Sunday, May 22, 2011

Having it all - in Kagoshima


Sophia University in Tokyo

Last weekend I joined a reunion of some girls from my class at Tokyo's Sophia University at a beautiful onsen ryokan (Japanese hot springs inn) in the middle of the wilderness of Kagoshima, in southern Japan, right beside a picturesque river with some of its hot springs pool jutting out of rocks next to this river.

I get away from work and from everyday life a whole lot, so there's no reason to be looking for somewhere to go when faced with a free weekend. But for some reason, I felt I really, really needed to get away this time. So I fought my better instincts to stay put in Manila for a weekend and take a deep breath for once, and instead I booked myself on a plane to Tokyo and onwards to Kagoshima. It was pretty spur-of-the-moment, but everything worked out fine.

TRAILBLAZERS IN JAPAN

Eight girls -- I should really say women, actually -- were meeting up after not being in touch for something like fifteen or twenty years. With the exception of myself, they were all Japanese. But years ago we bonded over growing up and typical college angst. Hopefully, in the years between then and now, we've grown up in more than the physical sense, and have figured out individually who we are, what we stand for, and what's important to us.

These ladies are perhaps among the first of their generation -- if not the first of Japanese women -- to grow up as honest equals to men and to try and believe they could have it all. When I mean "have it all," I'm thinking of a successful career, a great family life, and the elusive personal peace and inner tranquility. Lots of women have a career and a life but they're nervous wrecks trying to continuously balance both.

Of course, there have been Japanese women who have trailblazed before them. Japan, after all, has had women cabinet ministers, company presidents, doctors and academics. But until my classmates came around, I believe the older generations only succeeded at their chosen fields by paying a steep price: many of them had unhappy private lives or else they worked themselves to death because their careers had become their whole existence.


BLISS IN THE PHILIPPINES

Women in the Philippines take it for granted that they can have jobs, families, homes and hobbies all at the same time. But what's SOP for us -- atarimae, as they say in Japan, which means something matter-of-fact -- is not the case in the First World. Especially in Japan, it has always been a choice and quite a tough one at that. There's never been any reason to suppose that one could actually have a successful career and a fulfilling personal life since most women were expected to resign upon marriage or motherhood, or to downgrade their job expectations if they wanted a private life.

A PICTURE OF DISCIPLINE AND BLISS

So it's with lots of admiration that I looked at where my Japanese classmates have been and what they have achieved, considering they probably had a much more difficult time than I ever had. Mariko, for example, used to be my partner-in-crime at Japanese college drinking parties since we both lived in the same general direction and could share a taxi home. I still remember, too, how I met her. We were made roommates in a college zemi (which is basically a study group that meets regularly) and she barged into the room at close to midnight, having come from her part-time job. I disliked her that first time I met her, but we became fast friends from Day 2. Now she's the mother of four children and a senior manager in a manufacturing firm.


Just thinking about her life with all its responsibilities and limitations makes me incredibly stressed as I can't imagine how she can manage to put in the long hours required at a Japanese firm and still raise four healthy, smart and happy children -- and without household help (!); and, as she herself says, this is also all without much help from her husband. Or at least without much help from a Western point of view. He takes the trash out and takes the younger children to school everyday on his way to work. This hardly qualifies as an equal partner in many countries (especially since Mariko must also keep house and keep her job), but it's a lot more than what many men in Japan are prepared to do even now.

LESS SLEEP, MORE OF LIFE

"How do you ever do it?" I asked her, as we sat drinking sake in the open-air hot springs tub at midnight. We had stayed up to talk about love and life, and then love again (more on that in my next post). She shrugged. "It's not impossible. You just have to learn how not to sleep. Or at least, how to get by on three hours of sleep everyday," she said, very simply, like someone accepting fate.

And yet there she was at midnight, an imperfect but pretty good picture nevertheless of personal bliss. Not once did she complain about stress or having too little time for herself. I must be spoiled, I thought to myself, because the mere thought of her life was making me claustrophobic. However, Mariko seemed to read my mind.

"It's a tough life, I know," she said, speaking gently as always. "But you must remember -- at least I have a choice. Just the idea of a choice makes me luckier than almost every Japanese woman before my time."

LIFE'S SO COMPLICATED

Speaking of choices. Life's pretty complicated and every choice has a downside. It's just a matter of choosing the downside you can best live with. But at midnight in an outdoor hot springs, with a couple of sake glasses to my name, I didn't want to spend much time thinking about what might have been or what should be, or what I should have compromised over. Life is certainly too short for that. So instead, I thought about the menu I was given for tomorrow's lunch. We were staying on at the hot springs for another night but -- as with most places in these parts -- the inn was not serving lunch; so we were asked to order what we wanted from a nearby restaurant and then the inn would serve everything nicely in a tatami mat room overlooking the river. We could eat lazily in our yukatas and sit around gossiping till dinnertime.

The menu had almost every kind of Japanese food -- which is rather unusual, since most good restaurants tend to concentrate on a particular kind of food and specialize in this. But this menu had everything I could possibly think of, and I made up my mind to order tempura, kurobuta tonkatsu, a bit of sashimi, a plate of takoyaki and even sukiyaki and shabu-shabu on the side.

Yes, I admit it. I too wanted to have it all.

Join us in Italy this September 8.
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with Margarita Fores


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