Women: Harmed or Helped?
Japan comes at us like images in a kaleidoscope. Less than two decades ago we were panicked by its economic prowess into declaring the end of the American century and the arrival of the Pacific century. Its economic might and its uniquely different and impenetrable ways also fed our paranoia: many thought of the Japanese as Superman and Lex Luthor rolled together, omnipotence and evil genius, into the formidable Godzilla of Japanese monster movies. But today the country is almost an economic wasteland, mired in recession and paralyzed into inaction. Today Japan is seen as a threat not because of its strength but because of its weakness. 1
Japan's paradoxes continue when we think of Japanese women. Japan has the unique distinction of having produced the first female novelist of gravitas, Lady Murasaki, in the eleventh century. Her novel The Tale of Genji is widely considered to be the greatest work of Japanese literature; in its nostalgia for the passing society, it recalls Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Junichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows. And no student of Japanese literature can ignore her contemporary, ten years her senior, Sei Shonagon: a talented writer, her major opus, Makura no Soshi, is a classic read even now. Yet when one sees Japan today, the state of its women is almost tragic, closer to that in traditional societies than in the West; indeed, it offends our modern sensibilities.
This was brought home to me when, several years ago, I was at a conference in Tokyo. My Oxford tutor, Sir Donald MacDougall, who had been a wartime adviser to Winston Churchill and was now in London, was there along with his economist wife, Lady Margaret Hall, an Oxford don at the time. As we were boarding the bus, the respectful bureaucrat from Japan's Economic Planning Agency shepherding us