The Land of the Rising Sister | Excerpt from Japan’s Information War by Dr. Nancy Snow

Japan is seen as a leader in soft power, the ability to attract and persuade rather than coerce, but is this the result of government initiatives? In Japan’s Information War, public diplomacy and propaganda specialist Nancy Snow takes an inside look at brand Japan’s inner workings. The result of two years of intensive research as an Abe Fellow, Snow makes a critical analysis of Japan’s global diplomacy and gives insights on how Japan could improve its nation branding strategy.

The following is an excerpt from Japan’s Information War by Dr. Nancy Snow. Hope you enjoy!

The Land of the Rising Sister

Two decades ago when I first stepped foot on Japanese soil, I was a newly crowned female doctorate who was cautioned before my trip by my U.S. Government briefers not to use my credential title in Japan. Their rationale was that I was an outlier; very few Japanese women had an advanced degree, much less a Ph.D. I thought the request was odd since I wasn’t Japanese and my having a Ph.D. as an American woman would be an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding of the role and standing of women in different societies. I would come to realize that the caution was designed to protect me from my sticking out too much in a culture where modesty, humility, and social etiquette are supreme virtues.

I noticed immediately that women in Japan were different from my grown up standard in America. First, these women had never experienced a women’s movement like the second-wave feminist one we had in the United States that began at the time of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ended with the failure to ratify an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1982.75 I knew about this feminism, Gloria Steinem, Ms. magazine and ‘women’s lib’ as a child growing up in the 1970s. A favorite song was Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” which I performed with a hairbrush microphone in the family den in front of my mom and a few household pets. I never doubted my capabilities living in a household of men with my parents, four older brothers and no sisters. The male to female ratio was 5:2. This male-centered environment taught me early on that I needed to make my voice heard above the din of the noise that four teenage boys can make, perform my best, and keep my eyes on the prize, whatever that prize may be. I wasn’t limited to choosing family over a career. I could take the path of a career alone or pursue marriage, a family and a career. I had a choice because there were women and supportive men advocating for my freedom every day. Whatever fissures existed among feminists, ultimately the fight was for life choice and equality.

In contrast, Japanese society surprised me with its stark gender division. As a U.S. government official in foreign affairs, I was escorted around Japan’s ministries and marveled at the sex segregation of the Japanese government office, including the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, Ministry of Defense, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Women were present, but they seemed more like decorative wallpaper. When a well-dressed attractive woman who appeared to be in her mid- to late 20s appeared with a pushcart to serve tea and coffee, I recall sarcastically whispering to a fellow U.S. Government official, “I bet she has a masters from Harvard.” I do not recall meeting a female counterpart who briefed me on any policy-related matters. It was clear which gender was running the country. Throughout my three-week stay, women were disproportionately visible in jobs as translator, tour guide, coffee and teacart server, or secretary.

Women seemed to be in the background, quiet, helpful, but not in the foreground where the serious business occurred. It was almost as if they were being taken for granted. The women were highly educated, but our conversations often revolved around dating, marriage, and men, never careers. Some Japanese women spent social time with me and other international visitors at a camp near the base of Mt. Fuji. We learned how to make origami (folding paper) and washi (traditional paper). We laughed and splashed together in the onsen (Japanese bath) where I brought along my Japan mascot, “Dilly,” a T-Rex mini-me version of Godzilla that I bought at a discount drugstore called Rodman’s located near my Friendship Heights home in Washington, D.C. He is still with me today.

To be sure, I looked at my new environment with Western feminist eyes and sought out examples of sex-segregated conditions. I’ve learned since then to be more contextual and aware of my own cultural biases, but it looked like Japanese women were not just the second sex but also the second class. What I didn’t tell myself then that I often remind myself now is that Japan’s revitalization is completely dependent on the personal and political empowerment of women. Further, it cannot come from the top down inside the Prime Minister’s Office or the Diet (Japan’s Parliament), but must come from the bottom up, by women, of women, and for women. The world’s most famous cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, said, “Never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem. All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals.”76 Japan needs more than a media-hyped government moniker, Womenomics, concerned primarily with using women in the service of growth in GDP.77 It needs a social movement with outspoken female role models who can galvanize the nation from the hinterland to Roppongi Hills.

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