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  November 7, 2000  

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New pride of place for Japanese women
By Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO - Japan's lingering political and economic malaise has given new strength to women, who find that hard times have freed them from old constraints that forced them to take second place to men.

''More men than women are in despair over the 'fall' of Japan, as analysts describe the current national situation,'' says Kaori Sasaki, 45, who recently launched the highly successful website called eWoman. ''For energetic and ambitious Japanese women, the time cannot be better.''

Indeed, as experts point out, the rising number of bankruptcies and lack of political leadership in Japan have squarely toppled the earlier era where men, not women, commanded respect and admiration in Japanese society. They point to the sagging popularity of men seen in almost daily media reports about top male businessmen or politicians accused of bad management, bribe-taking or unscrupulous behavior. These, critics say, are responsible for Japan's dwindling economic fortunes and decreasing international stature.

Last week, the Japanese public was treated to the dirty details of the bankruptcy of Sogo Department Store, one of the country's leading chain stores that symbolized Japan's postwar economic success. Its former chairman, 88-year-old Hiroo Mizushima, apologized to the public on November 1 for the collapse of the glitzy store chain. He is facing a lawsuit for mismanagement that led to the company's collapse. Two other male executives had committed suicide when Sogo declared bankruptcy.

Women politicians may also be experiencing a boom in popular support. Just weeks ago, Etsudo Kawada, who campaigned on a platform supporting the rights of patients and consumers, won a Tokyo by-election. She had earlier won a lawsuit against a male doctor whose clinic had given her son tainted blood with HIV.

In comparison to the dismal picture in established business and political circles, Sasaki's eWoman portrays a scenario of many different opportunities for women at this time. The site eWomen, which already boasts 50,000 subscribers after its launch in September, is one of a dozen such sites aimed at women. Sasaki says the free website aims to help ordinary women launch their own careers in a country that is still largely male-dominated when it comes to career advancement.

Women directors or general managers accounted for just 2.1 percent of the total in 1999, according to the Management and Coordination Agency. Figures for women department heads were also at a mere 3.4 percent, and section chiefs at 8.2 percent. But these shocking statistics have actually helped launch the age of the woman in Japan, says Kazue Suzuki, a freelance reporter specializing in gender issues. ''Now women can turn around and say, 'Look, it's time for women to take over because the way men lead Japan is not going to work any more,''' she argues.

The Internet has provided a crucial opportunity for women in Japan. Sasaki points out that Japanese women have to juggle work and career - and her website allows women to do both. The site offers a variety of information on jobs, career counseling, parenting advice and social tips that include how to spend a quiet evening with your husband or lover.

''The site is an example of how women want Japan to be hard driven, but at the same time a society that still has a lot of time for family and social life,'' explains Sasaki.

At the top of the list of problems faced by career-seeking women is household chores. Surveys by the Prime Minister's gender equality section reveal that less than 20 percent of Japanese men take responsibility for family care. ''When I was just entering the job market, it was common for women to still choose between family and career because Japanese men were supposed to the breadwinners,'' explains Sasaki. ''But today I believe that women can have both.''

Japan's changed younger generation also represents the challenges faced by men in the country. Teenage mothers sporting tanned skin and trendy mini-skirts are a far cry from their own mothers, who retired to be homemakers once they have gotten married. Yuko Hayashi, a 20-year-old mother with two children, plans to go back to school in a few years' time. ''I asked my husband to cooperate and he has agreed. We have asked his parents to help with babysitting,'' she says.

Masami Ohinata, a professor of psychology and women's studies at Keisen Jogakuen College, says younger women now have more courage to follow their own paths while ignoring social pressures to follow the traditional image of a good mother.

Thirty-year-old Mayumi Takahashi, who works as an aerobic instructor, agrees. She lives with her parents and is planning to find work soon on a cruise ship to be able to see the world. ''I would never live like my mother when she was young. I think Japan will have more women like me in the future, a situation that will make the country a much more interesting place to live in,'' Takahashi laughs.

(Inter Press Service)

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