"Mad Men" is a critically acclaimed TV show running in America set in the 1960s at an NYC advertising agency. It has run here in Japan on WOWOW.
It takes place in a world where the men were white, loved their Martinis, smoked big cigars and played it the company way.
Part of the success of the show has been its portrayal of sexism in that era, an era where, at least according to the lyrics of a Frank Loesser musical “How To Succeed In Business,” men had to be reminded that “A secretary is not a toy!”
Conversely, it was an era where the company ladies worked in the secretary pool, dressed chic and beautifully and dreamed of capturing a good man and living out her life in domestic bliss or servitude (depending upon how you look at it.)
In “How to Succeed,” the leading lady, Rosemary, instantly falls in love with the ambitious Mr Finch. As she imaginatively dreams about the life she’ll live in New Rochelle, NY, when once she captures her man, her friend reminds her, “Honey, you’ll be in New Rochelle… your darling tycoon will be here in the office. The future Mrs Finch is in for some lonely nights,” to which she responds, “Smitty, I’m prepared for exactly that type of thing…” and sings:
"I'll be so happy to keep his dinner warm While he goes onward and upward; Happy to keep his dinner warm Till he comes wearily home from down town.
I'll be there waiting until his mind is clear While he looks through me, right through me; Waiting to say, 'Good evening, dear. I'm pregnant. What's new with you from down town?'
Oh, to be loved by a man I respect; To bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect. Oh, to belong in the aura of his frown--darling busy frown. Such heaven--wearing the wifely uniform While he goes onward and upward. Happy to keep his dinner warm Till he comes wearily home from down town."
That was in 1961. In 1963, Betty Friedan challenged the myth of domestic bliss with the publication of the “The Feminine Mystique.” It was based on a questionnaire she sent to the other women from her Smith College Graduating Class in which her classmates all indicated a general dissatisfaction with her life. This led her to conduct additional research on a type of general unhappiness the housewives of that era had which she related to a sense of worthlessness, despite living in material comfort and being happily married with fine children. She noted how their entire identity was dependent upon that of the success of their husband, and argued that in order to find fulfillment, women too needed to find meaningful work just as men do in order to find fulfillment in their lives.
And then came the women’s liberation movement of the '70s and some changes occurred; however, according to the The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, “Women perform 66% of the world’s work, produce 50% of the food, but earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the property.”
Today’s Japan reminds me a lot of that transitional period toward the early '60s and beginning of the '70s.
It is anecdotal common sense that here in Japan a great deal of off-season hiring occurs as a result of women suddenly upping and leaving, some with as little as two weeks to a month notice due to pregnancy or finding some dream man and moving off to some exotic location. (Unlike the former, the latter often come back.)
Typically, there is both happiness for the retiring OL ... and grumbling too.
I’ve even heard women say it. “You hire a woman, promote her, give her responsibilities – and suddenly she just quits with a couple of weeks' notice and everyone else has to take on the responsibilities. This is why managers are reluctant to promote women.”
Statistically speaking, the grumbling isn’t just “sexist ranting.” According to a government survey, only 1 in 3 women currently take advantage of family leave laws that have been in effect for the past 12 years. One exasperated career woman tells me, “At the hospital where I worked, the personnel manager was kept busy hiring over 400 new employees this year alone.” On the other hand, two decades ago, more than 70% of Japanese women quit work after the birth of their first child. Today, 48.9% of married women work – many not so much out of career ambition, but rather out of fear that their husbands might lose their jobs.
But in relatively ideology-free Japan, it should be pointed out that “gender equality” is not as much a human rights issue as economic pragmatism. A rapidly aging population and declining birthrate have Japanese economists braced for the worst, so the government has struggled with the issue of how to encourage women to have more kids. One solution was the DPJ’s scrapped “Cash for Children” program; others have included initiatives that allow women to be able to balance between having careers and having kids. The government has also set up committee after committee and plenty of info filled websites to go with them, too.
But is it working – and is there a difference between women’s rights as a progressive human rights issue vs offering a few perks simply to get women to get cracking on the population problem?
Other questions must be asked as well. What kind of impact has the Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society made so far? Has it gone far enough? What about educational and social reform? And ultimately we must ask: Is the modern Japanese woman of today 'How To Succeed In Business’s' Rosemary, Friedan’s desperate housewife, or the modern career woman?
I hope to analyze some of these issues in upcoming stories, but in the meantime, let the discussions begin!© Japan Today