Workplace Sexism in 20th-Century Japan —a Sociobiological Perspective
Just before the new millennium, a former college-faculty colleague and close friend, “Hana” (a pseudonym), then a 20-something-year-old Japanese stunner with brains to match, applied for a high-powered job with one of Japan’s Top-10 corporations. Invited for an interview, she was utterly taken aback by a line of questioning that switched from her on-the-job productive potential to her reproduction-related charms.
Hana was expecting to be asked for more details about her master’s degree from Cambridge or her published books; instead, she was asked by a Japanese male interviewer whether she would have any problem at work if they became lovers. Stunned and enraged, she demanded a formal apology from the company—a corporation as big as, although not, Sony, Hitachi or Mitsubishi—and got it.
Productivity vs. Reproductivity Agendas
Although Hana was caught off guard, sociobiologists—who study the biological basis for animal and human social behavior familiar with human nature, mating tactics and strategy—would, as will be shown, not have been so surprised. That recruiting misfire and male mischief happened because, as sociobiology teaches us, our genes survive in two ways: productively and reproductively.
The first is achieved by life-and-gene-sustaining activities such as working and feeding, the second by breeding. Respectively, these two modes represent “phenotypic survival” (survival of our bodies as “gene taxis” through feeding and similar self-sustaining behaviors) and “genotypic survival” (post-mortem survival, through reproduction, of our genes that build and use our bodies and behaviors).
We work, so we eat and our genes survive another day; we mate, so we breed and our genes survive another generation.
Unfortunately for many women, including Hana (and fewer, but some men), in the workplace their capacity to do their job and accomplish the shared personal task of feeding is often confused by a (prospective) boss with and made contingent upon the woman’s (or man’s) (un)consciously prioritized appeal for breeding.
The targeted traits include being young (“neotenic”), physically attractive, alluring, unencumbered with someone else’s infant or pregnancy, being docile and compliant or otherwise a low-maintenance/high-payoff breeding prospect.
This kind of blurring of priorities is easily understood, given that our genes need to survive both in our bodies and in the bodies of our descendants, virtually assuring that they—the genes and the descendants—will be tempted by both kinds of feeding/breeding opportunities.
Even though a given male may be utterly uninterested in creating offspring (and indeed careful not to do that), his programmed genes drive and equate that interview “courtship” behavior and what follows—all of it—as an investment in mating, much as a spiraling moth’s genes are fooled into thinking that a nearby light bulb is the distant moon by which it navigates.
The Sociobiology of Tipping
This confusion of productivity with reproductivity is not limited to any one culture—even though it may in some cultures and some historical periods be more blatant than in others. (The Japan-based examples cited throughout this analysis have counterparts all over the world, even if with varying degrees of blatancy.)
A much milder, but instructive illustration closer to home is that of the diner regular who thinks he is tipping the buxom waitress only to reward and ensure her great work performance, rather than to also stimulate dating-mating interest in him.
On the other hand, by more carefully demarcating the job-related function of tipping from the (unconscious) breeding investment function, others may attempt to justify tipping behaviorally or physically attractive servers more than unattractive ones on the grounds that tips are resources that enhance the odds of the tip recipient’s successfully raising progeny.
They don’t want to make it easier for the obnoxious to reproduce and replace themselves with more of the same miserable breed; so, they tip only the nice ones.
Such are the hardwired interconnections of feeding(in a diner) and breeding (of, even if not with, the staff).
Although that lecherous male interviewer’s mind probably wasn’t consciously on breeding, sociobiologists like Oxford’s Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene) or Harvard’s E.O. Wilson would probably agree that nonetheless the consequences of where his mind went included possible (in)voluntary fertilization.
From the evolutionary perspective and a gene’s standpoint, consequences matter more than intentions, i.e., breeding is probably just as often than not the consequence, rather the point, of behavior, including outlandish interviewing behavior.
At that careless interview moment the interviewer confused his gene-feeding, economically productive task of recruiting staff with his gene-breeding-influenced objective of recruiting a lover.
Following Dawkins, who popularized the supremacy of the “selfish-gene” in his catchphrase “a chicken is an egg’s way of getting more eggs”, it might be said that in this instance the male interviewer was “egging” Hana on in more than one sense.
A Kinokuniya No-No
This kind of pervasive conflation of productive-reproductive agendas was a part, if not at the heart of a much publicized pre-millennium Japanese corporate recruitment fiasco.
In 1983, Kinokuniya, the giant Japanese bookstore chain, got into very hot miso-gynist soup (yes, a pun on “miso”, which is fermented soy paste) because of a leaked memo that, like that over-heated male interviewer, crossed and blurred the line between employment productivity and “feminine”, reproductively-biased and based charm.
Nanette Gottlieb, Professor of Japanese Studies, University of Queensland, reports in her 2006 book, Linguistic Stereotyping and Minority Groups in Japan, that the Kinokuniya memo specified that “no ‘busu’ (ugly), ‘chibi’ (tiny) or ‘kappe’ (bumpkin) women were to be employed.”
Time Magazine followed up on the story after it first broke, and reported, as did the Japanese English daily newspapers, that the Kinokuniya memo also warned against hiring women interested in reformist politics, divorcees and women who “respect passionate artists, like Vincent Van Gogh”.
Gottlieb noted that Kinokuniya’s labor union also followed up—with legal action against the company.
One English-daily report, which included an abridged summary of the memo published in Japanese in the Yomiuri Shimbun, revealed the Kinokuniya author’s view that “women who should not become full-time employees” include “women who are argumentative”, “women who take an interest in legal affairs” and “women who have had a chronic illness” (note: merely “have had”, not “have”)—in addition to the ugly, short and bumpkinish ones already decried.
Interestingly, the memo attempted to cloak the chronic-illness disqualification in quasi-benevolent, politely altruistic concern: “The illness could recur and since a recurrence would easily tire them, they could easily get dissatisfied”.
That these prejudices are sexist to the extent that they are gender-specific is beyond dispute; however, less obvious is how they blur and cross the job productivity-female reproductivity line. After all, how does a woman’s taking an interest in legal affairs impinge on anyone else’s reproductive agenda?
Here’s how it may: Consider what mate traits are attractive and unattractive, and then compare the corresponding employee traits.
In a traditionally patriarchal society like Japan’s, characteristics such as those enumerated above as full-time job disqualifications are also spousal disqualifications, because they compromise the likelihood of successful pairings, matings and successful rearing of children.
Look at the “must not hire” list again, but view it as a “must not breed with” list:
- chronically ill (which may bode ill for any offspring that survive pregnancy)
- argumentative (which easily manifests itself in disputes about whether and when to have kids, how many to have, how to allocate resources and mete out discipline, etc.)
- interested in legal affairs (e.g., community-property rights, divorce law, child-support law—all of which make breeding very costly)
- short (and therefore likely to “handicap” offspring when they enter the height-obsessed marriage market)
- ugly (ditto the previous).
Unlike the outright full-time employment ban on various types of women, the Kinokuniya criteria for part-time employment of women took a more cautionary, rather than adamant tone, with reproductive disqualifications being less evident or prominent. Still, implicitly breeding-related “defects” are there, in the memo.
(My own observations and conversations during my many years in Japan and stint as a columnist with The Daily Yomiuri suggested a “6-D” employment and marriage disqualification list tacitly adopted by many Japanese at that time (but to a much lesser extent now in some regards, e.g., divorce).
These were family death, disease, divorce, disfigurement, disability and distance (cultural, racial or socio-economic) as both employment and marriage disqualifications.
But this is the 21st-century—a lot has changed; so it is to be hoped that that attitudes are more relaxed, fair-minded and compassionate, as some evidence suggests.)
The memo said that the following should be hired for part-time positions only with caution (of the kind a jealous boyfriend or suitor in a traditional arranged marriage introduction would be expected to display).
- Women who live in apartments (Why? Because they may have unmonitored liaisons and pregnancies? Bad breeding risk.)
- Women who are qualified baby-care nurses or nurses (Why? Because they may be able to easily deceive a male about their reproductive state? Although ostensibly an excellent qualification for motherhood, such nursing credentials might be construed by some insecure males as potential loss of male control over breeding.)
- Divorcees (Is this because of some archaic stigma attached to divorce? Or is it that divorcees will tend to be older and less likely to want additional children (and therefore less fecund and, in the eyes of some guys, less desirable as breeding mates)?
Other disqualifications in the memo list and the rationales given for them seem not to be breeding-linked in any way:
- Women who have frequently changed jobs
- Women who have spent periods of idleness at home
- Women who belong to political or religious groups (“They won’t be able to change their way of thinking,” according to the memo.)
- Women whose permanent, registered domicile is not in Japan (“especially those coming from establishments that sell food and beverages,” according to the memo)
- Women whose husbands are teachers or writers
- Women whose fathers are university professors
- Women who have changed their jobs two or more times (“They won’t stick it out,” the memo said.)
- Women who are university dropouts
- Women whose family affairs are “complicated” (the term the memo used).
What would a reproduction-focused sociobiologist make of these disqualifications?
Without much effort, almost all of these job disqualifications could be translated into breeding disqualifications as well: Frequently changing jobs could imperil the financial well-being of offspring; long periods of idleness at home could be a marker for either a general lassitude, passive aggressive attitudes or a broad tendency to be uninvolved—traits that could adversely impact progeny.
Women whose domicile is not Japan would include those culturally or ethnically unacceptable to a Japanese father-to-be who doesn’t want “mixed” babies; women who are university dropouts could put their future offspring at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis those whose moms did graduate. “Complicated family affairs” could also be a breeding disqualification to the extent that they siphon off time, energy and money for reallocation to a woman’s parents, siblings and other pre-mating kin.
Not so easily translated from economic production to sexual reproduction is a woman’s membership in religious or political groups, or having husbands or fathers who are teachers, professors or writers.
The natural inclination is to see these as reproductive assets, in virtue of the willingness to be part of “something bigger” or the high intelligence presumed to correlate with jobs like teaching and writing.
It may be that the independent-mindedness, dogmatism and free-thinking associated with these avocations and professions could clash with a traditional male’s ideas of child rearing—including the decision as to whether to have children at all or how many, since high IQs of the kind teachers and writers are supposed to possess have been shown to inversely correlate with having large families.
There is a Latin expression, invoked by the childless philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that covers this phenomenon: “aut liberi aut libra”—(choose) either children, or books.
These Kinokuniya reservations about women are doubly sexist, since not only is it unlikely that male applicants would be filtered this way, but also because mothers who are teachers, professors or writers are not mentioned—as if they aren’t “really” any of these or in their league.
That kind of gender invisibility was shockingly evident during an orientation assembly hundreds of workers, I and other outside consultants and guests attended at a major chemical corporation plant in Tokyo, shortly after my initial arrival in Japan in the early 1980s.
The executive serving as spokesperson drew gasps and fire when, in listing the categories of employees by their numerical totals, segued from “chemical engineers—3,241, maintenance and safety crews—537….. (actual numbers long forgotten)” to “women—oh, they don’t matter” (with a straight face).
That gaffe triggered a fierce published protest from a fiery feminist teacher-colleague and some bad publicity for the company. The same feisty and hefty woman later literally picked up and tossed a smaller Japanese guy out the open door of a Tokyo JR train when it arrived at a Yamanote-line station after she caught him harassing a young female passenger.
On that day, that guy learned a personal sociobiological lesson from his folly.
There’s a huge difference between men of breeding and merely breeding men.