Fantasies of an 'outsider'

Women in Japan half step behind?

By William Wetherall

A review of
Jane Condon
A Half Step Behind
(Japanese Women of the '80s)
New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1985
xii, 319 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 132(17), 24 April 1986, page 56

Since the liberation bug bit the world's wealthier women in the 1960s, there has been a plethora of books in English on the "plight" of the better half in Asia. Most of these books have been written by non- Asian women who were trained as Asian scholars. Yet all remain dwarfed by the volumes that were cranked out in the pre-lib past by the missionary tourists who had ethnocentric reasons of their own to be concerned about the low status and high suffering endured by their Asian sisters.

Jane Condon claims to be only a journalist (Japan stringer for Life and People), but she shares the rescue fantasies of her PhDed and ordained forebears. She also prefaces her book with the familiar self- deceiving assurance that being an "outsider" enabled her to raise questions "no Japanese would have had the gall to ask", and to elicit answers which her interviewees "would have tactfully sidestepped" had she been Japanese.

"There were obstacles, of course" she admits, beginning with "the [Japanese] language itself, which is deliberately ambiguous and poorly suited to outspoken confession." But since Condon confides that "in the interest of accuracy . . . I always used an interpreter", it seems that her biggest barrier was really her lack of linguistic access to the enormous outpouring of oral and written testimonies which demonstrate that women of every ethnic and social caste in Japan are perfectly capable of clearly saying what is on their mind without alien cues.

Readers who choke through the rest of the preface will discover a fairly readable account of where Japanese women think they are. At least they will find selected responses of the roughly 200 women who Condon interviewed in eight different prefectures, and probed with questions so galling that one of her interpreters spilled his scotch on his crotch when she asked a bar mama "Do your hostesses sleep with their customers?"

Four chaptered parts are preceded by an historical introduction and are followed by simple citation notes and a brief bibliography of recent English-language books on women in Japan, and an index to help pickers and choosers find what the author has written about Koreans or other minorities (only a few comments, for no minorities appear in the book, as though to imply that they are not also a part of Japan's hidden assets); pornography, prostitution, and sex (dozens of amusing pages that wonder "How harmful could reading manga [(erotic) comics] or visiting a no-pantie coffeeshop be when, after all, Japan does have an extremely low rate of rape?"); and suicide (two mentions in passing are inspired by only newspaper clippings and stereotypes).

The gist of Condon's historical digest is that, though the lot of Japanese women who traditionally "minced along three steps behind their husbands" has greatly improved, they remain "a half step behind". The title was suggested by the words of a factory worker who thought that this would be the ideal distance to walk behind her future husband, just like retired popular singer Momoe Yamaguchi reportedly walks with her actor-husband Tomokazu Miura.

"Japan's surge to the forefront of the world economy certainly is due to management practices, hardworking businessmen, and the strong relationship between business and government, but not to these factors alone," Condon argues. "Japan's hidden asset is its women, who -- largely unnoticed and unheralded -- graciously and quietly make the economic miracle possible."

Part 1 on "Family" covers marriage, divorce, feminism, and old age. Condon remarks that "Controlling the husband, home, and bank account may sound like a lot of power -- and the standard male argument is that it is -- but such female power is in part illusory, because if she is divorced, the woman has next to nothing." But Japanese divorcees must have more than their ex-husbands, for how else could Condon explain the fact (apparently unknown to her) that divorced men are much more likely to commit suicide?

Part 2 on "Education" deals with education mamas, schools and teachers, students, and the challenge ahead. Three mothers who devote themselves to their children's education by pushing, pressuring, and cajoling them to score well on entrance exams, requested anonymity because being so obsessed with school achievement is not something that many mothers are openly proud of, though Condon reminds us that not all women are education mothers.

"Work" is the subject of Part 3, which includes interviews with career women, job-hunters, part-timers, office ladies, blue-collar workers, entertainers, and older white-collar workers. "There is increasing acceptance of women working once they marry, and of women returning to work," Condon writes. "Whether their husbands like it or not, whether society likes it or not, indeed whether some of them like it or not, the majority of Japanese women are working."

In a drum-beating concluding part called "Mountain-Moving Day", Condon is certain that "As sure as cherry blossoms bloom in the spring and typhoons rage in the fall, there's a quiet revolution going on in Japan." She disagrees with a Japanese professor who thinks that the growing number of working women is the crest of a wave, and that their "illusory power" is cyclical. And she discounts the prediction of a banker who thinks that they'll "go back home" because the trend to venture out into society is "like the swing of a pendulum".

But "The momentum is building," Condon insists. "Millions of underemployed and overeducated women are sitting at home, bowing beside the escalators, serving tea, or greeting customers -- just waiting for their talent to be tapped, ready to contribute to the next economic miracle."

The interviews are candid. And Condon's personal interjections are usually objective and sometimes humorous. But as an effort to raise the reader's critical awareness, the book fails because Condon forgot to play devil's advocate with herself.

A number of pioneer feminists in America are having second thoughts about the women's movement in light of some of its pathological consequences on women, men, and children. But Condon is content to complain that "one night a [Japanese?] drunkard grabbed me on the Ginza and planted a big sloppy kiss on my lips" while tritely concluding that "Mountain-moving day is coming. In fact, it may already be here."