Noilly Prattle: Harem Intrigues

Monday, April 16, 2012

Harem Intrigues

A friend of mine forwarded an article in The Economist to me recently. The article (Land of the wasted talent   Japanese firms face a demographic catastrophe. The solution is to treat women better) was a familiar one concerning the lowly place of women in the business world in “sexist” Japan. There is a ring of truth in much of the article about how women tend to be used for office decoration and tea serving and routine clerical work. How few women executives there are compared with western countries. How women are paid less than male colleagues. How they are more easily sexually harassed than in western firms. How they tend to feel pressure to quit from men (especially bosses) after they reach a certain age or quit because they find the work boring, dead end and/or unsatisfying. All these reasons have an element of truth, but there is a glaring omission in the reasons why women leave the working world earlier than their counterparts in western and more enlightened societies. Listen up! I got this straight from the horse's mouth—my road buddy, a Japanese woman. Clearly an authority on the subject. I responded to the friend who sent me the article thus:

print by Utamaro 1790s
print by Tsukyoka Yoshitoshi 1888
Yeah, women are probably being wasted here, but you might be surprised at some of the reasons why. A lot of the pressure to leave comes from other women. By law, companies can't fire full time workers of either sex. They have to find more creative ways to get rid of people who can't cut the mustard and they don't want. A college degree doesn't mean much here. Women, unless they have push and drive, or are in certain occupations like nursing and teaching or the “mizu shobai” (entertainment business), tend to wind up as office decorations while they are still young and attractive. After that they are pressured to leave, often by other women. The happy way to leave is through what is called "kotobuki taisha"--leaving to get married. Another is called getting rid of an "otsubone sama" through backbiting and gossip by the other women in the office. The term is a holdover from olden times where an unmarried older woman is pressured out because she has been around too long and tends to become a too powerful schemer and, likely as not, a tyrant. The term relates to the Shogun's harem. A tsubone was a wet nurse who took care of the sexually active courtesans' children by the Shogun. Since they didn't require the admiring eye of the Shogun, as long as they could nurse they hung around and became quite powerful in the household and usually quite dictatorial. The pressure to leave in the modern world takes the form of loudly whispered comments among the younger women to the effect of: “Is that old bag still around?”

The moral of the story is that there are lots of ways, subtle and not so subtle, to discriminate and marginalize.   

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

yes, there are