Monday, November 10, 2014

The Anime Paradox: Why so many strong and imaginative female characters when Japanese society is paternalistic and sexist?

One of the attractive features of anime, and manga as well, is the wealth of strong women and girls. Yes, they may be kawaii to the max, but they are also smart, creative, and can kick ass when needed. But Japan is not at all a feminist utopia. Not even remotely so.

For example, here are some informal remarks by one Patrick McKenzie, an expatriate American living and working in Japan. He's explaining how employment works in Japan:
A salaryman (transliterated from the Japanese which is itself borrowed from English), more formally a “full-time company employee” (正社員), is the local equivalent of a W-2 employee in America. This is roughly 1/3rd of the labor force in Japan, but it has outsized societal impact.

Traditionally, salarymen (and they are, by the way, mostly men) are hired into a particular company late in university and stay at that company or its affiliates until they retire.

There are other workers at Japanese companies — contract employees, who can be (and are) let go at will, or young ladies on the “pink collar” track who are encouraged tacitly or explicitly to quit to get married or raise children — but the salaryman/employer relationship is the beating heart of the high-productivity Japanese private sector. (The Japanese economy is roughly 1/3rd the public sector, 1/3rd low-productivity firms like restaurants or traditional craftsmen, and 1/3rd high-productivity household-name megacorps. Salarymen are mostly present in the last one, which happens to dovetail with your professional interests.)
Since a salaryman's company monopolizes his time, it will helpfully find him a wife:
Don’t have a wife? You might quite reasonably think “I don’t have time to even think about that.” Don’t worry — the company will fix your social calendar for you. It is socially mandatory that your boss, in fulfillment of his duties to you, sees that you are set up with a young lady appropriate to your station. He is likely to attempt to do this first by matching you with a young lady in your office. There are, at all times, a number of unattached young ladies in your office. Most of them choose to quit right about when they get married or have children.

You might imagine that you heard a supervisor tell a young lady in the office “Hey, you’re 30 and aging out of the marriage market, plus I hear you’re dating someone who is not one of my employees, so you might want to think about moving on soon.”, but that would be radioactively illegal, since Japanese employment discrimination laws are approximately equivalent to those in the US. A first-rate Japanese company would certainly never do anything illegal, and a proper Japanese salaryman would never bring his company into disrepute by saying obviously untrue things like the company is systematically engaged in illegal practices. So your ears must be deceiving you. Pesky ears.
What happens to a young woman who was raised on the exploits of, say, Cardcaptor Sakura, or any of the feisty heroines in Miyazaki films? Well, you might get a job in a start-up, which is pretty much outside the salaryman system. McKenzie advises Japanese entrepreneurs:
Since most highly-educated, career-oriented Japanese folks aspire to jobs as salarymen or similar work in the public sector, most Japanese startups have to hire folks who don’t fit that mold.

Some examples include:

Women: I may have mentioned alluded to the fact that traditionally managed Japanese companies are pathological with regards to their treatment of women. There’s an entire academic field devoted to that topic. Anyhow, this is an opportunity for startups here: since college-educated women are tremendously underused by the formal labor market, startups can attract them preferentially.
What gives?

Elizabethan English seems a bit like that, at least through the lens of Shakespeare. He created some wonder strong women – Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Portia (Merchant of Venice), Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra) – but Elizabethan England as patriarchal and sexist. To be sure, the monarch was a Queen, and one of the greatest monarchs in British history, but that's only one woman.

I certainly don't believe that fiction mirrors society in any direct way. But why do we have these vibrant female characters that are so much against the prevailing social grain?

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