Out of Japan: Men may rule, but women hand out the pocket money

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TOKYO - Who is the Japanese woman? I asked myself this question on a commuter train earlier this week. Tokyo is experiencing its most severe heat wave on record, with temperatures exceeding 40C and humidity so high that even the air itself seems to be sweating. Opposite me on the train were a number of women of different ages, all staring demurely at the floor, occasionally dabbing at their foreheads with lace-fringed, scented handkerchiefs. All were wearing tights - not a bare leg in sight, despite the heat.

It seemed like a little cameo of Japanese woman: retaining her graceful poise while enduring the hardships of a society that frowns on bare legs. Exquisite but long- suffering, quick-witted and articulate but largely silent in male company, increasingly cosmopolitan and widely travelled but deferential to a man whose experience of the outside world is probably limited to one trip to Hawaii, educated to graduate level and then hired as a tea-lady. Such are the contradictions of the Japanese woman.

Last month, hundreds of female university graduates staged a demonstration in Hibiya Park in central Tokyo, protesting against the refusal of corporations to hire women during the current recession. 40 per cent of female graduates, but a mere 10 per cent of males, have failed to find jobs this year. Many women who have done job interviews say they have clearly not been taken seriously by the interviewers - some have been asked questions about their boyfriends and their sex lives, serving as a titillating distraction to the day's business of recruiting 'serious' male employees. Despite equal opportunity legislation, job advertisements frequently specify 'recruiting men only'.

But the Japanese woman has her power: when the 'serious' male employee gets married, he will give her his salary every month, and she will give him a daily allowance for his lunch, cigarettes and a drink after work if he is lucky. There are even national standards for the salaryman's pocket-money.

In society, the Japanese woman is brought up to be seen but not heard. The two most common words for wife - okusan meaning 'Mrs Inside', and kanai, which is 'inside-the-house' - show clearly where her place is expected to be. Conversely, the man is not expected to intrude into the woman's fiefdom: he will be ridiculed as a kitchen cockroach, a large piece of rubbish, or nure ochiba - the wet fallen leaves of autumn that stick to your shoes.

There are of course a sprinkling of brave souls who have carved out free-standing careers for themselves in the worlds of media, fashion, art, academia and government service. Crown Princess Masako was an example until royalty called. Japan's most respected UN official is a woman: Sadako Ogata, head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Chiaki Mukai just completed two weeks in the US space shuttle. Takako Doi led the Socialist Party for several years and now serves as Speaker of the Lower House in the Japanese parliament. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Hanae Mori are world-reknowned designers.

But for each successful woman there are thousands stuck in dead end jobs, investing their salaries in designer clothes, flying off on shopping trips to Hong Kong and Paris and waiting for the guillotine of marriage to fall. At work they are known as shokuba no hana - office flowers - who provide a colourful, scented distraction to the daily grind. Men like to snigger about their mindless consumption and racy nightlife, without stopping to think that they have left young unmarried women with little alternative.

Once married, Japanese women funnel most of their energy into bringing up their children, particularly their sons. This often results in excessive mothering and resulting mother complexes - maza-con - that men carry with them for the rest of their lives.

And for every Japanese woman the final stage in life is to become a revered old obasan, which is equivalent to grandmother. In writing, the ideogram for obasan suggests that her face is covered in wrinkles like waves on the sea, and everywhere in Japan such wrinkled old ladies are to be seen, often with backs bent by years of stooping in rice paddies. Frequently they are widows, since the life expectancy of women at 82.5 exceeds that of men - 76.2 - by more than six years. An unkind name for such old women, used mostly by resentful in-laws, is ribojin - 'not yet dead person'.

Who is the Japanese woman? Amaterasu, the sun goddess from whom all Japanese are mythically descended, the original source of the mother complex? Is the Japanese woman ultimately in control of, or controlled by men? Who has the last gender-laugh? These are the matters I pondered on, in the heat of the commuter train.