Hinamatsuri, or Dolls’ Day, falls on the 3rd of March each year. Japanese families with young daughters display dolls and cook up a feast to pray for the happiness and health of their daughters. Traditionally, families would wish for good marriages for their girls as a means of ensuring a happy life.
However, expectations these days have changed as the definition of happiness has broadened beyond marriage and the domestic sphere. We speak to 2 Singapore-based Japanese ladies to find out more about what it means to be a Japanese woman in this day and age.
Modern Japanese women – strong but soft
Being a woman in Japan today comes with a whole laundry list of expectations. Unlike in Singapore, where female empowerment is taken for granted and career women are celebrated, Japanese women are expected to be dab hands at housework and pretty, on top of all that.
Born in Singapore to a Japanese father and Malaysian Chinese mother, Miki Tokunaga, 29, is equally at home in both Singapore and Japan. The environment in Singapore definitely makes it easier for women to flourish, according to Miki, although Japan has certainly evolved over the years.
Miki shares that her father’s generation expected girls to be quiet, homely, and gentle. But she, like others of her generation, is redefining womanhood in Japan in her own way.
“There are many ways to be a woman in Japan”, quips Miki. While she agrees that both Japanese and Singaporean women are strong, this strength is manifested in different ways.
Singaporean women are raised in a milieu that encourages them to be independent and assertive leaders. On the other hand, Japanese women tend to cloak that strength behind a veneer of gentleness.
Japanese women could be ultra-feminine girly girls, polished career women, or even gentle motherly types. Yet, to Miki, what all these different Japanese women have in common is a backbone of steel and the ability to survive no matter what.
In an environment where men still rule the roost, Japanese women have had to adapt to their circumstances while learning how to love and accept themselves in order to live well.
Miki learned this the hard way when she first moved to Japan. The glitz and glamor of Japan’s nightlife scene was a huge blow to her self-confidence and led to a struggle with bulimia. Ultimately, what helped her overcome this came in the unexpected form of a cabaret club mamasan’s advice – “If you don’t learn to like yourself, you’ll never move forward.”
A mothers’ world
Naoko Yasuda echoes this sentiment. To her, modern womanhood is not about outdoing men, but rather embracing and drawing strength from one’s unique femininity.
To Naoko, who is married with 2 young children, being able to bear and raise children is a uniquely female privilege and another way in which women in Japan can expect to find fulfillment and happiness. Entrusted with the solemn responsibility to mold and shape young lives for the future, Japanese mothers take immense pride in this aspect of their identities.
Naoko is the founder of Mothers’ Earth Community, a Singapore-based collective for Japanese mothers to come together and share parenting knowledge and wisdom.
In her words, wives and mothers are the “suns of the home”, the nucleus of strength around which husbands and children revolve.
They hold the power to shape their young childrens’ worldviews and provide the unwavering support that their husbands need to excel in the workplace. While Naoko acknowledges that times have changed, some things are timeless. She is thankful for all that her mother did for her and finds herself coming full circle as she does the same for her children now.
Like many other Japanese women, Naoko takes her role as a mother and housewife very seriously. Through Mothers’ Earth Community, she hopes to create a supportive space where women can exchange information on natural living and parenting in Singapore. The inspiration for this came to her when she first arrived in Singapore as a first-time mother with her 9-month-old son in tow.
Back then, though she knew she wanted to raise her child in a healthy, natural environment, she did not know if there were resources available for her to do that. So, she took matters into her own hands and set up Mothers’ Earth Community. “We want to do the best we can for our children”.
As such, actively learning how to best care for her family is an endless but important process of knowledge acquisition, says Naoko. To her, much of a woman’s identity as a mother is derived from cheering on her children as they grow, which is in itself a meaningful journey of profound self-discovery.
Hopes for the Reiwa era
So what does the future look like for women in Japan? Both Miki and Naoko are hopeful.
The unspoken understanding in Singapore is that girls should aspire to become strong career women. Yet, Miki and Naoko are adamant that this should not be the only option.
They envision a Japan where girls will have the freedom to choose whatever they want to do in life, and all the space and support they will need to fulfill their potential. After all, Japanese women have always shone brightly; they have just never had the right stage.
If Naoko and Miki had their way, Japanese women in the Reiwa era should be able to thrive without having to constantly compare themselves to men, be confident in their womanhood, and love themselves unreservedly.
In fact, this might just be the kind of happiness that millions of families across Japan are wishing for their daughters this Hinamatsuri.
About the author
Translator, writer, and all-around multilingual person.
Always on the lookout for interesting people and projects in Japanese/English/Chinese.