Tokyo Notes

A Blow for Girl Power?

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Tokyo Notes

A Blow for Girl Power?

Japan disappoints in many gender equality rankings. Is a small Valentine’s Day revolution a sign of change?

As everyone here knows, it’s tough being Japanese.  Working and commuting hours are among the longest in the world and vacations are short: a staggering 92 percent of workers here don’t take their allocated holiday time according to the last Expedia survey on vacation deprivation.

Japanese workers take just over nine of their allotted 16.6 annual vacation days—among the lowest in the developed world. Japan Times columnist Roger Pulvers recently pointed out that this may be one of the few countries where calling someone busy is a compliment.

Life in the workforce seems especially trying for our female colleagues. After four decades near the top of the global economic league tables, Japan can finally boast that one in ten of its company presidents are women.

But let’s not get too excited yet since those are mainly small companies.  Meanwhile, Japan ranks a global 94th in gender equality, and a shameful 98th in terms of female representation in parliament, trailing South Korea, North Korea and China.

So it might seem churlish to pick on the minor annual indignity of obligation chocolate. But let’s ask the question anyway: When are Japanese women going to call time on this tradition?  If they want to buy expensively wrapped treats for the men they love, great.  But enriching confectionary makers by ingratiating themselves to male co-workers and bosses is just daft.

According to Bloomberg, Valentine's Day-related revenue was expected to hit a three-year high of 40 billion yen ($485 million) this year.  Sales of chocolate on the day have bucked Japan’s downward consumer spending trend and risen steadily from 27 billion yen to 37 billion over the 10 years to 2010.

Three cheers for the chocolate makers, but ask around and you’ll find women who shell out for overpriced sweets every year because they’re afraid not to, because everyone else is doing it, or because they don’t want to end up on the boss’s hit list. With part-time contracts expanding, sheer likeability in the office is almost a job qualification, so let’s not ignore all the subtle social pressures behind this apparently innocent pleasure.

But wait, it seems that a minor confectionary revolution is afoot. Reuters says that three-out-of four women in their teens and twenties gave the chocs to their female mates this year instead. The article says that this could be because women can ‘better appreciate the thought and expense’ that goes into buying and wrapping chocolates than the uncouth men who wolf them down. Or, it tentatively speculates, it could be some deeper sociological reason: perhaps Japan’s long-suffering fairer sex is losing interest in the current crop of herbivorous men?

Or maybe they’re just seeing sense and striking a tiny blow for girl power.  Could this be the start of something great for Japan’s downtrodden sex? Cattle prods for train molesters?  A nationwide ban on office tea-making unless it’s done by a man over 40? Jihad on male TV producers who hire pretty faces who do anything to get on the nation’s screens?  We can but dream.