Forget the stereotypes. Today's Japanese women are shattering them -- breaking the bonds of tradition and dramatically transforming their culture. Shopping-crazed schoolgirls in Hello Kitty costumes and the Harajuku girls Gwen Stefani helped make so popular have grabbed the media's attention. But as critically acclaimed author Veronica Chambers has discovered through years of returning to Japan and interviewing Japanese women, the more interesting story is that of the legions of everyday women -- from the office suites to radio and TV studios to the worlds of art and fashion and on to the halls of government -- who have kicked off a revolution in their country.
Japanese men hardly know what has hit them. In a single generation, women in Japan have rewritten the rules in both the bedroom and the boardroom. Not a day goes by in Japan that a powerful woman doesn't make the front page of the newspapers. In the face of still-fierce sexism, a new breed of women is breaking through the "rice paper ceiling" of Japan's salary-man dominated corporate culture. The women are traveling the world -- while the men stay at home -- and returning with a cosmopolitan sophistication that is injecting an edgy, stylish internationalism into Japanese life. So many women are happily delaying marriage into their thirties -- labeled "losing dogs" and yet loving their liberated lives -- that the country's birth rate is in crisis.
With her keen eye for all facets of Japanese life, Veronica Chambers travels through the exciting world of Japan's new modern women to introduce these "kickboxing geishas" and the stories of their lives: the wildly popular young hip-hop DJ; the TV chef who is also a government minister; the entrepreneur who founded a market research firm specializing in charting the tastes of the teenage girls driving the country's GNC -- "gross national cool"; and the Osaka assembly-woman who came out publicly as a lesbian -- the first openly gay politician in the country.
Taking readers deep into these women's lives and giving the lie to the condescending stereotypes, Chambers reveals the vibrant, dynamic, and fascinating true story of the Japanese women we've never met. Kickboxing Geishas is an entrancing journey into the exciting, bold, stylish new Japan these women are making.
In her fifth book, Chambers (Mama's Girl) reports on dramatic changes in women's lives in postbust Japan, where, she notes, men are no longer the "financial titans" and where women--international travelers and avid consumers--are now driving the economy. Yet, Chambers says, rampant consumerism masks the true complexity of these women's lives as they negotiate the divide between Japan's traditions and their own more career-centered outlook. With compassion and warm wit, the author talks to successful Japanese women--from hip-hop superstars to senior corporate executives and entrepreneurs--about their education, careers, personal lives and aspirations, and about the social norms they face as they carve out a bold new existence in a country wedded to tradition. Chambers portrays her subjects as social pioneers operating in a cultural vacuum, without the support of a widespread women's movement. Chambers captures a gender clash, in which young Japanese women despair of Japanese men's cultural insularity and inability to lose face. (She also interviews men who seek to break with stereotypic Japanese masculinity.) Writing in a hip, visually vivid and entertaining style, Chambers fluently places the courage and isolation of these women in a briefly sketched social and economic context, noting that "today's young career women--entrepreneurial, independent--have more [in common] with their hard-working grandmothers than they do with their Bubble Economy housewife mothers." (Jan. 9)
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January 09, 2007
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Excerpt from Kickboxing Geishas by Veronica Chambers
The funny thing about my love affair with Japan is that it was never the country of my dreams. The country I loved, the bad boy I could never get to walk me down the aisle, was France. Two days into my first trip to Paris, I called my mother from a pay phone on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. "Sell everything I own," I said dramatically, "I'm staying." Even as the words came out of my mouth I knew they were untrue. I was twenty-four years old. I worked for the New York Times at a job that journalists twice my age would kill for. All that, and I didn't own much worth selling. I had just enough money to cover the cost of my trip and I was too pragmatic to play the starving artist. But the sentiment, the desire to stay, said everything I could not about how deeply I had fallen in love with the city, how I longed to follow in the footsteps of all the writers who had made Paris their home before me.
I spent the next five years trying to get to Paris, watching French movies, reading French Elle, studying French, visiting whenever I could. I was twenty-nine and working at Newsweek magazine when a colleague named Greg Beals suggested I apply for a fellowship to go to Japan. "But I'm not trying to go to Japan," I told him. "I want to go to Paris." He rolled his eyes. Anyone who had spent any amount of time with me knew that I was gunning for Newsweek's Paris bureau. "Yeah, well, they're not giving out fellowships to go to Paris," he says. "You should apply for this fellowship, check out Tokyo."
I had visited my friend Mina in Shanghai just a few months before. I remember overhearing a lengthy discussion among foreign correspondents at a bar in New York about the difference between those who go to China and those who go to Japan. China folks were serious. People who went to Japan, said the journalists I was with, only filed superficial stories about music and fashion. They said this as if it were a bad thing, but it piqued my interest nonetheless. I liked music and fashion. I adored the writer Banana Yoshimoto, author of Kitchen, and her warm, frothy tales of young women coming of age in Tokyo. I took the application from Greg and promptly forgot it.
God bless Greg Beals. Two months later, he came by my office. "Did you apply for that fellowship?" I shook my head no, dug it out from the "Don't Forget" pile on my desk and was sad to see that I'd missed the deadline. "Maybe next year?" I said weakly. An hour later, Greg was back. "You're in luck," he said. "I called over there and they've extended the deadline."
In Tokyo I stayed at International House, or I-House, a kind of Harvard Club for Western writers and academics in the Roppongi section of the city. Roppongi is known for its high-density population of foreigners, nightclubs, and restaurants. Later, I would look down on Roppongi as a gaijin ghetto, gaijin being the Japanese word for foreigners. But for me, it was a good starting place: filled with clubs and restaurants and a lively street life that kept me from feeling completely isolated.
I grew up in New York City, so I knew a thing or two about crowds. But in Tokyo, density is the thing. Tokyo is the most heavily populated city in the world: more than a quarter of the nation's population live crammed into an area that represents less than 2 percent of the country. It's got a good ten million people on Mexico City, Sao Paolo, or New York. So the second most important phrase I learned was "sumimasen," a hybrid of "excuse me" and "I'm sorry." It is the oil that keeps the wheels of social grace turning. You say sumimasen when you bump into someone on the train or when you want them to know that if they don't move, you will bump into them. Sumimasen is used when you want to catch the attention of a friend, colleague, or stranger, or when you want to ask a question, the time, directions, anything.