life in the women only car

Every week I meet with a private student in his sixties. He’s very nice, and very well-educated, and his English level is high enough that our conversation topics range from Japanese history to Japanese literature and, recently, gender equality.

I went into the subject a little spoiled from conversations with another one of my students who’s a lawyer, also in his sixties. With him, I’ve had some fascinating insights into why the gender gap is so wide in Japan. As a lawyer, he’s seen the legal side of things, like a law that says daycares must have a lawn for the children to play in, which makes it very difficult to have daycares in space-lacking cities for mothers to leave their children in while they go to work.

Today, though, I saw my student’s expression shut down a little while we talked about gender equality.

We had been discussing a famous Japanese play, and then we segued into Japanese language, and then to society. At one point he said, “We never expected a problem with low birth rate. I don’t know the reason it’s so low, but…women just don’t seem to want families.” He shook his head, and I could almost see his focus shifting to another topic as he pursed his lips.

I said, “I’ve thought about it a lot. I think the problem isn’t that they don’t want families. I think many women see becoming a mother in Japan as the end of their lives as individuals, especially in the workforce. Maybe once Japan starts treating men and women more equally, more women will want to have families. Once having that family doesn’t ruin a woman’s job aspirations, for example.”

As I talked, I felt the urge to add “but I’m not Japanese, so what do I know?” Even though I’ve lived here for four years and I’ve had a good number of conversations about gender equality here, I’m not as well-versed in it as I will be with a few more years of experience and studying on the subject. But I couldn’t let the blame fall on young women.

The moment I finished talking, my student averted his eyes and folded his hands in front of his mouth, chuckling. It seemed he disagreed, but I made myself wait. I have a constant impulse to talk when I’m making a point, and it’s only in the last few years I’ve started to grow a sense of when to let the point speak for itself. If you’ve made the point, you won’t have to do it again.

We talked a bit more, and through hearing his side of things I realized he had a perspective I’d never heard before from someone in Japan.

“You say feminism is equality between men and women,” he said. “But feminism…for example, women have it better in Japan than men. Less stress, not as much expectation on them from their parents than boys have. They have freedom.”

I opened my mouth, thought better of what I wanted to say, and decided instead to say, “So, the trains in Japan have a ‘women only’ car, right?”

He laughed sheepishly. “Ahh, yes, that.”

“Why?”

“Because they get assaulted.” He looked out the window with an embarrassed smile. “Have you heard in Osaka, the announcements?”

I smiled a bit. “The ‘don’t touch women, please’ bit?”

He nodded, still chuckling. “It’s a very embarrassing thing.”

“So even if what you’re saying about women is true, and they have freedom from expectation, they don’t have safety. They don’t have the freedom to stand on a train car and not get sexually assaulted. They don’t have freedom from objectification.”

He took that in with a considering nod, then added, “Women also have a longer life expectancy than men.”

I nodded, puzzled. “Well, why do you think that is?”

“Lower stress,” he said. “I think they’re happier than men.”

I didn’t have enough education on that to agree or disagree, so I said, “If that’s true, that’s not fair.”

He blinked. “Fair?”

“I mean, if women have less stress from staying home while men work for most of the day and sometimes into the night, that’s not equal treatment on the men’s side of things.”

He frowned. “But housework is very important. When I worked, my wife and I split the housework.”

“Then why don’t more men act as house husbands in Japan?”

“They are, things are changing recently,” he said.

Again, I had no real information on that, so I nodded.

“Women have more influence than men,” he continued, and I frowned.

“Really?” I asked, trying to keep the skepticism out of my voice and almost certainly failing.

He nodded. “Yes. The woman doesn’t only do housework. She also educates her children, and her children grow up to be the leaders of the future. A woman has far, far more influence than a man.”

I thought about that for a moment and said, “But why can’t she have a voice of her own, when her husband can speak for himself? Why does she mainly get to speak through her children? And why doesn’t the father have more of a role in educating his children? Why is it only the woman? And if that’s true, and women educate their children equally, why do mainly men go into politics in Japan? I rarely hear of women politicians in Japan, and the most recent one I heard of was in the news for being heckled by her fellow, all-male municipal assembly.”

He gave a smiling grimace and sighed. “Ahh, that was…very shameful for Japan.”

“It was!” I agreed. “And they should be ashamed. An assemblyman in Aichi recently joked or seriously suggested selling punctured condoms to up the birth rate. Either way, whether he was joking or being serious, that’s a politician who thinks so little of women that he would joke about rape and unwanted pregnancies. Too many men in this country only think of women as incubators, and they need to change that.”

He smiled at the table, and I realized I’d probably done the “making your point too much” bit. I’m still working on it. But I’ve also learned not to apologize for arguing for something I believe in. I see so much good in Japan, and I see so much kindness and patience in the people – I love this country ridiculously, and I also embrace its flaws. But I believe in constantly seeking improvement in all things, and I think Japan could definitely benefit from lessening their canyon between the genders.

In the end, he looked up at me and his smile changed to something a little kinder. “I think we need fresh blood,” he said. “New opinions like yours. Maybe we’ve thought the same way too long.”

I smiled, and we ended our conversation on a different subject that we saw eye-to-eye on.

As I walked to the grocery store afterward, I played the conversation through my head over and over. The lesson had ended peacefully, and even though I don’t think his opinions have changed very much, I think it’s important that conversations like that end on a peaceful note. Neither of us got angry, although I had moments where I had too much information I wanted to add to my points and had to reel myself in, and I think that lack of anger made a huge difference in the outcome.

As long as you have respect for the person you’re talking to, I think you can discuss anything. Once before on this blog, I brought up my friend who’s Christian. I grew up Catholic, but I don’t follow any religion now, so when we brought up religion, we were at opposite ends of the table, conversationally speaking.

And yet, I still count my very first conversation with her about religion to be one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. I didn’t leave the conversation Christian and she didn’t leave non-religious, but we understood each other’s side because we’d handled the entire conversation calmly and let each other give her side of things. That conversation happened way back in 2011, and she’s been one of my closest and dearest friends ever since.

It might even be because of her that I want to try harder to communicate with people with whom I don’t share opinions or beliefs. Sometimes, one can learn a lot from the other side of a coin.

And I think the more my student and I talk about this, the more I can learn from him, and the more he can understand from me.

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