By HIROKO HIGUCHI, Ph.D
May 1, 2019, marked the dawn of a new era in Japan. Reiwa – “beautiful harmony” in Japanese – begins as Emperor Akihito stepped down from his 30-year reign and his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, ascended to become the 126th Emperor of Japan.
Japan marks a new era with the ascension of every new Emperor. The era of Heisei — “achieving peace” — marked Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to 2019. The era of Showa – “enlightened peace” — under the long and historically significant reign of Emperor Hirohito, began in 1926 and ended with his death in 1989.
Many Japanese identify every era by what they see as the zeitgeist or defining spirit of the period. The Showa era was defined by the aggressive rise and crushing defeat of Japanese militarism, followed by the so-called “Japanese miracle,” the remarkable post-World War II economic recovery that led to Japan becoming at one point the world’s second-largest economy. The Heisei era that followed the Showa could be characterized as the lost years, an extended period of economic stagnation following the collapse of the bubble economy.
The Heisei years may also be remembered as the period where a general sense of heiwa-boke, or peaceful complacency, set in among many Japanese, particularly the younger generations. Many from the Showa generation complain that while they struggled and sacrificed to build Japan’s post-war prosperity, the Heisei generation became too comfortable and spoiled with that prosperity, losing ambition and a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, thereby allowing China to surpass Japan as a global economic superpower.
From my perspective as a Japanese woman born in the 1970s, I witnessed the evolution of Japan not only in terms of the prevailing spirit of the Showa and Heisei years that I lived through, but also in terms of the social status and opportunities available for Japanese women. I was raised during the most “bubbly” or economically prosperous times of the 1980s, or the end of the Showa period. I received an excellent Catholic education in Japan from kindergarten through college, earned two postgraduate degrees in England, and then started an exciting career in international aid and development during the Heisei era.
However, like too many ambitious women in both Japan and the United States, I eventually decided to sacrifice my career to get married and raise a family. I immigrated to America in 2008 while working toward a doctoral degree from the University of Tokyo. Today, I am working part-time with a nonprofit while juggling the demands of motherhood. I continue to dream of returning to a full-time career, but I am uncertain of how to make it work with the demands of being a mother.
I think about the earlier generations of women in my family and how they lived in earlier eras. My paternal grandmother Higuchi Hide was born in the Meiji era (1868-1912). Meiji means “enlightened government,” and this era was defined by modernization and westernization, when Japan ended centuries of isolationism and feudalism to open trade relations with foreign countries. However, the Meiji era government and society clearly were not enlightened in terms of the general social status of women and girls.
Even during such times, my grandmother Hide was a strong woman who became the matriarch of the honke, or main line of the Higuchi family. At the age of 9, as the eldest of three sisters, Hide became the heir of the family land holdings. She did not have an opportunity to receive a university education, but she successfully developed and managed the family’s properties. She built the family’s wealth and financially supported the extended family.
Even after land reform policies imposed by the American Occupation Forces after World War II led to the confiscation of much of the Higuchi family’s land, Hide persevered and led the family through the difficult post-war years.
Another example of an earlier generation of Japanese women was my maternal grandmother Koike Mieko, who was born in the Taisho era (1912-1926). The spirit of this period was defined by Taisho democracy, a relatively short but significant political movement toward the development of liberal democratic ideals and institutions in the Japanese government.
My grandmother represented the Taisho woman. Her family was a pioneer in the Japanese Catholic community in the Kansai, or western region of Japan. She attended the Sacred Heart Girl’s School, Japan’s oldest Catholic girl’s school. Ba-ba, as we affectionately called her, was liberated and westernized in both spirit and style, and she strongly supported me and all the other women and girls in our family to be ambitious and to get a good education.
My mother Higuchi Ayako was the eldest daughter of Koike Mieko. Ayako was born during the Showa era, six months before Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Raised by my liberal grandmother, my mother was the first woman in my family to receive a university education just like the men in my family. Ayako also attended the Sacred Heart Girl’s School and went on to earn a degree from the University of the Sacred Heart.
My mother is a strong and opinionated woman with tremendous talent, but she was not allowed to pursue a career because women of her generation in Japan were expected to get married and raise a family, with or without a college degree.
I am the second daughter of Higuchi Ayako, and the granddaughter of Higuchi Hide and Koike Mieko. I was born and raised during the prosperous Showa years but I began my career and lived most of my adult life during the Heisei era. While the Heisei economy and job opportunities were certainly not the same as during the height of the post-war Showa prosperity, I still lived in a Japan that was one of the world’s wealthiest countries during a time of peace, as far as Japan was concerned.
As Japan assumed its place among the other advanced democratic nations of the world, there has been a growing societal recognition of the need to promote equal social and economic opportunities for Japanese women and girls. I became more aware of the importance of gender equality when I was appointed by Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro to serve on a national advisory committee on working women.
I stand on the shoulders of the amazing women of my family and all their hard work, hopes, and dreams. I am part of the first generation of women in my family who was not only able to receive unsurpassed educational opportunities, but also to pursue a career on equal footing with my male colleagues. I worked at a major Japanese corporation, and then pursued my dream of working in the field of international aid and development.
I worked with international non-governmental organizations before I eventually worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. I supervised construction projects with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars for dams, roads, water and sewage systems in developing countries. I got to work with top foreign government officials as well as the United Nations, World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank.
In 2008, I left my career for marriage and family in America. While American women enjoy better work and educational opportunities than Japanese women, both countries still have far to go to achieve true equal opportunity for women and girls. Even with the real progress made in promoting gender equality, working women in both countries still carry a disproportionate share of the responsibilities of raising children. More needs to be done to support working women.
As my ten-year-old daughter enters this new era of Reiwa, I pray not only for world peace and harmony, but also for true equal opportunity for all women and girls. My daughter will someday stand on my shoulders, as well as the shoulders of all the amazing women in my family who have preceded her. She will be the 20th generation of Higuchi women that I know of.
I pray for my daughter to live in a world of beautiful harmony, to someday become a Reiwa woman.
Born and raised in Japan, Dr. Hiroko Higuchi received her Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo and worked with Sanwa Research Institute and Consulting, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, and nonprofit organizations in the field of international aid and development before she immigrated to the United States in 2008. She currently works with the Little Tokyo Service Center. With her husband, Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi. Dr. Higuchi lives in the South Bay with their beloved daughter and dog.