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A few deep thoughts

Yesterday at school, there were more than a few school children around. The fifth graders had to come to school for some kind of mandatory pre-semester meeting or something. Of course all the kids walking by stopped and started a little at the new foreigner. I actually happen to love it, I wave back and make the kids feel all uncomfortable about staring. At the end of the day, as I was walking out of the office to get my shoes, I ran into two kids, a boy and a girl. The girl saw me first and said: “高い!背が高い!” Which means, with some additions on my part: “Tall! Holy shit he’s tall!” I laughed. Then the boy saw me. “何で?!へううう!逃げろう!” Literally, it’s: “Why?! Huuuuuh?! RUN AWAY!!!” and run away he did, scampering up the stairs and out of sight. The girl just kind of scoffed and hung around. As I was putting on my shoes he came back to see if the coast was clear, only to notice I was still there. Away he goes once more, screaming. Now, I am 95% sure that he was having a laugh (Is he having a laugh?! Are you having a laugh?!) and wasn’t actually so terrified. But there’s still that 5% that makes me giggle every time I think about it. His reaction was classic, especially since he used “何で” instead of anything else. “But why?! Why would someone do this to me?!”

Switching gears a little bit here to a more analytical aspect of being in Japan…

Never is Japan’s homogeneity more noticeable than when you order fast food here. In America, working at a fast food restaurant is not exactly a desired position. Which is why generally it’s delegated to those of more unfortunate backgrounds, or the recent immigrant working population. This has one major side effect (and many other slightly more minor ones, to be sure). It generally leads to a feeling of unhappiness to be working there, which is reflected in the way the customers are handled. This in turn leads to a customer base that eats there not because it’s an enjoyable experience, but simply because it’s cheap, or because it’s the food that’s closest to where ever you are working or living. It also may lead to a few rather amusing stories about yours truly trying to order a meal at McDonald’s, and then leaving to the scowling face of my cashier who had on four occasions attempted to ask me if I wanted ketchup, all four times having to repeat herself because what was supposed to come out as: “D’you want ketchup with that?” (Not even a “Would you like some ketchup with that?”) rather came out as “D’y haohsif ktup thnarthnn?” Honestly, I probably would have been able to understand her if she had said that.

In Japan, though, this is not the case. There are smiling faces, bows abound, and the most polite language possible in Japanese. Being so used to dealing with unhappy personnel at fast food places, it always shocks me to see “normal” Japanese people working there, and being extremely happy and polite about it. This is leading me to a bigger overarching theme though, so please bear with me. I am not writing this to preach to high heavens about the virtues of the Japanese spirit, and the work ethic that they have versus America, though they certainly do make you feel damn happy about shopping at their store. The overarching observation in all of this, though, is that all of the people working behind the fast food counters, and pretty much all of the service industry in Japan are women. There is a smattering of young men as well, but overwhelmingly these jobs are stocked with the fairer sex. They are Japan’s second class workers. The only difference is they can speak Japanese, whereas many of the service industry workers in America can’t speak English. (Actually there are more differences, which I will get to later.) The contrast isn’t quite as easy to pick up here because they’re all so nice, and all seem so damn happy to be working, but the fact still remains that they are women. Many of whom probably have a college degree. So what are they doing there, you may ask? (There you go with the interrupting questions again!) Well, they are there because working as a career in Japan as a woman is still not the main goal for many Japanese women. In America, women want it all. They want to get married, have kids, get a white picket fence, and have a great job! And this is not a pipe dream, it’s perfectly possible. In Japan, though, the two (kids and a great job) are pretty much mutually exclusive.

I don’t want to live in generalities, so I must stress that there are a lot of Japanese women who are working, and are married, and are making it work in Japan. Still, though, for the most part, it is expected that when marriage occurs (often before the age of 26, to avoid becoming a Christmas cake, which clearly no one wants after the 26th of December because it’s stale…) the wife will stop working and stay home to take care of the kids, which will inevitably come. And so, though they have college degrees, and though they studied foreign languages, or sociology, or history, after graduation in April there are hordes of sharp looking, fresh out of college women going out and searching for jobs, not to be translators, or sociologists, or historians, but to be sales clerks at a department store, or electronics store, or fast food restaurant. And they are OK with this because they know that it’s only a temporary job. In a matter of years they will be getting married and exiting the work force, so working at a fast food restaurant or other service establishment is not a humbling position, merely a way to bridge the gap. This in turn leads to a more positive attitude at work, which brings us all the way back to where I started: The Japanese service industry is one of the most polite and happy industries in the world.

I am not going to get into lecturing Japan about its policy towards women in the workforce. It has been written about enough, and frankly I am no authority on it. This whole argument stems from my observations on living here, and perhaps also a little bit from having far too much time at work without anything to do. Perhaps I am overstating the role their future life prospects play in the way they act at work. Maybe it’s all to do with the simply amazing Japanese work ethic. I would argue, though, that at least part of it has to do with the fact that working at a restaurant or department store is not a bad thing in Japan, for the reasons I spelled out before.

My brain hurts,


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  1. Winnie
    August 24, 2009 at 12:31 am

    Dash you should have this discussion at Simmons you would be a hit. They would argue with you until you agree these women are surpressed and your sex are pigs. One time my old classmate shared once she’s done with college she’s going to get married and be a stay at home mom … my whole class, including the professors, gave her a displeased look. This “situation” is very complicated with a mix of cultural differnces, personal chocies, and maybe even ignorance. Personally, i don’t think there is a right or wrong. Without knowing the individual’s circumstance we cannot judge these women’s lives nor do we have the right to judge a lifestyle we do not understand. I believe if your not fulfilling your dreams due to your sex now that’s a sin, but if being a full time mother and wife is your dream then more power to you.

    Dash, i can go on forever on this subject. I went to an all girl college and even a short study abraod to study/answer this question it still hurts my head. Don’t let it hurt yours, save that for the kids 🙂

    btw im not impressed with the kids screaming. I want strangers takeing random pictures of you. That’s what happened to me … it was scary but a thrill!

  2. Sam K
    September 8, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Nice insight, keep up the good work!

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