Posts Tagged ‘Agnes Chan’

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

Saturday, August 10th, 2013

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.


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.”

“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.

Agnes Chan: “One child safe is one child safe.”

Monday, January 9th, 2012

The object of a hate campaign (Photo: My Droid)

Agnes Chan is one of my favorite people (I’ve written about her here and here, among other places), but she’s virtually unknown in the U.S.

The Chinese megastar from Tokyo is Japan’s UNICEF ambassador, known around the world for her hands-on humanitarian work.  During our two-hour visit today at the Stanford Bookstore cafe, she discussed her recent work in Somalia, India, and China.

Her call at Stanford was not a humanitarian mission, however: her second son is a freshman (he was born at Stanford University Hospital), her oldest son is an alumnus, and she herself picked up a PhD in education in 1994.

The singer and songwriter hosts television programs in Japan, writes extensively for the media, and has authored about scores of  books.  At Stanford, she co-authored The Road Winds Uphill All the Way: Gender, Work, and Family in the United States and Japan with Myra Strober (it was published by MIT Press in 1999) .

On her travels, she regularly works with the diseased, the maimed, the hopeless, and the helpless. As I wrote six years ago:

How does she cope in the face of such intractable problems? “I take it one day at a time,” she said on a recent visit to Stanford. “One child safe is one child safe. One happy day for a child is one happy day for a child. I’m happy to collect one more dime. No effort is…” she pauses. Muda, she says, looking for the English equivalent to the Japanese word, although her native language is English. She tries “worthless” and finally settles for “wasted.”

“Every effort you make will somehow add up; it will help somebody somewhere. I think every single step counts.” It seems to: since she was named to the post in 1998, Japan’s committee has become UNICEF’s No. 1 fund raiser world­wide despite a period of economic decline, collecting $130 million last year.

When I asked Myra about her work some years ago, the economist said, “I think it feels very simple to her.  I don’t think she understands why it should be complex.  The world is not as it should be, and those more fortunate should help.”

Agnes’s most recent cause is closer to home:  a campaign to reform Japanese law and criminalize not only the sale and manufacture of child pornography, but also its possession and purchase.  Japan has been notoriously over-the-top with child pornography, in “live” and animated versions:

For a long time, Japanese society has been quiet about this issue, which is generally seen as taboo. Children’s advocates have been vocal in countering those who would prefer to keep subjects like child pornography hidden.

Among the advocates adding their voices to the campaign is singer and activist Dr. Agnes Chan. As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Japan, Dr. Chan has been working on the issue of child pornography for many years; she sees it as one of the central children’s rights causes in the country.

“Japan is known to be one of the largest exporters and buyers of child pornography, and the law is insufficient. It needs to be changed,” Dr. Chan said, adding that preventing the production and sale of child pornography isn’t enough if it’s still permissible to possess or buy the images.

She told me the astonishing range of vitriol that has been directed against her – a hate campaign that has included spamming, threats to her life, and ridicule of her looks and her age, even accusations that she’s jealous of the children.  I had trouble believing that anyone could be even annoyed at the bright and effervescent star, so I did a quick google search when I got home and found this, among others – “The Dictatorial Melancholy of Agnes Chan.” For sexism, racism, and many other kinds of ism’s it’s hard to beat:

So, we again have the pleasure to meet Agnes Chan, ex-would-be singer, current TV and radio mascot for several shows who, in her spare time, puts on her robe and her wizard hat and sternly tries to get the carrot out of her ass by fighting against pornography.

Former fail-bikini girl congratulated the recent loli ban, letting loose her deep Chinese mentality by stating that “People who think of children’s nudity as a tool don’t need freedom of expression.” Now, Agnes Obaa-sama, we know that in China freedom of expression owns you, but let’s not mix up, like you obviously do, real life things (which, by the way, are handled with more success by authorities, not by some random aging female who happens to be at THAT time of the month), with anime and manga. The difference should be obvious even for mentally impaired people.

Winston Churchill “lived from book to book, and from one article to the next”

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Time Magazine‘s list of “bests” are often a pile of rubbish – but I was gratified to see one personal favorite given pride of place in “All-TIME 100 Best Non-Fiction Books“:

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 (published in 1988) was William Manchester‘s sequel to The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 (published in 1983). Alone picks up the story with Churchill cast into the political wilderness and entering what the author believed was the most crucial period of the politician’s extraordinary life — his “finest hour,” if you will — which culminated in his becoming Prime Minister of Britain in 1940, his country once again at war with Germany. Churchill, as Manchester poignantly puts it, “resolved to lead Britain and her fading empire in one last great struggle worthy of all they had been.”

I read this unforgettable book some years ago – stunning, in its step-by-step revelation of Winston Churchill‘s dogged, determined, and humiliating journey through the 1930s to warn a resistant England of the growing dangers of Hitler’s Germany. The war weary U.K. was famously allergic to evidence and eloquence, leading it to the brink of annihilation when Hitler finally attacked.

His study at Chartwell

Partly it was in Churchill’s nature to be so.  In his first book he wrote: “Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result” and “There are men who derive as stern an exaltation from the proximity of danger and ruin, as others from success.” But the fortitude to face humiliation, rejection, and loneliness is never nature alone.

I was so impressed by Manchester’s book, his last, that I gave a copy to Toyko rock star, and peacenik Agnes Chan when she took her PhD at Stanford in 1994 (she’s the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Japan).  It is at once a depressing and a fortifying work for the peacemakers of the world, but offers a salutary lesson: Peace without justice is no peace, and, as Augustine said, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

But something else impressed me.  Few know that Churchill made his living as a journalist.  Every night, in his magnificent Norman-era estate Chartwell, after the nightly dinner party with tuxedos and evening gowns, silver buckets of champagne, the Gruyère, the pâté, soup, oysters, caviar, after the port, brandy, and cigars were finished, he would shuffle up to his study at about 11 p.m. and begin his working day in his slippers, “entering through the Tudor doorway with its molded architrave…”

Churchill's desk at Chartwell

Manchester writes:  “Only after entering his employ will [his assistant] Bill Deakin discover, to his astonishment, that Churchill lacks a large private income, that he lives like a pasha yet must support his extravagant life with his pen. The Churchill children are also unaware that, as [his daughter] Mary will later put it, the family ‘literally lived from book to book, and from one article to the next.’ Her mother, who knows, prays that each manuscript will sell.”

“…he enters the room in his scarlet, green, and gold dressing gown, the cords trailing behind him. Before greeting his researcher and the two secretaries on duty tonight, he must read the manuscript he dictated the previous evening and then revise the latest galleys, which arrived a few hours earlier from London. Since Churchill’s squiggled red changes exceed the copy set – the proofs look as though several spiders strained in crimson ink wandered across the pages – his printers’ bills are shocking. But the expense is offset by his extraordinary fluency. Before the night is out, he will have dictated between 4,000 and 5,000 words. On weekends he may exceed ten thousand words.”

I envy the fluency.  I envy the output. I even envy the study, in the oldest, 11th century part of Chartwell.  And above I envy the courage, bravado, and style.  I do not envy the pâté de foie gras, the trout, the shoulder of lamb, lobster, dressed crab, Dover sole, the roast beef, and the endless gin.  It’s an astonishment they all did not perish before 30.