Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Gender equality

One disturbing feature of Japanese society is the under-representation of women in the workplace. Although Japan has become a modern nation, the old social norm which stresses women should learn to self-cultivate the Confucian ideal of ryosai kenbo (good wife, wise mother) still has some validity.

Attitudes of male chauvinism still exist in some companies. Women employees are generally referred to as "office flowers" because of the emphasis many employers place on their physical appearance. As opposed to those duties designated for their male counterparts, "female" duties include copying, mailing, answering the phone, and serving tea.

The educated career woman does exist in Japan, but in lesser numbers than in other industrialized nations. There are some women executives in small businesses, but they are almost invisible in big corporations.

Pressured by the United Nations to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, Japan passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1985. Japanese women have made some gains in the workplace ever since, however, they still lag far behind men in terms of job retention and career advancement.

Mariko, an acquaintance in her early forties, joined a big financial corporation in 1992, after graduating from a national university with a master's degree in labor relations. She hoped the law would fully protect her from inequity, but she was very disappointed. Like many other Japanese women, her promising career ended in 1999, when she got married and had a child. She was passed over for promotion after she started leaving work before 5 p.m. to take care of her son. Then, she was pushed into a dead-end clerical job. She got frustrated and finally quit.

"Japanese customs make it almost impossible for women to have both a family and a career," said Mariko, "Most Japanese still believe the priority for married women should be the home and family. Even though I was working full time, my husband and mother-in-law expected me to do all the housework." Indeed, this traditional mindset results in an M-curve of women participation in the Japanese workforce. Most Japanese women experience their peak participation in the workforce as full-time workers before marriage and then as part-timers after their children enter junior high school. In effect, this phenomenon prevents women from attaining equal opportunity in the workplace.

Acknowledging that there are differences between women and men, they do not determine the superiority of one group over the other. However, these differences have been, in most societies, not just in Japan, excuses for placing women in an inferior position. It would seem that a woman's biological capacity to give birth has relegated her, until fairly recently, almost exclusively to the home. Only when gender equality becomes a goal in the minds of the majority of Japanese citizens will gender discrimination more swiftly meet its demise. Without a new perspective on old social norms, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law will remain powerless against ingrained stereotypes.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: July 9, 2010 (published in Japan Times ST)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Time for mass immigration

As an author and illustrator of juvenile literature, I often visit schools to read my books to children. I am always amazed at the small number of students at Japanese schools. One elementary school I visited recently was built to accommodate 400 students, but there were only 10 children enrolled.

Japan is facing a crisis. The fertility rate is now less than two children per woman. At the same time, low fertility is accelerating the aging of the Japanese population. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, people aged 65 or older accounted for 22.7 percent as of October 2009, while those aged up to 14 represented only 13.3 percent of the total. If current trends continue, the population is expected to decrease by one-third by 2050, with nearly 50 percent of those being elderly -- an "impossible" situation for maintaining the health and pension systems.

Concern over these trends has sparked intense debate over the best policy to reverse them or mitigate their impact. So far, the policy debate has predominantly focused on encouraging more childbearing, especially among younger couples. But, many young men are increasingly reluctant to marry for financial reasons; women are choosing to stay single, or marry later and have fewer children. Isn't this policy unrealistic? Furthermore, the situation is perhaps more urgent than one that can be fixed by encouraging people to have more babies. It is already too late to try to increase fertility levels to offset the burden on the working population.

The United Nations estimates that Japan would need to admit 647,000 immigrants annually for the next 50 years in order to maintain an effective working population size, or face an annual drop in gross domestic product (GDP) of 7 percent. The Japanese government, however, severely restricts permanent immigration in all its forms. Japanese people are intensely zealous for keeping their supposedly "homogeneous" ethnic culture and deeply suspicious of the changes it would undergo in the event of mass immigration.

After my lecture on "The Importance of Promoting Multiculturalism in Japan" to a group of Japanese government officials the other day, a middle-aged woman stood up and argued: "We Japanese have always been proud of our nation as a mono-ethnic and mono-cultural society. Somehow, Japan becoming a multiethnic or multicultural society is wrong." This is not an uncommon view. Indeed, the majority of Japanese would likely agree that their society is defined by a unique Japanese identity, one based on a deep-rooted ethnicity.

To respond positively to the major demographic transition and maintain its vitality in the 21st century, Japan cannot avoid the task of creating an environment that offers equal opportunities for people of various ethnic groups. In brief, this means coming up as soon as possible with an effective immigration policy that will accept foreigners as potential Japanese citizens. Achieving greater cultural diversity within Japan has the power of broadening the scope of the nation's intellectual creativity and enhancing its social vitality and global competitiveness.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: June 4, 2010 (Published in Japan Times ST)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Emancipation for young adults

April is a month of colorful flowers and green shoots. It symbolizes rebirth and boosts new signs of life. My spirit is usually warm and serene during this month. I feel especially this way when I see a kimono-clad mother and her 6-year-old child walk to an elementary entrance ceremony, as beautiful cherry blossom petals fall on their shoulders. I feel hopeless, though, when I hear many Japanese parents overprotect their college-aged children.

A few days ago an octogenarian acquaintance, Watanabe-san, told me a story about parents and their sons who were on their way to the matriculation ceremony of a university in Fukuoka. In essence, he described the scene as follows:

It suddenly began to rain. A father quickly took off his water-resistant windbreaker and put it on his son. With a trendy camcorder in hand, he trotted beside him, all the while getting soaked by the rain. The son — a very tall young man — walked on with perfect composure. Also, there was a mother and son. The mother, wearing an expensive dress and carrying a large parcel, was desperately hurrying in the rain to keep up with her son. The latter — a stout young man — was walking with big strides, holding over his head a lady's umbrella (surely his mother's).

Watanabe-san concluded the story by saying he did not feel there was the slightest bit of affection between these parents and their children. Then he continued, "The most conspicuous trends in Japan since World War II are: littering at scenic spots and the spoiling of children." I quite agreed with him and nodded in reply. Both the trash left by hanami revelers at beautiful cherry-blossom viewing spots and the scene in his story, describing parents and their sons en route to a matriculation ceremony share a common root. The first indicates the selfish ego of people who enjoy themselves without considering others, as if to say, "After us, the deluge." The second indicates the selfish ego of parents who stifle their children's independence, inspiring only vicarious hope.

Children must be precious to their parents. I myself have three beautiful children that I cherish. I understand how proud Japanese parents must feel when they are about to attend their offspring's matriculation ceremony. But the more pride these parents feel in their children, the more respect they should have for their emancipation. From the time children enter a university, they must be given the opportunity to acquire the discipline and culture necessary to emerge as full-fledged adults. What matters most in this process of development is the emotional transition from dependence on one's parents' affection to a condition of standing on one's own. Parental love should, even if indirectly, help children develop their spirit of independence.

In Kita-kitsune Monogatari (The Glacier Fox) — a great documentary film about the life of red foxes in Hokkaido — the most touching scene is the departure of a young fox from its parents. After raising them carefully, even foxes do their utmost to make their youngsters independent. I think we human beings need to reconsider our roles as parents.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: April 23, 2010 (Published in Japan Times ST)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The original purpose of education

The Japanese education system is seen by many critics as fostering rote learning over creativity and critical thinking. Preparing for entrance exams is the main purpose of schooling in Japan, and that is simply a matter of technique. Students develop successful methods to retain required knowledge and regurgitate it during the test. There's almost no room for understanding and personal intellectual development.

"Can anyone explain Newton's third law?" I asked as I walked towards a group of high school students gathered for a math and science event in Fukuoka recently.

"For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," they instantly answered in chorus. But unfortunately, none of them was able to explain this basic physics law because they didn't understand it.

"There is a big difference between reciting words and really understanding what they mean," I said. I then illustrated the principle with the following example: "Suppose you push against a wall while wearing roller skates, you will move backwards as a result of the force of your push. Whenever one body exerts force upon a second body, the second body exerts an equal and opposite force upon the first body."

I later asked a group of 10 junior high school students to multiply two numbers together. They all got the correct answer. But when I asked them with a multiple-choice question to most closely approximate the product of 4.05 x 6.2 — an exercise that tested their basic understanding rather than their grasp of the multiplication tables — only two students chose 25 (the correct answer); many guessed 2.5.

Principles of science and math need to be explained to students and learning by rote should be avoided. Even Albert Einstein, the renowned physicist who unlocked mysteries of the universe, detested rote learning. Japanese teachers and students should know that Einstein was not good at cramming for exams. At age 15, he was expelled from school for undistinguished performance. Later, at Zurich Polytechnic, he flunked a course in physics, scoring the lowest grade possible. He graduated, but near the bottom of his class. The reason for this mediocrity was that his teachers rewarded regurgitation, but Einstein's strength was imagination.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge," Einstein once said. "For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution." At an early age, Einstein visualized himself riding on a sunbeam to the end of the universe and again returning back to the sun. That's how he conceived his famous theory of relativity.

The original purpose of education does not lie in seeing how much knowledge one can accumulate, nor is it to achieve an impressive academic career. One may realize great scholarly achievements if he or she lacks imagination and problem-solving skills. But one eventually will be deluded by waves of daily challenges, swept away and finally drowned in the sea of life. What matters, after all, is establishing firm footing on the ground of one's own humanity.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: March 19, 2010 (Published in Japan Times ST)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Humor and laughter

Since ancient times, humor and laughter have helped calm people's minds, smoothing human relations all over the world. Humor lightens our burdens, inspires hope, connects us to others and keeps us alert. Nothing works faster or can more dependably bring the human spirit and body back into balance than a good laugh. There is a great deal of meaning inherent in long-established adages such as: "humor is mankind's greatest blessing"; "humor brings insight and tolerance"; "what soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul"; "laughter is the best medicine" and "good fortune comes to the door of people who laugh."

In famous playwright and actor Moliere's (1622-1673) satirical French comedies of the 17th century, such as Tartuffe or the Hypocrite, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, and The Bourgeois Gentleman, there's a healthy sense of humor that has long entertained ordinary citizens in western countries. In Japan as well, short satirical Japanese poetry from the early modern period (senryu) and comic stories (rakugo) have had the same effect.

It would be shallow to say that this type of entertainment was something that only diverted commoners' attention from the problems of their societies like poverty, social injustice, class distinction and oppression. In a much deeper sense, ordinary citizens must have felt laughter was necessary to triumph over hardship and head toward a bright future.

Regrettably, humor is sometimes jeering and despicable, disclosing vicious and inhumane aspects of life. But the essence of laughter does not exist in such humor. I sense something "sick" in Japanese comic dialogs (manzai) of late. From what I have seen and heard about these shows, I have concluded that recent manzai contain unhealthy and harmful humor.

For example, many comedians make jokes at the expense of senior citizens, the underprivileged and other disadvantaged groups. They tease and ridicule people who are weak. This verbal harassment is often directed at a person's physical appearance, ethnic origin or occupation. Therefore, the term "sadistic comedy" can be appropriately used to describe manzai. These sadistic manzai are a far cry from the time-honored healthy satirical spirit that invites spontaneous laughter. They seem to be devoid of feeling and so repugnant that they have no value. This type of comedy is really about denial and destructiveness.

What worries me most — in addition to this negative tendency — is the almost total lack of humor regarding satire of Japan's hierarchy, politicians and bureaucrats. Personally, I am afraid this tendency reflects political indifference and a sense of helplessness prevalent among Japanese.

Unhealthy and harmful humor has become both a symptom and a cause of a malaise of triviality and foolishness currently troubling Japanese society. Unfortunately, the majority of Japanese viewers accept this, as if to say, "If it's on TV, it must be OK!"

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: February 12, 2010 (Published in Japan Times ST)