“Is Japan still like that?”

My memories of living and working as an English teacher in rural Japan in the 1990s cannot be separated from my experience of being a woman there.

If you’ve read my memoir, The Same Moon, you know that where Minnesota/North Dakota is my homeland, Japan tugs at me like a heart-land.

But just like any place, Japan presented me with challenges.

The Same Moon includes anecdotes about working in offices where women (including me) served tea and coffee to our male coworkers, where class lists put male students ahead of female students … which led to boys walking through graduation ceremonies ahead of the girls … and so on.

It also describes situations like where an older Japanese woman chastised me for sitting in the “wrong place”—in front of a picturesque alcove housing a scroll and vase of flowers. She explained to me and the Japanese man I was with (who was as baffled by her comment as I was) that he should have sat in front of the attractive backdrop. That was the power position.

In The Same Moon, I describe the lack of female leadership—official female leadership anyway—in rural Japan, where I lived and worked:

Seats on the Board of Education were filled with blue business-suited men, and among the leaders of the town’s two junior high schools and six elementary schools, there was only one woman—vice principal at a 25-student elementary school. As for teachers, only 30 percent of Shuho-cho’s junior high school teachers were women, and that included each school’s nurse and secretary. Of the non-school offices I visited, I saw women serving mostly as clerks and OLs.

This was not unusual. Nationally, women accounted for nearly 40 percent of Japan’s labor force but only 2 percent of all officials and managers, according to the 1990 census. Of professional workers, like physicians, accountants, lawyers and university professors, fewer than 20 percent were women.

Many readers have asked me, “Is Japan still like that?”

What I tell people first is, there is Japan, and there is Japan. I was the first foreigner (that I know of) to live in my town for any length of time—it was that far off the beaten path. We didn’t even have a train station, which in Japan is pretty much standard-issue for populated areas. Every other English teacher on my program in Yamaguchi prefecture had rail service.

Additionally, when I told my foreign English teacher colleagues about some of my experiences, such as serving tea to my male co-workers, they were surprised.

It seems my experiences with gender issues in Japan were probably a bit more pronounced than most in my area.

(That said, I recently ran across a story by an American woman who worked as a bona fide Office Lady during roughly the same timeframe in Osaka. Her experience has echoes of mine … and she goes on to share quite a critique of American working culture. Read it here.)

Japan’s gender gap today

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report of 2018 ranks Japan No. 110 out of 149 countries in gender parity. (The top four countries are Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The United States ranks 51st, between Mexico and Peru.)

These rankings take into account countries’ progress toward gender parity in four primary areas:

  • economic participation and opportunity
  • educational attainment
  • health and survival
  • political empowerment

What does that look like on the ground?

Aiko Doden addressed the question in a recent talk—“Reinventing Japan: The Way Forward through Women’s Empowerment”—at Portland State University.

I had watched Doden on Japan’s national news in the 1990s, when she became NHK’s first female news anchor. Now she is special affairs coordinator on international affairs and senior director at NHK World TV.

Given my experiences, my most pressing question, which I asked during the Q & A, was how gender relations had changed specifically in rural Japan. Doden responded with a story of a small town where women had risen to leadership roles and taken charge.

Promising as that sounds, turns out there was a very specific catalyst: the earthquake/tsunami/Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011. In this little town, the men had always been away at work, and the women had tended the homes and community. So when infrastructure fell apart, the women were the ones who knew where to find food and who possessed needed materials and skills.

“The men were hopeless, so women began giving instructions,” she said. “That drastically transformed the mindset in that small rural village.”

Doden called it a silver lining for women. But the rest of her talk indicated there is plenty of room left for progress.

Next: “In Japan, working women are on the rise … sort of.”


The Same Moon, my debut memoir, is the story of what happened when I ran far, far away … to find my way home. Learn more about it here.

Book cover -- The Same Moon

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