Leave: Skittish Women

This sounds sexist, and it is but only because Japan is a fairly sexist place.  First, to understand why I limit the skittishness to women only it’s important to understand that Japan is place operating under a model similar to 1950s America.  Women in many ways are second class citizens.  They are almost completely absent from government and the corporate world.  Seeing a woman in any position of power is a very rare sight.  At schools the vice-principle and the principle will very rarely ever be a woman (although this “rule” is starting to loosen as of late).  There are many positions that are “women only” positions.  For example, at any school there is an office lady position.  It’s always a woman.  These women are like the secretary of the school.  At medical facilities I’ve never once seen a man working at the reception desk.  Nurses are possibly 100% women and to my knowledge positions such as a cafeteria cook are always women.  This creates an environment when just about every early 20s girl you meet in the country is either in nursing school, a nurse, a nursery school teacher, or works at McDonald’s.

Then there’s the entire idea that a woman is basically only around as a baby producing machine.  A Japanese woman unmarried and childless at the age of 25 is often considered an “old maid” who has something innately wrong with her.  The current long-standing mayor of Tokyo is on record saying that elderly women have outlived their usefulness since they are no longer capable of bearing children, and should therefore just remove themselves from society.  In case you’re wondering, there is an ancient Japanese tradition in some parts of the country where old women did just that.  I have heard stories of more remote village junior highs chiding the children for thinking about attending high school or #gasp# college; the girls would be better served getting married at 18 and breeding and the men working the fields.  Oh, women are also expected to quit their jobs immediately upon having children to be a housewife.

I could write up a “leave” section just on this aspect of the culture.  However, I wanted to bring in something that affects me more on a personal level.

All this sexism mixed with the already reserved nature of Japanese people creates some very skittish women.  One thing that irks me is the way many Japanese women walk.  Many women tend to have a major case of foot shuffling.  It’s a walk in which they will walk without taking a step more than their foot’s size in length, never pick up their feet, and tend to keep their arms relatively straight while walking.  Another one is the ultra quiet voice with which many women speak.  So, after shuffling up to you from across the room they will ask you a question in a voice that can only be heard in a sound vacuum.  However, they can’t ask the question because they are too skittish to actually say anything.  So, instead of speaking they just smile or laugh, which necessarily then involves them covering their mouths with their hands.  So now, you have an already very hard voice to hear further suppressed by a hand.  In this situation the woman will tend to stumble around her words, never really saying anything but rather offering a vague “today.. 5pm..” and it’s your job to read the air enough to figure out what she wants.  This is annoying because it repeatedly happens at my job.  Furthermore, this crippling shyness makes it almost impossible to conduct any effective communication with the person.  Specifically to being an English teacher here it makes it almost impossible to use this person in class as well, something that is often times necessary for what you wish to teach.

There is another aspect about this that bugs me and that is that men in the country tend to like fragile, helpless looking women.  This helplessness is thought to be cute by many of the men so it only serves to reinforce the behavior.  Reinforcing this then leads to more of the same problems above.  Yeah, I could really go without the overabundance of skittish women.

Keep: Helpfulness

I think it’s safe to say that Japanese people in general are really quite helpful.  Also, because the culture hinges on not offending other people you will always be helped by someone with a giant smile, a pep in their step, and a cheerful voice.  This helps alleviate any issues you may have about feeling anxious about bothering someone.  It also just makes you feel good in general.

Many visitors who come to Japan comment on how friendly the natives are.  I haven’t seen too many breakdowns of what aspects they find particularly friends.  However, I’m willing to bet that helpfulness is a big part of this.

The main reason I would keep this is that it doesn’t apply only to visitors but extends to everyone.  I can’t count the number of times I personally have been lost or have seen someone lost and then walked all the way to my/their destination by someone just because they wanted to make sure we got there.  I also love the fact that Japanese people never seem too busy to help you out with something.  If you have a problem or a question they are going to try to answer it.  Maybe it’s just the educator in me but I really appreciate this aspect of the culture.