Being a career woman in Japan – a story of tea and men

“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“That’s a really outdated way of thinking,” I blurted without thinking.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.

5 thoughts on “Being a career woman in Japan – a story of tea and men

  1. Wow! Story of my life! I was able to make it to 11 years working as a manager for a major Japanese maker who was never outspokenly promoted manager because “becoming a manager comes with too many burdens for a woman mother of two!”
    But still I hung around because I thought I was making a change. Fool me! The gaijin woman that after two maternity leaves comes back at work not taking the full year of well deserved rest because ” if you are not here nothing happens”. And still I hung around. Because I thought I was making a change and being the good example, the role model that women in the company needed. Fool me! Fool me twice but not three times. This woman, mother of two, who didn’t take the full maternity leave decided to leave the company because ” don’t you want to stay home and take care of the kids?” said by my supervisor was just too much to take!

    1. Wow, thanks for sharing! I applaud you for making it 11 years. That, if anything, is an impressive feat.
      But I’m reluctant to think of it as a waste. I am sure many people, and women around you, looked up to you as an example (without really speaking up).

      Now, when it comes to the systematic discrimination of women, THAT is a tough nut to crack. Hand on heart, I believe it needs a few generations until it’s completely eradicated (if ever). It’s sad that it’s still an old-mans world here and we are still in the pioneer stage of equal rights.

      At least, I hope that you found a better place for yourself and that the amount of doltishness you need to suffer is now limited.

  2. I have read through a few of your articles and it is very disheartening to hear all the troubles females have to go through. What was it that made you stay, or leave or continue doing what you are doing in Japan? I may be interested in checking out the living scene in Japan in the future. I am starting to become deterred because of my background, an Asian foreigner which entails a lot of racism and discrimination towards us as well.

    1. Hey Bruce, sorry for the late reply! Good question. Basically I think it’s good to have realistic expectations when you move somewhere, and the rest is just up to luck, friends, and how you are as a person. I know many people from Asian backgrounds (and otherwise) who are perfectly happy to be here despite obvious sexism and sometimes racism. Then I know people who have left because they were unhappy.
      I don’t think anyone can tell you what to do really, but you just gotta see if Japan fits you 🙂 It is a country with many good sides as well, but of course no place is perfect. What makes me stay? Well, right now I have more positive things going for me than negative, so I can deal with the crappy sides. But the day the balance tips, I will leave.

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