Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 13 1997 3:30 AM

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

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       We stopped at the grocery store on the way to work this morning and ran into an "elevator girl," who makes her living riding up and down in the elevator all day long, wearing a silly uniform and a sillier hat, bowing like a puppet, and greeting customers in the unnaturally high voice that Japan has traditionally considered polite and subservient enough for women to use in public.
       In most department stores and the fanciest grocery stores, there is no such thing as riding the elevator by yourself. It would essentially relegate the store to Wal-Mart status if every elevator did not have a "girl." And of course, very pretty ones are the mark of a very fine store.
       The issues surrounding Japanese women are fascinating and strange. It's been our experience that Japanese women, on the whole, are more interesting than Japanese men. Men's lives are all mapped out for them. Japanese men generally graduate from college, hop on a career train, and jump off at the other end 40 years later. Companies are still the defining core of men's identities. Men don't say, "I am Hiroshi Suzuki." They say, "I am Toyota's Hiroshi Suzuki." You just don't introduce yourself without saying what company you belong to. And for the most part, nobody changes companies. If they do, people figure they must have been fired.
       It's more complicated for women. Especially these days. More of them are choosing to have careers beyond marriage and motherhood. More are working into their 30s or 40s or even longer. More are marrying later in life so as to give themselves time to build a career. But even so, there is still a strong belief here that if women want to work, they should quit when they marry. Or at the very least, when they get pregnant. This remains the norm.
       Needless to say, the Japanese have a hard time figuring out our wacky situation: a married couple with two children, working full time, and--most bizarrely--together. People constantly ask us what in the world we have done with our children; the concept of a baby sitter is foreign. Even the word for co-bureau chief, kyodo sokyokucho, comes rolling off their tongues oddly. No one has heard of it. And no one believes we share the work and that both of us and neither of us is the boss. Japanese people call the office and demand to know: Who is in charge? Once they learn one of the "co-bureau chiefs" is a woman, 99 percent of the time they ask to speak to the man. We have interviewed people together, and the person will listen patiently while Mary asks a question, then turn around and deliver the answer to Kevin.
       When Walter Mondale was U.S. ambassador here, Japanese people would usually greet him and completely ignore his wife, Joan, who was standing next to him. The Mondales said they once stood in a receiving line at the embassy with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, who were visiting Japan. The Japanese warmly greeted the men and walked right by the women. This had apparently never happened to Fonda before, and she went ballistic. It's actually a funny mental picture, but still ...
       One of our best friends here is a dynamic Japanese woman who runs her own public-relations firm. She thinks of it as her duty to hire and nurture young Japanese professional women. But it's making her nuts. As soon as they marry or have a baby, they quit. Our friend ends up spending a lot of time and money training new women to replace the old ones. She's a guardian angel for Japanese women, but it's expensive and frustrating.
       On the other hand, when we advertised for a new office manager last year, we got more than 100 applicants, many of them far too qualified. They were highly educated women in their 30s and 40s with years of experience in journalism or business, and they were so hungry to work that they were willing to take a job filing and keeping the books. Most Japanese companies won't touch women of that age, so foreign firms scoop up these great hires.
       The work that is available to women here is often silly--clerical, mindless or, worse, decorative. Japanese flight attendants recently drew a line when they were asked to wear Mickey Mouse ears to promote trips to Disneyland, but bosses still manage to impose the most amazing outfits on their female employees. The elevator girl at our local grocery store wears a navy blue skirt, high heels, white gloves, and a blue and white straw hat with polka dots. The store has only two floors, so she doesn't have far to go. All day she bows to each person who enters her elevator and greets them with a cheerful chirp. Up goes the elevator and she talks singsong the whole way, announcing that we'll soon arrive at the second floor, and thanking you for visiting our store and thanking you for riding this elevator and if you'll be kind enough to wait just a minute more we'll be at the second floor and I'm so sorry it takes so long, and here we are. (The effect is especially surreal when you're the only passenger.) Then she bows and thanks each customer and waits for the down-bound crowd to enter. The men who run Japanese companies see elevator girls as good service. They don't see this as sexist or demeaning or somehow telling about how they view women's roles in their company. But they also don't hire elevator boys.
       Still, young Japanese women are showing spunk. This walking-three-paces-behind-your-man stuff is all but dead among young people. Last night Mary went to Japan's Chippendale's--a male strip club called J. Mens--and saw a lot of Japanese women who thought men shouldn't be the only ones to enjoy a bawdy night on the town. But the strip joint, and the panting Japanese women cutting loose over American men taking off baseball uniforms, is a story for another day.

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan are co-bureau chiefs for the Washington Post in Tokyo.