Maybe it’s the vague belief in reincarnation here, where your current life is a result of your past life, or the strong belief in fate, where bad things that happen are always punishment, but Japanese society lacks the notion of getting a new start in life. The concept of forgiveness and re-starting clean is also missing. The conviction that anyone can change and overcome the past, hurts, mistakes, and traumas seems almost nonexistent.
Instead, life flows here in a linear path. You go straight from high school to college. During your junior year, you start focusing on finding a job which you immediately enter after graduation. You are never to leave that company, not even for a better opportunity. If you vary from this path, it puts you outside of successful society. There’s no room for taking a few years off to volunteer, for example. If by the time you’re 22, you still haven’t settled into a lifetime job, you’re looked at with suspicion. For those young people who mess up, they are not likely to get a second chance.
How many of us would want to have the whole course of our lives determined by decisions we made in our early 20s?
Women who get married and have children start another linear path where they must focus exclusively on the one or two children they have. As, “Mayumi,” a working Japanese mother told me, “Japanese women think, ‘When you have children, your life is over.’” As your children enter school and eventually leave home, you find hobbies or an un-challenging part-time job. Dreams are rare. It is not uncommon for women to fall into depression when their children don’t meet their high expectations. Quite often, women whose children are in school complain that they are bored. But as Mayumi said, “They don’t have the confidence to try something new. And their husbands wouldn’t be supportive of them having an interesting job.”
You almost never hear of older women going back to college and starting a new career. (Well, I’ve never heard of it, actually.) In fact, in 10 years of teaching in Japanese colleges, I only remember having two older women in any of my classes. I’m not sure if they were earning degrees or not, but I remember one of them so elevated the level of learning in the classroom that I was at a loss when she couldn’t attend. If for no other reason, allowing older people to go back to college and make a new start would be one way to motivate the severely unmotivated college students in Japan.
I think in America, we just take it for granted that life holds many twists and turns. We may need to circle back around and start all over. But as long as we are breathing, the opportunity to change our lives never ends. This doesn’t mean that every woman needs to end up in a big career of some sort. My mother, for example, started volunteering at a home for addicted women in her 60s. After raising four children and working as a teacher for many years, she was still open to trying something new. Now in her mid-70s, it has become a great joy in her very active life.
I so often hear the term in Japanese, “They can’t….” It’s as if everything has been determined. I compare that to my Chinese friend here who, though a housewife in her 30s, has started several businesses in Japan and China. She’s constantly taking risks and trying new things. Yet she insists that she’s just a normal Chinese woman. If that’s the case then, people, it is only a matter of time before we are all speaking Chinese. It’s not that this woman never fails, because she does. But her unshakable confidence and total lack of fear keep her moving forward and never giving up.
As a Japanese career woman recently said, “Japan doesn’t support people who want to ‘level up’ or live better lives…you’re supposed to just accept things the way they are.” I would add that it is considered arrogant here to have big dreams or to want big things from life. I think that’s part of the reason that when I would ask my college students to state their career objective or dream, they were hesitant to have one. It’s also why a young working woman I know who is taking correspondence courses to earn her college degree is keeping it a secret.
Japan’s population is decreasing, while, at the same time, people are living longer and longer. I can’t help but think there is a lot of wasted potential among the many who think they can’t dream and start fresh. In fact, I have a lot of experience with older Japanese women who have dared to take on new challenges and have excelled. Often, older people have the emotional and mental strength to do hard things if given an opportunity. “Your past doesn’t determine your future” is a well-known cliché in America. I hope it will become common knowledge here, and the population won’t just be aging, but growing, changing, trying new things, and even starting over.