Dr. Ogata was a role model, a mentor from afar. I wanted to work harder in my job at State, knowing how hard she worked on behalf of the most vulnerable living among us. Of course I admired that she was also Japanese and female, but it was her leadership skills that impressed me the most.
Now it’s 2012 and I’m teaching as a Fulbright Scholar at Sophia University, where Dr. Ogata is professor emeritus. Over the last three months I’ve become convinced that Japan’s future—its ability to recover and rise again after 3/11, rests on the emergence of a whole new generation of women leaders. And I don’t mean just the supernova achievers like Dr. Ogata, but also that rising percentage of everyday superhero Japanese single moms who must re-enter the workplace after divorce.
Obviously, Japanese society is still driven by the hard labor and brainpower of men, but men alone—or men with just a few women by their side—are not going to reinvigorate Japan. It takes two, side-by-side, mutually supporting each other.
Men and women have always been working together for the betterment of society. We just need to give women more credit for the work they’re doing. It’s like the old joke about famous dance partners Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Ginger did everything Fred did, except backwards and in heels. Japanese women need the support of strong men who will proudly accept them as equals in the workplace, as the natural multitaskers that they are, as equally committed to the bottom line as they are to their children’s education.
Recently in my Sophia classes, where most of my students are female, I showed two images of 21st century women in Asia dominating news coverage today. One was the Chinese female astronaut, Liu Yang, and the other was J-pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, whose viral hit “PonPonPon” was reported in The Atlantic magazine as a symbol of the West’s fixation with “weird” Japan.
I asked the students, “Which way, Japan?” Is “PonPonPon” enough? Is there enough room in the Japanese popular imagination for women in oversized bows and eyeball-shaped pinky rings and women in white coats, with white collars, speaking in the Diet or writing history? As a Japanophile, I think there is.
In graduate school I took a course on the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was a brilliant enough strategist to know that India could not resist the British Empire without all the people of India being on board. He wanted to send a message to his adherents that would leave no question about the importance of inclusion in nonviolent resistance and resilience. It has become my favorite quote of his. “To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then, indeed, is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater powers of endurance, has she not greater courage?”
Japan has such women. I see them everyday at the university, in the restaurants, and coming out of offices. Their dedication to their work and family is as influential to me today as the public-service dedication of UNHCR head Dr. Ogata was twenty years ago.
So in the spirit of Fred Astaire, the next time you see that powerful Japanese woman sitting next to you, remember what Ginger Rogers had to go through and then say, “May I have this dance?”
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