Observations on Internalized Societal Expectations


As we near the end of the school year (mid-March in Japan) and finish up the English curriculum, we've had some time recently to do a few creative exercises in class. In particular, with the third years, who're preparing for graduation and entering high school, we've been having them reflect on their middle school experience and think about what the future might hold.

Up until now, because of the rigidity of the curriculum and the way that English is taught (which is another issue for another post), I haven't really had the opportunity to hear about what's going on in their heads. So when they were able to really let their thoughts come out, it was eye-opening and made me really think back on the way that I thought when I was their age.

This week, for example, they wrote about what they think their lives will be like in ten years when they're twenty five. They were given the following guiding questions and then allowed to go from there:

  • How old are you?

  • Where do you live?

  • What do you do?

  • Did you get married?

  • Are you happy? When do you feel happy?

  • Are you busy? Why?

  • What do you enjoy?

Pretty standard, right? I know that if I were given this assignment at fifteen, I would have had a ball imagining all the scenarios and possibilities.  And some of these kids clearly did as well - one girl said she'd be an astronaut who lives in France!

And yet, that wasn't the case with most of them, and there were a couple patterns I noticed that seemed odd to me, especially considering these are middle schoolers. For example, while all of the students answered that they didn't think they'd be married yet (good on them!), the way they answered it was significantly different between the boys and the girls. The boys would simply say something like, "I'm not married," or "I did not get married." About half the girls, on the other hand, instinctively connected this question and the following "are you happy" question resulting in a response that looked more like, "I am not married, but I am happy." And maybe I'm looking too much into it, but to me it feels like these girls have got it in their heads that married = happy. I'm glad that this particular group knows that happiness doesn't rest on marital status, but at the same time, the fact that they connected them at all really says something about how they've been taught to think.

Another thing that stood out to me was the fact that about a third of the boys predicted that they wouldn't be happy because of their work. I mean, who plans to be unhappy?? This culture of severe overwork is just so widespread in Japan that these kids who haven't even entered high school yet, who haven't even figured out who they are or what they want to do have already resigned themselves to hating their future jobs. While it is pretty widely understood that Japanese culture is oppressive toward women, it can't be forgotten that on the flip side of that is a culture of hypermasculinity and equally rigid expectations of what a man is supposed to be and do. For instance, many of the girls had dreams that were more in line with what future goals "should" look like at this age (aside from the France-based astronaut, there was also a baker who lived in the Netherlands, and in Tokyo, a voice actress, a photographer, and a music producer), but most of the boys had disappointingly "normal" aspirations - many said they'd be office workers, and all of them said they planned on living no farther than Osaka, three hours from here by car (though most said they'd stay in the immediate area). They know that that's what's expected of them, and they intend to follow through, even if it means sacrificing their personal happiness.

I don't know their individual stories. And I can't even say if this is a Japan issue or a countryside living issue or even just something particular to this class. All I can really talk about is what I've observed. And maybe my surprise that these things are so ingrained in these kids says more about my ignorance than about their culture. They're fifteen. Of course they're aware of their society and its rules and what they should and should not be doing. I'm sure that at fifteen I was equally as deeply indoctrinated by the teachings of my upbringing. And maybe the fact that I feel sad that they think this way is just a product of that different upbringing, not some imperical, objective fact.

Since coming to Japan six months ago, there have been a lot of things that have shocked or surprised me. I think this is just the first time that I've encountered something on the underbelly, something not immediately apparent. I came in expecting to see infantilized, sexualized women in advertisements, expecting to see drunk salarymen stumbling around the train station just before last train at midnight, expecting to see the separate spheres. I guess I just forgot that these things don't happen in isolation, that adults act a certain way because that's what they learned when they were kids.