I’m reading Veronica Chambers’ Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation, and I just came to a part where Chambers describes the unexpected reaction she got when asking young Japanese college women about their role models. Coming from the US, she had clearly been thinking of it as a very standard question, along the lines of “Where do you want to be in five years?,” and so on. But instead, she ended up writing this:
The most obvious question to ask, when you are reporting on women and their changing roles in society, is: Who are your role models? Even if the answer is pat – “my mother,” “Hillary Clinton,” “Maya Angelou” – it tells you something about the woman and how she thinks of herself. Perhaps because Japan is not, by nature, a country of individualists, the role model question gets a lot of blank stares. “I don’t have any role models,” a girl named Gaga tells me at Sacred Heart [University]. “My parents taught me when I was small, you can choose your own way.” Akiko, another student, says, “I think I don’t have a certain person, but an image: someone who’s independent, strong, and caring.” I wonder, too, if it is because the national culture is so private, that it is hard to develop the kind of admiration and deep-seated affiliation that one feels for a role model: be it a senior employee at your company or someone you see on TV.
I wonder how many women at [Canon executive] Masako Nara’s company know how important it was for her to be called by her maiden name and the deal she struck with a coworker to make it happen. How many of Satako’s female coworkers know how uncomfortable she was at the late night drinking parties that were once part of her job, and how relieved she was to get more international clients who prefer lunch to dinner for work-related socializing? My sense, again and again, was that women told me stories they did not share with their colleagues, or even sometimes with their friends. It occurs to me that in order for someone to be a role model, they must reveal not only their strengths, but their vulnerabilities. It’s in the interplay between the two, and how they overcome the latter, that we find something worthy of admiring.
It’s true, I think, that in all the role model stories I can think of, there is that element of “So-and-so overcame difficulties to get where s/he is, so you can, too.” Albert Einstein didn’t get good grades in school. Michael Jordan was passed over for the basketball team in high school. Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin. Pretty much every famous woman is seen as somehow “overcoming” being a woman, and may also have been poor, or of color, or single/divorced in an age when it was scandalous, and so on. An interesting point, and one I hadn’t thought about until now.
For myself, I think I identify most with the student who said she doesn’t really have any particular role model, but an image instead. There are things I want to do and qualities I want to have, but there’s never really been any particular person I felt I should strive to be like. In some ways, I was surprised that Chambers seemed to think that these girls should have role models. The responses from the women who said they were raised to think they could be who they wanted to be seemed like better, more independent responses to me. But maybe Chambers is trying to point out that these young women are without much guidance from women who have gone before, or perhaps sees their lack of role models as an indication that there aren’t enough women to serve that function yet, leaving Japanese women without support.
Any thoughts? Have you ever had a role model? Do you think it’s important to see the vulnerabilities as well as the strengths?
-posted by Dana