“Go get me some tea”. My 77-year old boss didn’t bother to look up from his papers. I bounced up with a high-pitched “hai!” and meekly slipped out the door to make the man some bitter, bitter, Japanese tea. When I returned, he gazed up at me and flashed a toothless smile. “You have become quite Japanese, Era-chan”.
This cringe-worthy episode took place in a more innocent time when I had yet to grow a solid backbone. Fortunately, I did evolve eventually, but Japan somehow managed to miss the gender equal train and had to walk instead. Tough going.
Sitting on a train to Kyoto, I stared at my Japanese friend in disbelief. Let’s call her Mami, because well, that’s her name.
“Your boss did what?” I said outrageously, spilling senbei crumbs over my new jeans.
“He said I should do more makeup,” Mami repeated for the second time.
“But he has no right!” I spluttered, bewildered.
She gave me a knowing smile.
“Shoganai yo. It can’t be helped”
I didn’t push the point, sensing a wall of resignation behind her words. But to myself, I thought that if my boss ever dared to speak like that to me, he’d get an earful. Little did I know how lucky I was about to get.
Welcome to the kaisha
The first day at my new job was mostly spent greeting everyone with awkward 45-degree bows and hurried mini-bows for good measure. Being new at the kaisha (company) I was immediately instructed in proper manners. Although some things were never explicitly spelled out, I understood anyway. The women make tea for the Important Dudes. The women take copies for the Important People. And of course, the women do the dishes in the kitchen. Wait, what? I’m barely capable of doing the dishes in my own place, surely you don’t expect me to do it here…? Yeah, no. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…
“She is very pretty of course, but don’t you think she’d be so much cuter with makeup?” asked Boss A to Boss B. Never mind I was standing right there.
“So desu ne. Absolutely,” said Boss B agreeably.
The two men beamed at me. Right. What other aspiration in life could I possibly have than being cute? Okay, calm and steady now. Let’s handle this with tactful grace.
“That’s a really outdated way of thinking,” I blurted without thinking. So much for tact.
Let’s just say the conversation went downhill from there. They weren’t too happy, and neither was I. So I quit.
No, I’m not a secretary.
First off, nothing wrong with being a secretary. But here’s the thing: I ain’t one. I’m the manager.
After being upgraded from professional tea-fetcher, I thought work-life would be easier. Well, what can I say? I’m just a positive person. But there is a reason why only 3.7% of Japanese women are in managerial positions (womenomics be damned).
It starts with casual dismissal. Ah yes you’re that pretty girl. An assistant no? Aw, you are so cute when you get angry! Careful so you don’t get wrinkles though. Got a boyfriend? Shouldn’t girls like you get married soon? Clock’s ticking you know. Let’s go on a date.
Then it’s a game of Social Expectations vs You. Imagine spending your entire life believing the sky is blue, then you find out that it’s actually green. That’s the level of ingrained beliefs you are going against. Oh, you are the manager? But there is a male person standing next to you…? Hmm, strange. Oh, you won’t pour me beer and listen to my jokes for three hours? Odd. You refuse to bring me tea? How peculiar.
Then there is the next level stuff.
You know, like refusal to talk with you because you’re a woman. One time I went for a meeting with a partner – let’s call him Mr. Twat. I introduced myself and held my hand out to greet him. Mr. Twat refused to look at me and my poor hand, leaving it to hang in the air like a bad joke. Bypassing me, he instead shook hands with my male co-worker and addressed him for the rest of the meeting.
Not my best day at work.
Silence is golden
The problem isn’t that a twat or two said something stupid. Sticks and stones, as they say. No, the real issue is the silent, unspoken things that fly around the room like dust. The social, cultural and structural pressures that ghost through walls and minds alike. A lot of these can be side-stepped by an outsider like myself, whose antics are just put down to foreign-ness. Meanwhile, the people inside the system are stuck to deal with it in all its glory.
Japan has now slipped down to 114th place on the Global Gender Gap Index. It’s high time to walk faster Japan. Much faster.