. My grandparents on my mother's side, were always arguing about things, and I did not understand why they were like that. However, one thing I did understand was that he had never really worked hard as other Japanese men who supported economic growth after World War II."Japan’s modern history is unusual in Asia because it was the only Asian country to achieve advanced industrial status by the mid-20th century. Before World War II it did so through intensive exploitation of the countryside and imperial conquest. After the war the Japanese rebuilt their economy along far more egalitarian lines. Nonetheless, in common with other Asian countries, Japan could not escape Eurocentrism. While nationalists in Asia faced many of the same conditions and incorporated many of the same elements into their ideas and practices as did their European counterparts, they jointly struggled with the proposition— energetically exported from Europe—that modern national power was somehow the birthright of Europeans but not of Asians" (Hein 1).
When my grandfather left this world under the spring sunshine, I was still in the snow, on the other side of the world. When I saw his diminished cold face, my tears could not stop slipping down. When his burial service finished, my grandmother told me something with her faint voice. There was an official paper written in old writing in front of her. She asked me, "Ayumi, have you ever seen this before? This paper tells you all about his life legally." It was a legal documentation written about his life including his birth place and date, marriage date, children’s birth dates and so on. I could not exactly understand what she was trying to tell me except that there was something which interested her. She started to explain, "This is the date when he married his first wife, and they had three children. I knew, he had another life before we met, but I didn't exactly know why all of them except him were gone. Do you see she passed away from tuberculosis when she was 23 years old? Look, all of their children followed her rest by the same ground within four months. He told me, he went through all of the sadness, but I had never heard how it was directly." I lost my mind when I was faced with the paper, and saw the reality including her mildness as a woman. She was a strong woman who supported all of her family until that date, but her weakened face made me understood she had no opportunities to know what had happened in his life before she met him.
As many elderly people in Japan have lived during the war, lost family members, survived without any food, accepted their wrong influences from Germany, rebuilt the country itself, he had always wanted to chat about the old days with me. The most remarkable story he told was swimming back from the Philippines when his military ship sank under the ocean around the area. I also remember some stories from his youth. He was born in a small harbor town, the second child in four children family in 1927. His father was a fisherman, and he naturally learned how to make a life from the ocean. He worked hard to help his father’s business when he was young. He was going to Brazil to start over a new life when he met and married my grandmother, and moved to a small city located at the edge of the longest island of Japan. At that time, there were many people who left the country and started over a new life in Brazil. It is hard for me to believe that he could have been one of them.
My grandmother was born as the sixth child of four boys and six girls, a big family. She was blind in her right eye from lack of nutrition from birth, and she used to take care of her younger brothers and sisters to support her parents. Mostly, people in Japan had nothing to eat during the war, and she still remembers the old days, such as eating only boiled squash, three times a day. She met my grandfather through a photo to be given to his prospective bride, and she did not have any opportunity to know how he had lived except that all of his family members left him alone. She had worked for him, my aunt and my mother, and had kept telling him to do something. However, he could not get out of his life cycle, fishing, smoking, and gambling. When she was 32 years old during work in a forestry, a big tree, cut by her co-worker, fell on her right hand. All of her right hand fingers were cut off, and she could not sleep for a week from the pain and bleeding. She used to tell my aunt and mother, "Why do you walk on the sidewalk? We don't live in a big house, but I've worked and pay taxes, so we have the right to walk on the center of the road with confidence." My mother always tells me, "I have been looking up to my mother as a woman with great strength."
Each times I go back to my country and see my grandmother, I know how much love can be hidden in everyday life by seeing my grandmother talking to my grandfather in front of his Buddhist altar. Nobody knew how deep his moral bruise was when he was still alive besides seeing my grandmother saying bad words to him. Was it because he filled his emptiness with little pleasures whenever he could? If so, why did he not tell my grandmother? I wish I knew how his life was and had asked him questions to heal him.
It is a well-known world reality that Asian women are socially forced to follow men. "After the War in Japan, the new Constitution that was promulgated in 1946 guaranteed for the first time the equality of men and women under the law. Subsequently, the Civil Code was revised, and a range of domestic laws were enacted, including the Fundamental Law of Education and the Labour Standards Law, which resulted in sweeping improvements in the legal status of women in the family, the workplace and in society generally.Since 1960, the high growth of the Japanese economy brought rapid socio-economic changes such as rise of living standards and scientific and technological progress. These changes, together with longer life expectancy, lower birth rate, and higher educational standards, affected family life, and particularly the lives of women. Women began to participate in ever greater numbers in a range of economic and social activities. However, the equality of men and women has not been fully achieved in practice, for the traditional concept that women are to stay at home is still deeply rooted" (Japan Institute of Workers' Evolution 1).
I suppose you are wondering why they did not divorce although they argued all the time, and why she did not make decisions to make her life happy. "Traditionally, most Japanese women stop working when they get married or pregnant. It's what is expected in Japanese culture, but they usually want to. Most Westerners think they are forced to quit, but they often resign of their own free will. Japanese men also prefer that their wives stay at home once married. Women almost always want to spend as much time as they can with their babies. Nursery schools are few and very expensive in Japan. It makes more sense for the mother to stay at home than work and pay almost all her salary for the nursery. In most Western countries, nurseries and kindergartens are free, which allows lots of mothers to work. Paternity leave does not exist in Japan, and paid maternity leave is not encouraged" (Japan Reference 1).
Against the Japanese traditional custom, my grandmother had worked, never stayed at home, and kept being as a mother even though my grandfather did not work. I would say, Japanese marriage has been changing its role since the Japanese economy increased after second World War. "However, in 95% of cases in Japan, the woman gets exclusive charge of the children. It only seems natural as the father often doesn’t really care about them. He comes back late from work and rarely take part in their education. After a divorce, it's not normal for the father to just forget about his offspring. He doesn't care very much. That's the mother's role to care for them" (Japan Reference 1).
"That might sound crude again to some Westerners, as in the West parents sometimes fight bitterly over the charge of their children, and in peaceful cases, it's usual to find arrangement such as the children stay one week with the mother, next week with the father, or, weekdays at the mother's and weekends at the father's. Many fathers would feel terrible not to see their children regularly" (Japan Reference 1).
I sense that my grandmother has lived her life in a traditional role; however, she had not known her attitude had supported my grandfather’s life as a man. If I lost my partner and all of my children in my twenties. I would not find another life and live in the past. I cannot imagine how much internal power my grandmother had to bring my grandfather another life. It makes me think she fought against women’s right and has changed the traditional frame through her life. I have seen how Japanese women live their lives in its social frame, and I could not find my way to follow its tradition. I think the time when she was at my age and life stage, Japanese social filter for women was thicker, and she naturally tried to break the filter through her life. I suppose that it was not easy, but her strength as a woman actually broke the filter, and supported my grandfather as a woman even though she did not know what happened on his life before she met him. I would like to live my life like my grandmother, supporting a man through her life, someday when the time is come.
Hein, Laura. "The Cultural Career of the Japanese Economy: developmental and cultural nationalisms in historical perspective." Third World Quarterly 29.3 (Apr. 2008) <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=afh&AN=31747822&site=ehost-live>.
. "The Situation of Women in Japan." Japan Institute of Workers' Evolution. 11 May 2009. <http://www.jiwe.or.jp/english/situation/general.html>
"Marriage in Japan and in the West." 15 August 2003. Japan Reference. 30 May 2009 5 <http://www.jref.com/culture/westerners_japanese_marriage.shtml>
Interview with Ayumi's Grandmother
How many brothers and sisters do you have?
I have two older brother who died during the war, two younger brothers, two older sisters and three younger sisters.
How did you meet my grandfather?
We met through arranged marriage.
How different when you were little and now?
There was no food when I was little, it was just the end of the war. I did not have free time, had worked for supporting my family. I could not even study.
Did you have someone you love before you meet my grandfather?
Well, I had. But marrying to someone was not my decision at that time. My parents arranged our marriage for me.
What was the hardest job you have done before?
I did so many things. My knee hurts, so I cannot work nowadays. It is getting much better than last year.
Have you been thought to ask my grandfather about the life with his prior family?
It was not what I could get into, so I just did not ask him how he had felt. He was not that kind of person either.
How much do you remember about the war?
Of course, I do remember. It's hard to forget, but I don't want to think about how it was.
Why did you decide to marry him?
I did not decide, but my parents did. Well, he looked nice, and I needed to leave my parents home, so it was what it is.
How could you manage your life?
Well, I had no choice. Your grandfather never really worked hard, he used money for gambling, and I needed to support your mother and aunt.