Women in Japan's Culture and Economy

Article excerpt

THE recent engagement of Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito to Masako Owada has had Americans scrambling to dissect the couple's courtship and predict its consequences. Most first reactions express amazement that the 29-year-old diplomat, Ms. Owada, would give up a promising career for a future so restrictive.

The American reaction highlights differences between the Japanese and American cultures. This chasm seems all the more insuperable when one considers Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has refused to bow to the traditional image of a president's wife. By contrast, Owada appears to be accepting an archaic future as empress.

Sumiko Iwao's book "The Japanese Woman: Traditional Image and Changing Reality" is a good antidote to such speculation and stereotype. The author, who has taught psychology at Harvard University, corrects common misperceptions about today's Japanese women. More significantly, by carefully leading the reader through the many occupations and developments in Japanese women's lives, she makes their society understandable and accessible to Americans.

The book centers first on the home, where women are responsible for nearly all household chores and the raising of children; yet Iwao explains that male chauvinism isn't the only reason women have held to traditional roles. Until recently, few women have opted for the long hours and wearying dedication their husbands often face at the office. Unlike American women, who have fought for equality with men at any cost and at all levels, Japanese women tend to ask the very practical question of how they want to be equal to men.

In many ways, the author argues, Japanese women have sought equality as a guideline rather that as an absolute principle. "In Japan questions of fairness and equality are conceived on a much longer time frame and in a more multidimensional context {than in America}," she writes. …