There’ s a staff meeting today. It will be entirely in Japanese, and although I know a solid 13.5 words (sometimes I forget bamboo shoot – “takenoko”), that’s not why I’m packing my bags and tidying my desk to leave.
Mizuno-sensei is sitting beside me, watching me even as she pretends to grade homework papers. She’s my “handler” so to speak and has given me the proverbial bow-nod of approval to leave. She knows my issues.
When I leave and the principal – a man just the right age for the position – stands to start the meeting, some of the women will at once silently slip away into the kitchen. They will return with hot tea, probably green, in hand for their men colleagues. They will stealthily serve the tea, not one teacup making one unpleasant “clink” that would disturb the business. Like the china, these women are quiet – only visible when a man needs to see them.
Working in Japanese offices is a daily lesson in (im)patience, cultural (mis)understanding and maddening sexism.
I give my parting bow, walk out the door and into my Board of Education tomorrow.
Here the women are all Office Ladies. They have no other jobs – just the one. They wear uniforms, like the men, but only the men wear pants. The Office Ladies do the paperwork, clean the office and act as hostesses when guests visit. Guests – ones that matter – that make the entire office stand and formally bow at the waist and say “Thanks for gracing us with your presence” speeches, are always men. The Office Ladies prepare the meeting space and serve the tea.
It’s always tea – the symbol of Japan and the basis of women’s work in this country. Sometimes I think if I were a single Japanese woman in my 20s and beyond (an unfortunate situation, no doubt), I would thank the very tea leaves themselves. Without them, I would wonder, could I have a job? Could men get their own water?
I’m teaching today. I ask my 7th, 8th and 9th graders what they want to be when they grow up. The boys say, “A professional baseball player like Ichiro!” and “A doctor” or sometimes simply, “I don’t know.”
The girls, well, one said, “A singer,” and she turned red and sat down real fast. The bright, advanced girls almost all say, “a teacher.” It’s the highest level job for a woman they’ve, or I’ve seen – here in Yamaguchi-ken. Most of them, though, they say, “I want to be an Office Lady.”
I’m at the Mayor’s office conducting an interview with the Mayor himself. He’s friendly, upbeat and has decent English skills. I’m asking him questions about his rise in local politics, but my eyes are jumping to my friend Mizuko-san. She’s his assistant – the Mayor’s personal Office Lady. She just brought us tea – this time it’s dark and cold, not green and hot, and she didn’t look into my eyes, not once.
When she’s at work, she’s the Mayor’s Office Lady, and she performs that role. She can’t be performing and be my friend, that would break the illusion.
Her eyes are down, but I can see her smiling. She speaks better English than the Mayor, and she just heard his grammatical error. He’s stumbling on words now, but she won’t offer help. Office Ladies don’t appear to know more than the men above them. That would be rude.
She’s well-traveled and well-read. She could be a well-paid translator in another world, but in this one she’s the Mayor’s Office Lady – the coveted position of all the Office Ladies. I make a mental note to ask her if she likes her job. I think she does.
I’m back at the Board of Education, to pick up my bags and say goodbye for the afternoon. I walk in to hear the phone ringing. There’s only one Office Lady left, and she is cleaning up the half full tea cups from the guests who just left. The phone rings. Two times, three times, 1/2 of four times and –
“Fukuya-san!” a sharp male voice sounds, with another hurried line in Japanese.
She juggles the teacups, snack plates and the phone and politely passes the call to the man who scolded.
There are 10 others in the office, all but two staring at a blank computer screen. They’re appearing to work, and she’s carrying lip-marked green tea teacups and their phone calls. Next, she’ll carry the dishes to the sink. Before she leaves, she’ll wash the dishes, clean the coffee pot for tomorrow and tidy up the office.
I’m at home, and dinner is on the stove. I absentmindedly add a green tea bag to the kettle-boiled water waiting in my teacup. I watch the translucent water turn pale then forest green, and it seems as murky as my vision and understanding of Japanese women in the workforce.
Maybe women workers in Japan are like the tea they serve- neatly packaged and contained but transformative. For what it’s worth, without them, men would just be drinking water.
I take a sip, and the tea burns my English tongue; I should be careful, it’s my permission slip out of the same tea-serving tasks. I take another sip and wonder if their jobs change much when they step out of the office and into their homes. A third sip, and I ask myself, “Who are they serving now?”