Should we be actively enjoying life or just settle for enduring it? In Japan, there is an uncomplicated answer to this question that has both long defined and preserved the nation: gaman. Gaman is the art of perseverance — to be patient in the face of conflict, difficulties, and otherwise unexpected situations, in order to maintain social unity and harmony. Simply put, life must be endured.
And there is no better personification of gaman than the Imperial Family of Japan, which stands as an institution to symbolize both the state of Japan and the unity of its people.
The centuries-long praxis of gaman both in front of and behind the chrysanthemum curtain, which has ensured the Imperial Family’s legacy of being the oldest continuous monarchy in the world, has been called into scrupulous questioning and derision with the recent marriage of Princess Mako to Kei Komuro, their consequent departure to New York City, and the complex post-traumatic stress disorder Mako developed as a result of the intense public pressure and scrutiny. Mako has, in essence, been deemed as failing to gaman; yet her courageous course of action proves otherwise. How she is enduring the eye of the storm just looks different than what is expected of a Japanese royal — a Japanese princess, at that.
“The expectation of the women in the Japanese royal family is that, yes, you’re going to be a commoner and you’re going to marry out,” Shihoko Goto, Acting Director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, explains. Imperial Household Law states that women cannot inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne and that female members of the Imperial Family will lose their royal status once they marry. Although all royals must marry commoners, a son’s wife will be elevated to his royal status — unaffected by marrying a commoner — while a daughter will be demoted to her husband’s commoner status. “But because you will forever have this strong tie to the Imperial Family,” Goto says, “you have to live a certain way. You cannot dishonor the family, you have to be above the fray, and you have to bring decorum to the position.”
“It’s really striking to me when I look at family forms and how the royal family is this bastion of older norms that no one else in Japan is required to live by,” Dr. Kristin Roebuck, assistant professor at Cornell University and historian of modern Japan, says. “Why is it that the lawmakers who govern that institution think it’s so important that they want to maintain gender inequality at the highest symbolic level of society?”
Japan’s gender inequality problem might be in the international spotlight now because of the Princess Mako saga, but it’s never been more deeply felt than during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw a tragic skyrocket in Japanese women committing suicide.
Prior to 2020, around 72 percent of Japanese women were working, a higher percentage than American (67 percent) and European (63 percent) women in their respective workforces. Women in Japan, however, are overrepresented in simultaneously low-paying yet highly demanding employment that offers little job security — such as hospitality and retail — and the gendered way in which labor is organized does not concern the workplace only. Household management, childcare, and eldercare are all seen as feminine duties, and the latest figures show that Japanese women earn on average 44 percent less than men while also spending five times more time on housework and childcare.
“Women in particular are told, you need to support your family — and that means make it easier for your husband to have a career by doing all the chores, make it easier for your child to do well in school by helping them full-time, and all without reserving private time or building your career,” Dr. Roebuck says. “They’re constantly made subordinate to this rhetoric. If everyone’s supposed to cooperate to make society stable and successful, why isn’t there more support for women? If you think about the rhetoric of stability and cooperation, it’s actually a rhetoric of hierarchy and submission.”
The mental health fallout of Japanese women during the pandemic sheds a new light on how collectivism is culturally configured in Japan, and perhaps the dark side of gaman as well — suppressing personal pain in the public interest of others. With women being expected to sacrifice more for the sake of social harmony, the question is then: At what cost does this social harmony eventuate, and what kind of harmony entails so many hurting women?
“Statistically, there’s more depression reported in women, but more men tend to commit suicide. So there’s a narrative that exists, that men struggle with mental health more than women,” a Japanese social worker who chose to remain anonymous shares. “It’s hard to straddle this public self and the private self as a Japanese woman because of the shame that comes with talking in a public light about what you’re experiencing in your personal life, and the consequences of that.”
These consequences include the disparagement of survivors who come forward against their sexual assailants (most notably with Shiori Ito, the face of an unwelcome #MeToo Movement in Japan), and the acute online harassment of female celebrities, which has catalyzed an infamous series of suicides. Similarly, it is the women of the royal family who consistently bear the brunt of invective public conjecture. “What’s interesting is that non-Japanese media have, if they’ve paid any attention, usually been on the side of Princess Mako. But the Japanese, and especially the Japanese internet sphere, have taken a very different reaction,” Goto explains. “There has been a lot of public backlash in Japan about who she selected — hence, this is where the PTSD comes in.”
Some in Japan have gone so far as to take to the streets to protest the Princess’ marriage to Komuro. Many Japanese people believe that a financial dispute involving Komuro’s mother and her ex-fiancé indicates that Komuro himself is fraudulent and thus poses a threat to the integrity of the Imperial Family, and thereby to the taxpayers who subsidize royal expenditures. This incited Princess Mako to turn down the one-time allowance to which all royals who marry out of the family are entitled. Crown Prince Akishino even defied customary press conference etiquette to condemn the media for the “terrible things” said about his daughter.
“There are patterns to whom the media will single out and abuse. If you look at the history of post-war coverage of women in the royal family, they get a whole lot more abuse than men in the royal family do,” Dr. Roebuck says. “Whether you’re marrying into the royal family, like the current Empress did, or you’re marrying out of the royal family, like former Princess Mako did, it’s always understood in Japan that the women are a temporary part of the royal family, and so they just don’t get the same respect.”
“There is an irony in the sensationalization of Princess Mako’s PTSD, as her PTSD is a cognitive reaction to the traumatization by way of media and public scrutiny,” June Kitahara, a first-generation Japanese American woman, says. “Her courageous, public confession of suffering with PTSD, and the subsequent media blitz, points to the issue of status in Japanese culture and for Japanese women.”
The issue of women’s social status has been a point of contention largely disregarded by Japan’s political elite, with more than the past 40 years being dominated by the conservative party. “I think Japan in itself is struggling personally with its identity. It has such strong roots in tradition, but it hasn’t figured out the ‘new’ Japan,” Alisa Koyama, a clinical social worker, says. “They hold onto what they know — they can’t imagine what this new place looks like. The thing that I hear a lot is that they don’t want to do anything the United States is doing because that’s not ‘us’. But they haven’t figured out what is ‘us.’”
In the simplest terms, the past is necessary for understanding the why and how of the present, and how to do better moving forward. It cannot remain a roadblock to the growth and progression naturally imbued in humanity by time itself. Cultural preservation cannot be conflated with the mistreatment of women and marginalized people at large, at the cost of both the culture and the people. Similarly, to conflate progress with the West is to do a great disservice to everyone actively fighting for progress everywhere.
In Japan’s efforts at discerning what “us” means and looks like, it doesn’t need to mirror the United States’ own reckoning with “us.” Princess Mako’s starkly different reception in the West than in her native Japan illuminates the obvious cultural differences that exist. Non-Japanese people following the Princess Mako saga must question their own likely ethnocentric perspectives and cultural biases when drawing their own conclusions about her, her family, and her nation. Still, Meghan Markle’s egregious treatment from Western press outlets show that Japan is not an exceptional case of feudal patriarchal values impacting women, but rather it is a pervasive cultural similarity when it comes to propagating group-think and shirking women’s agency (to be non-exhaustive). It was never about the money with Mako or about all the falsehoods with Meghan; it has always been about the ways in which establishments are threatened by non-compliant women decisively meeting their own needs.
As much as the past is emphasized in relation to royalty, there is a remarkable history of Japanese feminists that’s remained largely forgotten, and critically looking at this past, perhaps, can lead to the creation of a roadmap for Japanese women confidently meeting their needs and controlling their fates. The backlash Princess Mako has faced perhaps affirms that she has taken the first step towards this kind of future by presenting a disruption in the limited narratives offered to Japanese women about who, or rather what, they can be. More women in leadership positions and reorganizing labor more equitably from the household to the workplace could be a major start. Creating networks of support and trust, though, could be the spark to ignite a great fire of imbuing women with belonging and bolstering the courage, conviction, and creativity required not to endure life, but to enjoy it for what they decide it to be.
To enjoy life or to endure it: Princess Mako has answered in her graceful, confident, and resolute adeptness at both philosophies. We can only hope for more joy and more banzai for the Princess, her husband, and the women of Japan.