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3 Things Working Women In Japan Deserve More Than White Day Chocolate

Giri-choco is nice, but we want something much cheaper: respect.

By 7 min read

Every March 14 — or White Day— reflects Japan’s strict culture of “obligatory” gift-giving, not to mention its awful holiday-naming abilities. It’s actually when men “payback” the women who gave them chocolates on Valentine’s Day. Unlike in the West, women are expected to give giri choco, or obligatory chocolate to their male coworkers, as well as bosses (who are probably male, anyways).

Like so many other women, my showing up to work on Valentine’s Day without that giri choco wasn’t worth the nagging guilt that tugged at my psyche. There I was, scrambling at the convenience store to buy those last-minute KitKats mostly to avoid the guilt of …not giving freaking KitKats.

But did my KitKats just pass on this same guilt to my male coworkers who have to give back on White Day? Will they even care? Will I be disappointed today if I don’t get anything back?

Most of all, how the f*** did Japan convince me to expect gifts from men when that’s never been my brand.

How did I get here?

If heaps of guilt is what makes people take action, then why don’t we use that to incite real change, not just for bringing choco to work? In lieu of White Day chocolates, here is a list of “gifts” — basic things working women in Japan deserve but that men can also benefit from — that we actually want today.

I’m gonna gift wrap it nicely by coining some brand new Japanese-English katakana phrases to help that giri-guilt catch on. Maybe we have something here. It’s a White Day miracle!

A countdown to what we really want in the workplace

3. Giri Remoto

ギリリモート (obligatory remote work)

What it means: Remote work needs to be much more widely recognized as a valid form of work in Japan.

Remote work opportunities are one way for Japan’s working mothers to re-enter the workplace faster and more easily. (Not to mention, it is a way to accommodate those with physical limitations.)

It’s been widely recognized that at least some days of remote work actually increase a company’s productivity. One example is from a study involving China’s largest travel agency, CTrip, conducted by graduate students at Stanford. I’d like to think this evidence is the first step to convince a superior that remote work is legit, but Japan’s flow (you could say flaw) is more about what’s normal than what’s right.

We need to get our coworkers to understand the merits of #giriremoto and to at least start talking about it to lay the groundwork to one day have the company implement it. There should be a feeling that if your workplace isn’t doing it, then what are you doing?!

As Japan continues to both demand that women have more babies and then punish them for taking months of government-sanctioned maternity leave, mothers — and fathers!— in Japan truly stand to gain the most from remote work options.

2. Giri Sapotoman

ギリサポートマン (obligatory support)

What it means: We need male coworkers who are willing to identify as allies for women when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace. This will create pressure for other men to follow.

Sexual harassment and sexism is not understood as an issue and certainly not taken seriously in Japan. Yet so many women are passively enduring セクハラ (sekuhara) at work — yes there is even a catchy phrase for sexual harassment.

There are male and female professionals speaking up about this, including within groups like Deepen the Dialogue and Voice Up Japan, but we have to make sure these do not become echo chambers of like-minded people. It should get as mainstream as the pineapple-apple pen. As in, 132-million-views-on-YouTube mainstream.

In addition to women doing so, we do need men who are allies and willing to listen and speak up against sexual harassment.

Giri sapotoman is accompanied by the idea that we can choose to acknowledge men in the workplace who are making a difference. We need unity and allies to even start normalizing the guilt of not taking seriously, and in many cases, barely punishing sexual harassment. (Sexual harassment wasn’t really legally recognized until the precedent was set in 2006. Remember that.)

There isn’t much of a concept of chivalry in Japan, which I 100 percent agree with. Women don’t need this archaic idea (you know, men paying for everything) we have been sold that this is what makes a “good man.” Thanks, but I would rather pay for my meals and have mutual respect.

1. Giri Ripurezen

ギリリプレゼン (obligatory representation)

What it means: The pressure and follow through to create equal gender representation in positions that matter — positions of power.

Distribution of power in the workplace in Japan is barely worth breaking down. That is to say, the men have it. As I type this at my international company in Japan, no females hold top-level manager or executive titles.

Somehow, we are OK with this being the norm in Japan? Walk into the average conference of executives, and you’ll see 96 (old) Japanese men and four women. That’s not just a fun scenario for ya — that’s the actual statistic.

According to a 2018 NHK report, government numbers showed that women make up just 3.7 percent of executives in Japan in listed companies. (Though that did go up from 1.2 percent in 2006… 2006. That date rings a bell, doesn’t it?)

I mean, even the team who surrounds the very man who is pushing for women in the workplace through Womenomics isn’t making representation a priority. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet currently has just one woman. There’s already a catchphrase for this one — sausage party!

Seen in silver in the photo below, Satsuki Katayama was appointed as the minister of regional revitalization and —yes — gender equality, sliding Japan down to a sexy ranking of 171st out of 188 nations for the number of women holding ministerial positions in 2018, according to data from the International Parliamentary Union and UN Women.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet currently has one woman. Satsuki Katayama is the minister of regional revitalization and gender equality.

The perception is that the position goes to the “best man for the job.” That phrase says it all. The best man for the job is already a man. Beyond how our language shapes our bias, anyone who has worked in a Japanese company or (god help you) in the government, often realizes that a lot of people in these top positions are not there because they are the best person, man or woman, for the job.

A large proportion is there because they fit into and went along with a system that supported them and does not support women, minorities (oh yes, these exist in Japan) or fathers who want to actually see their kids.

Equal representation is a no brainer, but it does take work and structure to get there.

One prime example of a company leading the way in this regard is furniture and home goods retailer Ikea, including Ikea Japan. Their steadfast global 50/50 policy (equal amounts of male and female managers) is possible, and they are doing it right now even in Japan.

In conclusion

Giri remoto. Giri sapotoman. Giri ripurezen. Even if my quasi-Japanese phrases aren’t so convincing, it’s time to drop these concepts into the workplace conversation across Japan, then let the guilt — the gift that keeps on giving — do the rest. Happy White Day!

Lead photo: The lead photo is a reference to the Anime Butterfly Meme. We were trying to be funny.

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