Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Gap

格差社会One of the things I hear coming up again and again in the news here and as a "buzz" topic my teachers at school would make us talk about, is the society gap. The kakusa. I think it was PM Koizumi who used to talk about it a lot, how society in Japan is becoming stratified and more divided by socio-economic status. This was always compared with the States and basically how there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

I had never given this much thought until last weekend. Now that I've had a few days to distance myself from it, I'm not as upset but I am still really surprised at how much I was bothered by the whole situation.

The beau and I went to a do for my work which we both knew in advance might be a little tough. The people attending would mostly be foreigners, most of whom don't speak that much Japanese. The beau speaks even less English (which we are trying to work on together) so he was reticent from the get-go. Because he works in the mizu shobai our schedules are totally out of synch. Couple this with the fact that in Japanese company social situations you don't bring your spouse, we had never been to a work function of mine before. The social situations we find ourselves in together either involve people related to his work, his friends, or my friends (of which there are very few here and because they are my friends they humour my rough interpreting and cope amongst themselves with broken English and Japanese). I have introduced the beau to some Japanese people I work with, but obviously there was no language-barrier.

Back to the work do. After preliminary introductions we find ourselves drinking together off to the side. Everyone else is coupled or grouped in small numbers so nothing amiss there. The beau mentions that he may leave early so I can socialize better which upsets me because I wanted him to meet the people I work with, the people I gossip to him about, and it was our only night of the week together. He is a very social guy around my friends even though they speak through me but I think the work element really changed things for him. I don't know of many social situations like this (house party type thing) in Japan where people bring other non-related people and you have to schmooze and talk to strangers. Usually group things are organized by one's affiliation with one another: work, school, hobby group or whatever. I personally don't like mingling social situations like this either-once I make a connection with someone I can talk for days but the whole walking up to people I don't know and trying to make small talk makes me nervous and I just want to run away.

While we are debating the various merits of him going home, one of my lovely co-workers came and talked to us and from there, a couple others did too and before you know it, we were several hours into the party and seemingly enjoying it. The beau was smiling and laughing but I know that he was probably only half-enjoying it because of the amount of care he would be expected to take when meeting people (read: my Japanese "superiors") for the first time. For example, the level of Japanese that he would use with people he has just met compared with my level of English with someone I have just met is much more formal, and so although he smiles and laughs, really he is just trying to get through the conversation. This smiling but not really enjoying it thing ties into the whole honme and tatemae duo which I won't even start to talk about here as this post is already way too long. Luckily he doesn't pull that duo stuff with me but I can't expect him not to do it, even if only a little, outside our relationship.

When meeting my superiors the story of how we met was told many times, and you can't tell the story without him mentioning that he works in the mizu shobai. Now the people I work with all have professional degrees and even though the beau works in one of the most exclusive parts of the mizu shobai he is immediately judged by his job. Until living in Tokyo I never fell prey to or really experienced much prejudice related to what school you went to or what work you do which I'm sure is partly because of the countries/areas I grew up. I read the NY Times article about young professional women "dating down" and until the beau I hadn't ever seriously dated someone who hasn't been to university. I love the beau and if he wasn't smart (degree or no degree) I wouldn't have fallen for him. Although I'm sure some people are thinking "how is she going to get serious with this person" it doesn't bother me a bit because at the end of the day, we take care of each other. I don't have to apologize for having a "good job" (if only they knew the truth) or spending a year at an ivy school in Tokyo with the beau, he constantly brags about me to other people and isn't insecure when it comes to our backgrounds.

But the party. I actually overheard him telling another Japanese man that he really feels "the gap" at work because of the social status of some of his customers and the people he meets. It was weird hearing him just put it out there like that, because he is very close to some of his customers and while I know in their eyes they are not on equal levels, the polite nuances of their relationships often make it seem as if they are. Him and the man then went on to discuss how the educational background of everyone at the party was very high which totally frustrated me that they were buying into the way people here react when you say you went to this school or work at that company. I know if the beau feels this gap and inferiority in status to some people there is nothing I can do. He knows I respect and love him but that day I felt it wasn't enough. I was mad at Japan for making him feel like he has to declare that he is only a "insert job title". After we went home I tried to say something but it just sounded trite. I guess you can't reverse something so engrained.

I realize this is something we will just have to deal with and as long as "we" are OK the rest doesn't matter. But I am SO frustrated that the way people view the school you went to and the job you do as the factors to decide whether you are worthy or not. And that this attitude has made the beau feel that way too. Yes part of it was the English and the new social situation but I think most of it was the social status thing. I'm not explaining it well but I felt so deflated Monday morning. I really wanted him to enjoy it and I feel crappily responsible for putting him in a social situation where he feels unusually uncomfortable. I say unusually because he's not one of those follow the rules, meek, yes sir no sir suits but usually an out-going and open person. To see him acutely feel the Gap broke my heart.

Is this something that people can feel strongly elsewhere or is it particularly strong in Japan? The few Japanese female friends I have always meet the beau and complement me on how he is so sweet and so kakkoii, so cool. But in all honesty they would probably not settle down with someone who doesn't have a regular suit job. I don't think they could even fathom what it might be like to be with a partner who will probably make less than them, or in a marriage where they can't automatically be housewives. I remember one of my friends asking if the beau paid all of our rent. I was fucking shocked. I felt like saying, why the hell would he pay all of our rent? I work too!! Are most of these women just looking for someone to pay the rent?! To be continued if I can get my head on right...


XF said...

To me it seems like 偏見 from their ignorance rather than 格差. The people from your office have worked only at that company and not anywhere else, I imagine. Then it's them who don't know how things work outside their small world.

I enjoyed reading your blog, especially the entry on 音姫. That inspired me to check with my Japanese male colleague whether he ever uses it. Actually, it's not installed in men's room.

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Thanks for your thoughts and research on the toilet situation!

I agree with what you said, and a lot of it is prejudice that somes from being small-minded. The gap thing is a more far-reaching issue with so many different levels but it was strange for me to experience some of it here.

The scary part is, most of the people at my company have professional degrees ("the Professionals") and are "well-travelled and well-educated" which goes to show how that is a relative concept. I think despite it being a "free" society people in Japan tend to not mix with those outside their various circles, making for a lot of rigid stratification. Being pigeon-holed is shitty either way.

Foggia said...

From experience, people from the traditional elite of any country always treat outsiders like inferiors. And particularly loath the newcommers to their game. And yes, this gap sucks.