Archive for August 10th, 2013

“Brave choices” for Japanese women: megastar Agnes Chan speaks at Stanford

Saturday, August 10th, 2013
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She won.

Marissa Mayer at Yahoo? Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook? It’s nothing compared to what women face in Japan, trying to juggle home and family.  Ask Agnes Chan.

I’ve known the Asian powerhouse for a quarter-century now (I’ve written about her here and here and here, among other places).  I usually describe her to my friends as a Chinese rock star from Tokyo, but she’s much more than that – for example, she’s Japan’s very successful UNICEF ambassador, in addition to a singer-songwriter, a television personality and host, a newspaper and magazine columnist, a lecturer, a professor, and the author of sixty-or-so  books (I lose count).  More recently, she’s been battling international child pornography and trafficking as she continues her worldwide charity missions.  She began as a refugee from mainland China, and has known charity from both sides: her large family accepted powdered milk and rice from the missions. While still a schoolgirl at the Maryknoll Convent School in Hong Kong, she was picked out for pop star fame at 14.  She relocated to Japan a few years later, and married her manager.  As I wrote some years ago:

It was her starring role in the “Agnes controversy,” though, that earned her the most fame—and a measure of infamy. The episode erupted in February 1988, about three months after the birth of her first child. Chan, by then a celebrity with a half-dozen regular TV gigs, began bringing her son and a nanny to the television studio so she could nurse the baby in her dressing room. The arrangement enraged Japanese conservatives, who thought Chan should stay at home with her son. Feminists turned on her, too, accusing her of presuming to speak for working women who didn’t have the same economic advantages.

The outcry, which sparked a national debate about work and family, was the 32-year-old Chan’s first taste of public disapproval. Devastated, she found herself re-evaluating her life and career. “Normally, public figures who are women would not be so public about having children so they could avoid damaging their ‘image,’ ” Chan says in her soft, slightly lilting English. “I was very open about it.” A compilation of news accounts about the episode, Reading the Agnes Controversy, sold 100,000 copies in its first three months.

Chan decided the best way to cope with the crisis would be to learn more about the job-family conflicts working mothers faced. Her brother-in-law, a Hong Kong cardiologist, called a colleague at Stanford to ask if his friend knew anyone on campus studying such issues. That’s how Chan ended up having a half-hour transpacific telephone chat in January 1989 with [Stanford economist Myra]  Strober, who had recently published her findings on the work and family choices of members of Stanford’s Class of ’81.

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Half of Myra, half of Agnes…

That’s where we met.  She revisited Stanford last month for the annual conference of the International Association of Feminist Economics, and recalled the kerfuffle of the 1980s, before she came for a PhD from Stanford.  “The pebble I threw into the pond rippled throughout Japan and facilitated the passing of the Equal Chance employment law for men and women and later the right to take time off after childbirth for parents.”

Despite Japan’s crashing demographics, not many women are taking advantage of the new opportunities.  Agnes said that more than 70 percent of women with jobs continue to work after marriage, but with the birth of their first child, only about a third continue to work. After the second child, slightly less than a quarter, and among women with three children, only about 13 percent.  Women do about 84.3 percent of the housework, including child rearing, cooking, and cleaning. That’s less then men in any other developed country.  Japan ranks 101st in gender equality among 135 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report last year.  When women view having children as the end of their careers, as well as an economic hit on their household, not having children at all becomes a more appealing option.

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe has made women’s increased participation in society a pillar in Japan’s economic recovery plan – however, says Agnes, “Political will by itself will not be sufficient … There will need to be affirmative action, with goals and timetables, and penalties for failure.” Any success on the horizon?  Yes, says Agnes, “a growing realization that Japan cannot survive without women working at the work place and giving birth to children.”

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“So that brings me back to the ‘Agnes Controversy.’ I raised three children and stayed working. When my eldest son turned 20 years old, coming of age in Japan, a prominent journalist in Japan publicly apologized to me for being anti-Agnes during the controversy.  Continuing to work and also giving birth are now seen more as brave choices rather than selfish acts.  After 26 years, more people believe that successful and powerful women with children should not be seen as intimidating, but as inspiration.

The “Agnes Controversy” was made more immediate to those in the room by the Agnes’ tech assistant for the morning – none other than the former baby-in-question, Arthur Kaneko, now working in the world of finance.  Arthur towers over his elegantly delicate mother, and clearly out-maneuvers her in technology.  But he’ll never out-maneuver her in fashion. Agnes’s trendy, whimsical white suit with transparent sleeves, a rhinestone watch fob, and a ruffled tuxedo-like shirt was a showstopper.   He confided to me that it was “among the more muted choices” in the Shibuya emporium where she shops in Tokyo.