issue 231 - May 1992
Not a hair out of place
John Potter describes the life of one Japanese woman who won't
let the rigid codes of school conduct pass unchallenged.
Noriko Matsumoto lives in a suburb of Kobe in Westem Japan. Each morning she cleans the flat, makes breakfast for her husband and two children. But any similarity with the lives of many other Japanese 'housewives' ends here when she leaves for a meeting of the Shin Nihon Fujin no Kai (New Japanese Women's Group), which promotes peace issues and women s rights. Noriko's time is also taken up with community affairs and agitating for changes in the educational system. This can make her working day a very long one.
Noriko is a rebel, an activist in a country where women are still in many ways treated as second rate. Her modesty belies her knowledge of and compassion for the victimized in her society. She became aware of them as a high school student of 17 and at college met others with similar views.
Just 10 years ago she had to put her opinions into action. When she married she was working as a secretary. She returned to work to find her desk removed, her boss expecting that the beginning of marriage should mean the end of her career. Noriko promptly returned her desk to its original place and went on to win the battle to stay put.
She recently made news with her fight to abolish rules governing the length of students' hair at the local Motoyama High School. In the rigid hierarchy of the education system conformity is the watchword, rote learning and memory the keys to 'success'. There is immense pressure to do well and enter a high-status school or university. Primary school children can spend most of their evenings and weekends attending juku (crammer schools). Complete conformity and intense competition produce casualties on all sides, with dire consequences.
In the summer of 1990 a high school girl was killed in Kobe when she was caught between the school gate and a gatepost as she dashed to her first class of the day. The gate was closed on her by a teacher shutting out latecomers. Rules are, after all, rules. Local papers recently reported the case of a 15-year-old girl who had been punched and kicked to death by four of her classmates because, 'she was not dressed neatly'.
The first thing Noriko and other parents at Motoyama decided to tackle was the question of rules about hair. Says Noriko: 'We decided to give out leaflets at the entrance ceremony, asking people to support our protest against the rule on shaved heads.' Visitors to Japan are often struck by the sight of schoolboys in military-style uniforms sporting convict-style haircuts.
The principal told her that this was not the right time or place to talk about it. He promised to call a meeting to discuss the issue. When he didn't, Noriko collected more than 2,000 signatures in two weeks from people supporting her idea. Then seven children at the school refused to shave their hair from May 1990. Finally the school announced that all rules about the length of hair would be dropped.
For Noriko, problems such as large classes, bullying and truancy still need facing. Aside from education she feels that karoshi (death from overwork) is the most serious - and uniquely Japanese - problem facing her society. She knows several women who worry that their husbands might die.
Noriko is a member of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and stood (unsuccessfully) as the only female candidate in a recent local election. She is proud of the JCP. The party has followed its own democratic and independent path, untarnished by the corruption of other parties, left or right. It still commands a relatively large following.
With her unassuming and optimistic manner Noriko Matsumoto seems almost refreshingly innocent. She finds it hard to believe that an article like this could be written about someone as 'ordinary' as her. Yet one cannot doubt her commitment to putting right the inequalities and injustices around her. She has no ambitions for her own children. 'But,' she says, 'I'd be happy if they wanted to change society.'
John Potter is a freelance writer living in Kobe.
The monthly Japan Environment Monitor publishes updates on the deteriorating ecological health of the island. Its address is 400 Yamanashi-Ken, Kofu-shi, Saiwai-cho, 18-11 Kofu, Japan. Ampo - the Japan-Asia Quarterly's address is P.O. Box 5250, Tokyo International, Japan. See its ad in this issue.
The definitive critique of Japan is Harel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power (Macmillian, London 1989.) Enigma is a brilliant marshalling of evidence against nationalist bureaucratic power in Japan. It is only flawed by an ahistorical perspective and the author's unwillingness to see that what he criticizes about Japan exists in large measure in Western society. More sympathetic to the Japanese is Ian Buruma's excellent A Japanese Mirror; Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture (Penguin, London 1985). Also a good read is Peter Tasker's Inside Japan (Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1987). Tasker's often amusing account is really an enlightened version of Japan as told from the perspective of its ruling Liberal Democratic Party.