“Men are so cruel,” said Fumie. We were sitting in a Kyoto restaurant, a Japanese academic couple, an American academic couple, all of us old enough to be grand-parents. Gray, bespectacled, and sedentary, I did not feel very sadistic; no more, I suspect, did Masao.

The restaurant specialized in lobster; among the first courses, the one that stirred Fumie’s indignation was a chance to eat a living lobster. We were incredulous. Not living! Newly cooked, surely; fresh from the window tank. No, said Masao, this would be a living, moving lobster; and while the rest of us meekly took something else, he ordered the house specialty. It came. The carapace covering the tail section had been removed and the flesh cut up. The lobster was not only alive, but appeared to be in mortal agony; it reared its forward end and reached out with its spiny legs. (Pacific lobsters do not have the giant pincers of Atlantic lobsters.) Masao dug with his chopsticks into the gray, quivering matter that now constituted the lobster’s back and tail. Avoiding the waving legs, I took a bit and ate it. To my palate, it had no particular taste or texture; but perhaps that was just because I am fond of lobster prepared the conventional way. But there’s no denying it, the writhing and gesticulating of the agonized animal was very off-putting. Masao ate his living lobster with gusto and pronounced it excellent; the rest of us ate pieces of prepared, and properly passive, lobster—not without uneasy glances at the miserable victim. It’s fair to say he dominated the dinner table.

I was in Kyoto to teach two English novels in a women’s college; my class of twenty-five students, selected for their previous knowledge of English, met twice a week. (At a generous estimate, I speak no Japanese whatever.) We were to read Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights—a pair of nineteenth-century novels written by women and largely about women. The choice was not altogether mine; these novels formed part of a much longer list that I had submitted. But I thought it best that the final choice be made by someone who knew better than I the level of student preparation and the pressure of other courses on student time. Fumie and Masao, friends from a previous visit to Japan, had been most helpful in arranging my appointment; our visit to the lobster restaurant was a gesture of gratitude.

Both novels deal, as it happens, with the rude and forbidding qualities of men; but there was a presence in the classroom more formidable to my students than either Darcy or Heathcliff—and that was myself. Nowhere else have I been a particularly intimidating figure for my students, and nothing could have been farther from my intent. Knowing something of Japanese college students, I did not expect them to be voluble or belligerent. But neither did I expect them to be as shy and unspeaking as my young ladies proved to be. They were not, as I guessed, familiar with discussion as a mode of teaching; though I made clear that I welcomed their participation, and praised to the skies anyone who participated in the least, I could get only three or four to speak up. When they did talk, they spoke in such muted tones that the rest of the class could not hear what was said; and the fact that a few did occasionally speak up was taken by the others as an excuse for remaining permanently silent.

A couple of weeks into the course, I asked one young lady a direct question about our book. It was of the most elementary nature; I am convinced she knew the answer to it. Silence. I rephrased the question so she could answer it yes or no or with a nod of the head. Still nothing, I asked her if this sort of questioning in a classroom was strange or unfamiliar to her. Just to get rid of me, she could have said or nodded yes. She could not or would not make that commitment. She was a college senior. There was nothing to do but answer the question myself and go on to something else. But I was left to reflect that shyness so deep and unyielding must be the product of harsh and extended conditioning.

This is true, of course. For at least a millennium before the American occupation after World War II, the social order had imposed on Japanese women a rule of unquestioning subordination to men—not extending, of course, to absolute wordlessness, but strongly discouraging the expression of individual ideas. Women’s education, when not considered an absolute evil, was carefully limited to fields like home economics, flower arranging, and at most the sort of elementary information that would enable them to teach small children in the lower grades. Before the war, these traditional restrictions were changing gradually, and since the war they have changed rapidly. Yet they persist in tacit and disguised form, and the resolute silence of my students when asked to express themselves was only one sign of it. Their very position, in a women’s college, strongly implied their constitutional inferiority to men. Of the women attending college or university classes in Japan, four out of five go to colleges for women only. Most of them attend two-year colleges in which the traditional “women’s” subject, home economics, makes up a large part of the curriculum.


My students were in a four-year liberal-arts program; courses in the sciences, in medicine and government, were available to them, but only in the associated men’s college; and few women crossed the barrier. One basic reason was that they knew their professional futures were strictly limited. At graduation, they might indeed get jobs in industry or with government, and at a pay scale roughly comparable with that of males. But their chances of promotion would be much, much less; and within a few years’ time they would be told more or less gently by their employers or supervisors that it was about time for them to get married—to get out, in other words.

Essentially, then, the college in which I found myself was a caretaking institution, in which young ladies were entertained for four years, at considerable expense to their parents, with the acquisition of polite “accomplishments,” like foreign languages and music. After graduation they would be faced by some major figure of authority with the expectation that they would get married. Arranged marriages are not as peremptory in modern Japan as they used to be; but when a girl has been pointedly provided with three or four boys to pick among, her situation is far from agreeable if she does not select one. Thus her period of time in college is an interval between the grinding struggle to gain admission and the lifelong submission to a husband, his parents, and her children, all of whom in their different ways will dominate her life after marriage. For most young women the future is very chancy, not to say dark; they are quite cut off, after marriage, from the family in which they grew up, and their education, such as it amounts to, may just as well contribute to making them wretched as to making them prosperous and contented.

Thus college girls have little incentive to work hard, and most of them are frank to admit they don’t. (In my little class of twenty-five students, eleven did not bother to submit the short paper that was the only requirement for a passing grade. They had three months to write a thousand words, more or less.) They lead a very active social life, but, to a degree that surprises an American onlooker, mainly with other girls. Instead of pairing off with boys, they cluster in little groups, joking continually and talking animatedly. To jokes made in class they would respond, and occasionally they would speak, individually, to some point; but there was never—in class, or in English, or in my presence—any of the ebullience and animation that marked their informal conversations. With exceptions here and there, they did not try to emulate the cool style of the American coed; among themselves they were kittenish, and in class they were passive. In some respects they were more like high-school than college students as I have known them in America. It would be a crude formula to say of many of them that they appeared less grown-up than their American counterparts; but it points at an impression that I think valid.

Since they shared at heart many early-nineteenth-century assumptions about marriage and homemaking as the inevitable destiny of women, my students had to make a deliberate effort to grasp some of Jane Austen’s ironies. When Elizabeth Bennet vehemently rejects Mr. Darcy’s proposal because he is too confident of being accepted, my students needed help to get the full impact of the scene; even after explanations, I think many of them still wondered why he shouldn’t feel perfectly confident. He was, after all, a man.

Whether it’s to be accounted for by social conditioning or in some other way I won’t try to decide, but my students seemed to combine an unexpressive demeanor on formal occasions with an intricate inner life that only now and then broke through. One of these occasions involved the annual Shakespeare production at my college, which this last year turned out to be As You Like It. To put on such a play, in English, with a cast entirely of Japanese undergraduate girls, was a project to boggle the mind; but the students and their advisers faced up to it on the proper scale. Nearly a year of study, preparing, and rehearsals went into the two performances; the campus was placarded from end to end, publicity reached through the entire city. The music was excellent, the scenery, costuming, and staging admirable, and most of the actors came off better than would have been anticipated. Naturally, the Elizabethan text was cut, but not offensively modernized; and if nothing could completely overcome the Japanese tongue’s reluctance to pronounce the letter l, the diction was generally comprehensible.


Both performances played to packed houses, both met with prolonged and well-merited applause. After the final curtain, not only the cast but the makeup crew, the props, lighting, and publicity staffs—the whole organization—came forward for their bows. And most of them, I was surprised to see, were bathed in tears. They faced the audience bravely enough, but their cheeks were wet, their bodies shaken with sobs. Putting on the play had been, quite obviously, one of the deepest experiences of their lives. Between relief at having carried it off successfully and misery that the whole thing was at an end, they could only weep. I have attended many amateur theatricals in American colleges, but never with these emotional overtones.

A little before the Shakespeare production, we had the fall festival. The Japanese academic calendar (besides an impressive amount of vagueness about when anything begins or ends) rejoices in a great many holidays; and as an uncomprehending foreigner teaching on a tight schedule, I was dubious or perhaps even unsympathetic toward an event that seemed to distract the students from their proper work for five consecutive days, from Wednesday through Sunday. And indeed, when it came, the festival seemed to be little more than a small-town country fair put on by children. Benches were set up, protected against the threat of rain by canvas or plastic sheeting; little burners were connected to tanks of bottled gas, and food in infinite variety was prepared by clusters of white-aproned girls. The sales pitches were shrill, and not to be misunderstood even by one who knew no Japanese. And it was impossible not to be struck by the girls’ unanimous reversion to home economics as the most valued of their talents.

What was it all about? I asked my class. Well, they needed money to support their clubs. These included, as I found out, many of the athletic teams—the swimming club, the tennis club, and so on. They also included the English-speaking association, which naturally interested me. What did the English-speaking association do? It had exchanges, they said. What sort of exchanges—books, papers, visiting scholars? (The latter seemed scarcely probable; the only English lecture offered during my stay attracted just four students and two faculty members, myself included. A conspicuous absentee was the chairman of the department sponsoring the lecture.)

All my guesses were wrong. The exchanges were of students between various countries of Southeast Asia—Malaysia, Korea, the Philippines, and Japan. The language of common communication was English; but the subjects discussed were neither literary nor linguistic, they were political. It was a social-action group, primarily concerned with the rights of students. A particular cause of concern, according to my informant—whose account I later verified from other sources—was the recruitment, amounting sometimes to virtual abduction, of Philippine women studying in colleges and universities, for service in the Japanese sex and entertainment industry. As bar girls, hostesses, call girls, Turkish-bath attendants, and brothel prostitutes, they are in great demand. With the active or covert complicity of the Philippine government, they are procured in the Philippines and shipped to Japan for distribution among Japanese pimps. Being alone, defenseless, and unacquainted with the language, they can be maltreated in a variety of easily imagined ways; and the money in the trade is so enormous that even after rich payoffs to the Philippine agents and immense profits for the Japanese pay-masters, the girls themselves are sometimes able to send home a pittance for their families. Naturally, it is as little as greedy men can make it, but sometimes it enables a family living in a dirt-floored bamboo shack to dig a well or buy an appliance.

So it was to expose and fight this slave traffic—among other things—that the girls of my college were holding a cookie and bake sale. I had thought of them occasionally as children; and indeed their diminutive size (though far larger than prewar women, they are still very small compared to Westerners), their clustering habits, their terribly apologetic shyness made it easy to think something of the sort. But in going against the white-slave traffic in their own country, they were directly confronting the masculine establishment in its ugliest dimension. They did not seem to be impressed, as I was, by the weight and dangerous strength of the forces they were opposing. I think at first they were a little afraid that I, as an American, would not want to hear ill of the Philippine government; but I assured them that, having been on the islands during and just after the war, I had few illusions about it.

It’s not likely that the achievement of Elizabeth Bennet in bringing Fitzwilliam Darcy to heel made a deep impression on most of my students. But one character in the novel did strike reverberant overtones. This was Charlotte Lucas, or Charlotte Collins as she becomes in the course of the story. She is a sensible, rather plain woman of twenty-seven, who in cold blood marries the ignoble and offensive Mr. Collins for the lifetime of security he can give her. He is her one chance; rather than be a poverty-stricken old maid for the rest of her life, she accepts a husband of whom she will always have to be ashamed, whom—when she cannot dismiss him from her mind completely—she can never do more than tolerate. This situation my students understood perfectly; and I had some trouble keeping it from overshadowing the rest of the novel in their minds. They wanted to see Elizabeth Bennet selling herself on the same market as Charlotte Lucas.

A final surprise was reserved for the last week of the class. Two of the students who had been the most silent for the last nine weeks came up to ask a question; it turned into a proper conversation, and I found that they both spoke perfect colloquial English. One of them had lived for five years in London. I was thunder-struck. “Well,” I said, “where were you in this course when I needed you? Why didn’t you once answer a question, and help me get a discussion started?” The more knowing of the pair gestured at the other girls just leaving the classroom. “Oh,” she said, “you know how these japanese are. If I talked a lot in class, they’d think I was showing off: I’d have all sorts of trouble with them. So I just kept quiet.”

Where then was the veil and on which side of it were we standing? For a moment we stood looking into the intense lucent unclarity between us, as into a perfect piece of old lacquer. I have not yet found a formula for all ironies of the situation.

This Issue

February 13, 1986