Learning About Feminism in the U.S.

My identity as an independent woman has widened since moving here from Tokyo.

by Marin Yamaguchi

In Japan, most mothers stay home with their children. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about this—I assumed I would be a mom who stayed home with her kids too.

But after I moved to New York City from Tokyo, I noticed that most moms work. So while my mom took me to school every morning and picked me up, most of my friends here had nannies do that. I went to a fancy private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where nannies are common.

I had some friends in Japan whose mothers worked but it was rare. I was in elementary school, and I was ignorant about income inequality. However, I realize now that this is probably the reason those friends’ moms worked.

But no one had to take them to and from school. In Tokyo, first graders take the subway. They also had the keys to their houses and went home by themselves. This is normal in Japan, as the society is very safe.

One day before Spanish class, one of my friends started talking about her mom attending New York Fashion Week for work. This sounded cool so a few of us excitedly asked questions about this. This led to a conversation about women working.

“Women deserve equal opportunities as men! I hate it when people refer to men as breadwinners,” said one friend.

“Yeah! My mom is a lawyer, just like my dad. Women should definitely work,” said another.

One girl flipped her hair and turned back to ask me. “So, what does your mom do?” My mom doesn’t work so I felt intimidated by this conversation. I’d only been living here for two years, and I really wanted to fit in with my American friends. Fortunately I didn’t have to answer because the teacher walked in and started class.

What I didn’t have the courage to say was that my mom had worked before I was born. In fact, she worked at the same finance company as my dad. I was afraid to tell them she had stopped working to raise me. I also didn’t say that the perfectionist culture in Japan is so intense that full-time jobs are 12 hours a day, and there is no flexibility to work from home. Plus, women are expected to do all the household chores and nannies are frowned upon. Still, I worried they wouldn’t like me because they’d view my mother as too old-fashioned.

My Mom’s Professional Dreams

A few nights later during dinner, my mom asked me what I thought I might want to study in college. “I am interested in biology and I would love to do research. But I’m not sure yet,” I said.

I first became interested in biology when I conducted a dissecting lab in my 7th grade science class. I realized how much I liked proving my hypothesis through experiments.

“A career in STEM is good,” she said. “It is important for you to get a good education and a good job. You are capable of accomplishing many things. And it’s important to be financially independent. It gives you control over your own life and provides you with options you might not have otherwise.”

This surprised me. We had never talked about this. “So why did you give up your career and your financial independence if that’s the advice you’re giving me?” I asked her.

“When you were born, Japanese society did not support working mothers, but it is changing. Now many of my friends who are mothers are able to find part-time jobs in the morning. If we were still there, I’d go back to work too. I’d do that here if I were more confident about my English,” she said.

More Modern Moms

Now I began to notice cultural differences between American and Japanese attitudes toward women. On Japanese TV shows, the “normal” family consisted of a working father and a stay-at-home mother. However, many American TV shows feature working moms resembling the families of most of my friends.

In both the shows and my real life friends’ parents, I see the cooperation among couples and them sharing tasks. Not only does this arrangement make it easier on women, it allows the dads to be more involved and closer to their children.

My dad is only home on the weekends so I am more comfortable telling my mom everything. My dad is like me and more of an outdoor type than my mom. I wish that I’d had more time to go cycling or go to the swimming pool with my dad when I was younger.

I Am a Feminist

In the U.S., I feel that the ideal image of a woman is strong and independent. But I also noticed that men here value the idea of “ladies first,” which I did not see in Tokyo. I found it adorable when a young kid offered to hold open the door for me in my apartment elevator a few years ago. When we reached the lobby, he stepped back so I could go out first. I learned that the idea of being a gentleman is ingrained from an early age in the U.S., and I think that is impressive.

I often notice men giving up seats to women on the buses and subways. Although these are small things, it is interesting to me that in American culture the strong woman is an image I see everywhere, yet many men still like to be chivalrous toward women.

When I get married, I would like to have an equal partnership where my husband and I both work to support the family financially as well as to raise our children.

My identity as an independent woman continues to widen the longer I live here. For example, in Japan, women are required to change their last names to their husband’s when they get married, but I plan to keep mine.

Americans like to express their opinions, and so women participate in discussions here more than in Japan. Women raise their voices and start activist movements such as #MeToo. Therefore, whether I choose a career in STEM or another field, I know that I want to make my voice heard here.

I am reading that gradually, feminism is taking root in Japan too. If I go back there, I want to promote the American ideas about strong, independent women. I’m sure they will continue to shape me.

It is interesting to me that in American culture the strong woman is an image I see everywhere, yet many men still like to be chivalrous toward women.
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