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Kawaii culture hurts Japanese women in business

Baby animals are cute but female adults, especially in the workplace, need not be

| Japan
Hello Kitty embodies the Japanese concept of kawaii.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Nobuko Kobayashi is Ernst & Young -- Japan -- transaction advisory services managing director and partner.

Last year on November 1, Hello Kitty turned 45. Being squarely middle-aged does not bother the snow-white cartoon kitten, whose contribution to Sanrio, the company which designs her, ranges from theme parks to international licensing business.

Hello Kitty embodies the Japanese concept of kawaii, or cuteness, but more than simply cute, kawaii suggests something cuddly and cherished for its innocence. Baby animals are the epitome of kawaii.

Kawaii has an economic and global dimension too, supporting Japanese soft culture ranging from manga to emojis, but when mixed with Japanese society's expectations of women's demureness, it spells a curse lethal to the advancement of women in Japan.

Japan's lackluster performance in gender equality is not new. Public and private sectors are working to improve a myriad of factors, ranging from insufficient outside child care capacity to rigid employment customs. Yet Japan was 121st out of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report 2020, down 11 on last year.

But the curse of kawaii lurks at the bottom of this sticky issue. Because it is invisible, it is particularly tricky to tackle.

In the corporate world, reaching the age of 45 would suggest a person was about to take a step up into management. But in 2018, women comprised only 12% of managerial positions and 3% of board positions in Japan, the worst among the Group of Seven countries.

Unsurprisingly, cuteness does not sit well with wanting to climb the career ladder. Can you credibly demonstrate leadership while being kawaii? Do your staff look up to the cuddly you? The problem of being, or feigning, kawaii is that you are not taken seriously.

Therefore, around midcareer, professional women are faced with the choice of opting out of advanced workplace progression; becoming a mother, literally or as a nurturing figure within the company; or carving out a different leadership model as an adult woman.

To be fair, Japan is not alone with its obsession about female stereotypes dominated by youth. The U.S. equally values the capital springing from youth. But there is a difference: where American culture typically associates women's youth with sexiness, Japan associates it with innocence. Unfortunately, Bambi is granted with even fewer shots at professional success than a vixen.

Why this persistence of kawaii? It is too easy to point out that the older generation of men expects women to be kawaii. Often, they think they have good intentions as they claim it is an act of chivalry. This patronizing attitude, however, leads to the unfair lack of opportunities resulting in the gender gap in promotion over time.

Then we must realize that society has made women complicit. By constantly processing the message that men expect us to be kawaii, our brains start telling us that kawaii is unequivocally good, and we have stretched the notion so far that now we can be kawaii for life.

How do we snap out of the mental inertia that women, even in professional contexts, need to be kawaii, adorable and infantile?

The problem will fix itself only if we have a critical mass of senior-ranking women. They would not have gotten where they were by being cuddly. They are a kawaii repellent who can shoot down the woman-child coquettishness at work. But Japan lacks the critical mass to build the critical mass.

So, we need the all-hands-on-deck approach. Patronizing attitudes start at an early age. Parents need to avoid overprotecting their girls. In my childhood, my father used to tell me that cats hide their claws, that you should not flaunt your talent. While there is gender-free merit to this wisdom, if consumed with the kawaii doctrine, a girl's claws may get dull by the time their male peers are miles ahead.

Next, employers need to evaluate the next generation based on merit. They need to avoid the double standard where assertive males are favorably regarded while their female equivalents are not, because of their betrayal of the kawaii principle.

Lastly, there is self-help. Japanese women themselves need to unlearn the spell of kawaii. Is it not that, deep in our psyche, we find it easier to be kawaii since it relieves us of the burden of having to achieve? We should catch ourselves switching to higher, girl-like tones when talking to male peers. We must not be afraid to speak assertively in the meetings instead of just smiling and politely nodding.

Encouragingly, there are signs women are stepping out of the kawaii coma. Sato Kondo, a high-profile freelance newscaster, stopped using hair dye in her late forties in 2018. Given that anchorwomen in Japan achieve celebrity status for their intellect and youthful appearance, Kondo's gray hair in public was sensational. It was decidedly anti-kawaii -- and positively received. Such statements in the media will continue to awaken Japan and its women from the spell of kawaii.

Sato Kondo stopped using hair dye in her late forties. (Photo by Daiki Katagiri)

Business experts have long pointed out women's lack of self-promotion as a universal hindrance to their career, but in Japan, the fear of not appearing kawaii gives an extra reason for women to hold their tongue. It is obviously by design that Hello Kitty does not have a mouth. But women do. And it is time we spoke up and started breaking free of our kawaii obsession.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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