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July 13, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Tea-serving no contradiction for strong Japanese women

My good friend Kiyoko

(November 26, 1998)

I have three daughters. My eldest daughter, Nanao, was born in Odense, Denmark. My other two daughters, Mie and Lila, were born in Japan. They all, along with their brother Mario, have been raised here, and received their early education in this country’s public school system.

For quite a few foreign families living in Japan, the necessity of having to send their children to Japanese public school (if there is no international school option, which there isn’t if you live in the provinces, as we do) is simply the critical crossing point — the time to leave.

Aside from the education aspect, quite a few foreigners appear hesitant to raise their families in Japanese society because they fear it will have negative consequences for their children. They seem to think their girls will turn out weak and ineffectual, their boys, imperious.

Many people are curious to know about my experience of raising a family here over two decades, and I often recount this in my talks.

Some years ago, I gave a talk to a spirited group of foreign women. I could tell long before I’d finished speaking that there would be a lot of questions.

The first question came from a young woman who asked with no beating around any bush: “Aren’t you worried your daughters will become like Japanese women?”

She seemed to think that was the worse thing that could happen to them.

I don’t.

This woman saw the probability of my daughters becoming like Japanese women as a clear and present danger. I did not share her perception that they might be lesser women, somehow, if indeed they acquired whatever might be typical characteristics of whatever might be the the typical “Japanese woman.”

I sometimes want to go looking for this mythical Japanese woman, because she is no one I know.

There are an abundance of stereotypes about Japanese women that just do not apply to the many Japanese women whom I’ve counted as friends, acquaintances, and associates over the years.

This Japanese woman is certainly not the woman who was my children’s pediatrician. Neither is she one of my best friends, who is Lila’s dentist. She is not the woman who occasionally helps me in the house. This woman has no stellar professional status. Widowed early in life, she raised her children as a single mother amid the deprivations of postwar Japan. Now, her hardships behind her, she’s decided to travel and see some of the world.

I know this ‘Japanese woman’ is not the woman who teaches me Japanese, and teaches German and English to others. Surely she is not my mentor, the woman who guided and encouraged me through those years when my children were young and I was still new to this country, isolated living at the top of a mountain.

She is definitely not my friend Kiyoko. We met in a women’s group, and she offered to help me in the home when Lila was born. She told me she would come three mornings a week until Lila entered nursery school, and that is exactly what she did. I would not have been able to write, publish, or lecture without her help. My debt to her can only be paid with our continuing friendship.

She could not be the hardworking local farm women I know who have worked alongside men, survived them, and gone back in the field to work some more. Surely she cannot be the shrewd shopkeepers who manage in the midst of economic adversity to prevail and keep their businesses open, and continue to offer good service. She cannot be the many Japanese women on whose backs the pillars of Japanese society rest, and without whom there would have been no “economic miracle”.

Of course, I didn’t always feel this way.

I remember very clearly when I came to this country in 1975 that after just a few months here I thought: What is it with Japanese women? All they do is serve tea.

Like anyone who stays longer, and cares to look a little deeper — and suspend judgment — I was soon disabused of this negative impression. And not because the same women who were serving me tea, suddenly announced, as they offered me a cup with two hands: I’m a Ph.D. I’m a mathematician. I’m a doctor. I taught elementary school/junior high/high school for 20 years.

Their modestly in their abilities and accomplishments made me think twice about flaunting my not particularly brilliant feathers. I suppose if I wanted to say what I thought characterized the Japanese women I know, what they have that I value, it would be such qualities as selflessness, grace, forbearance, perseverance, generosity, modesty, kindness, humility.

My daughters could have worse examples to emulate. So could I.



Stereotypes have been called “your best first guess”. 

I certainly know why people have these stereotypes re Japanese women — it’s just that it is important to get beyond them. 

Like all women, all people — they are individuals. 


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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