The unicorn of Niigata

Before leaving for the summer, the graduate program required each member of my cohort to profile the country they intended to visit. It certainly makes sense, since it’s important to understand exactly what you’re getting into when traveling abroad. However, I must admit that I didn’t fully consider the relevance of certain components within this profile. The most glaring example would have to be Japan’s social structure and one particular statistic. If you weren’t aware, Japan is a homogenous nation with 98.5% of the population being ethnically Japanese. As such, I sometimes feel like a mythical unicorn in Niigata. I rarely see other foreigners, let alone Americans.


Possibly an exaggeration, but you get the point.

It’s not that I wasn’t expecting this – I just saw so many tourists on my previous trip here that my mind hadn’t reset itself in preparation. So what does this mean in the context of spending my summer in Japan? Well, it means that I’m an ethnic minority for the first time in my entire life. While my heritage is mixed, most people would simply classify me as “white” based on my physical appearance. Therefore, I am afforded white privilege on a daily basis in the United States. If you aren’t familiar with this concept, I suggest checking out the following resources:

(Note: This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few articles to give unfamiliar readers a better sense of what I’m going to briefly discuss in this post.)

On a basic level, I never really feel out of place in my home country, because there are plenty of people who look just like me. On a much more serious note, my skin color also means that I’m not a victim of the perverse effects of discrimination. This realization alone has made adjusting to life as a minority very strange and has also led to a whole lot of self-reflection. I don’t want to go as far as saying that I am facing any sort of discrimination in Niigata. Once I become involved in deeper interactions with the people here, I am treated with tremendous respect and kindness. Still, you notice the little things – being the absolute last person that people sit next to on the train or when an older individual switches to the opposite side of the street once you start walking in their general direction. It doesn’t really bother me, and I’ve spoken with others as to why this behavior might exist. It seems to be more about fear of the unknown. After all, Japan is one of the most uncertainty avoiding countries in the world. In all honesty, I actually think this newfound perspective is an important stepping stone to larger lessons. I am experiencing just a small fraction of what so many others in the U.S. have to live with on a daily basis. That’s something I’m going to take home and take to heart.

hbr chartThis internal dialogue on race and ethnicity made me curious about another facet of social structure – gender roles. Although writing the country profile helped expand my knowledge on how women fare in the Japanese workplace, I didn’t realize the situation was quite so bad. Just take a look at the attached chart from Harvard Business Review. According to the Annual Country Scorecards, “just two women appear in the list of 230 executive committee members – both in support roles.” These results are pretty disappointing across the board, but this number is just atrocious. So why is this the case? It appears to be a combination of societal expectations and discriminatory hiring practices. As Bauwens notes, many hiring policies are centered around a four-person family model with a working father and stay-at-home mother. He points out that men sometimes receive a higher salary if their wives stay home. Many women are also forced to settle on low-paying part-time work, since it is difficult to restart a career after having children.

I was amazed to hear about all of this, particularly when my Japanese friend opened up regarding her own experiences. She mentioned that it is not uncommon for an employer to ask women about personal information in a job interview, such as having a boyfriend, and the wrong answer would most likely leave the applicant without an offer. I can’t even fathom an employer prying into my life in such a way! I think Wittenberg-Cox (see the previous HBR article) sums up the shame of this broken system perfectly:

When I visit Japan I see highly educated and energetic young Japanese women dashing to and from work with all the determination and drive of their male colleagues. Many of them refuse to marry in order to preserve their jobs and independence in a stiflingly traditional culture. Too bad the country, the economy, and the future are still losing out on their potential.”

Apparently, current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cites this issue as a priority in his economic strategy and aims to have women fill 30% of senior positions in Japan by 2020. For the sake of my Japanese sisters, I hope such an ambitious goal can be reached.



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