On Japan's 'Megxit,' We Need a Feminist and Human Rights Conversation | Opinion

Last week, I was helping my 12-year-old with homework at a Tokyo coworking cafe between my Zoom calls. She'd transferred from Brooklyn, so studying in Japanese is hard for her, but we get by. A news item popped up on my mobile: "Princess Mako plans to move forward with her wedding despite public resentment." Triggered and irritated, I turned to my daughter to explain that this headline was bullying. I also wanted to plug in some lessons about marriage equality, cancel culture and today's clickbait algorithms. But she interrupted, "Yes I heard about Princess Mako at school."

On Tuesday, Princess Mako registered her marriage, declined ceremonies and said it was a necessary choice for her to protect her and her husband's hearts and life. This sounded more like survival and relief, than a happy occasion. By protocol for a female royal, Mako lost her royal status upon marriage.

Japan has long had an underlying "purge" culture which scapegoats those who don't fit the expected mold. Bullying almost feels like a favorite pastime, a collective habit supported by daytime TV, social media and in communities and institutions one belongs.

I wondered what the kids at my child's school were saying about Princess Mako, who is currently the national scapegoat, as reported by The New York Times and other outlets. Are they echoing their parents' sound bites? If social media is any indication, do they casually and patronizingly mock and condemn the princess for her choice of husband, even after she developed PTSD from the stress of public criticism? My daughter wouldn't say.

In my youth, I had attended the same Tokyo elementary school as my daughter's. My most vivid memory is the horrendous bullying. It was the unique Japanese version of bullying where one person is isolated and picked on while the whole class watches. I cannot forget the four walls of the classroom vibrating with laughter by 30-plus children against one child who cringed and endured in tearful silence or sometimes burst into an agonized scream, which was later made fun of by awful impersonations. I did stand up sometimes to support the bullied. I felt horrified, helpless and angry. This was how school was, before I quit at age 15, and moved to the U.S. alone at 16.

Things have not changed much since then, give or take social media as new enablers. According to available Japan government studies, workplace bullying has increased over the last eight years, while school bullying has increased since the study began six years ago. Currently 83 percent of Japanese schools report bullying cases. According to bullying researcher Yoji Morita, Japan's collectivist cultural pressure presents itself in the silent-majority observers who, perhaps despite themselves, support the bullies by way of inaction. It's just like the classroom situation from my childhood. People stay silent and watch, instead of speaking up. Japan's proverb, "a nail that sticks out gets hammered," is a full-swing reality.

This hurts women and other minorities the most. Japan is infamous for ranking consistently low in the World Economic Forum's global gender gap report, currently 120 among the world's nations in 2021. Women are assigned narrowly defined roles, such as "a young, cute office assistant," or "a demure housewife." It is very easy to go "off script" so to speak, as one's self, becoming easy targets for malicious bullying. Last year, reality TV star Hana Kimura died by suicide after receiving hateful messages online. The Guardian reported "[Hana's] death underscored the issue of cyberbullying, and the pressures that women face to conform to social conventions."

From this context, Mako's story needs a feminist and human rights perspective. We have to send the right message to Japanese girls and women, and everyone else. It is not OK to infantilize and control Mako. She is a princess and also a professional woman who is 30 years old, marrying her longtime boyfriend and moving to New York. There is nothing confusing about this. We don't have to like her choice. Mako can make mistakes too. People protesting Mako's wedding are disrespectful of Mako's autonomy, and by extension, all young women.

Princess Mako
Princess Mako is pictured. Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Instead, let's look at ourselves. Bashing Mako and her husband Kei is a projection of our own anxiety about the changing world. When we can't forgive that Kei's mother owes money to her ex-fiance, let's face ourselves. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Japan has the largest debt-to-GDP ratio among industrialized nations. As of October 2021, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated this ratio to be 256.9 percent and the total debt outstanding to be 13.1 trillion dollars, while our economy has stagnated for several decades. Before we scandalize that Kei sports a ponytail, we need to change Japanese school rules that require racially-diverse children to dye their hair black and straight-perm it, such that their appearance fits in with the majority of kids. We can't continue eliminating what's new and different in order to avoid changing ourselves with the times. This is shooting ourselves in the foot.

Clearly, people don't fit in the traditional mold and culture anymore, and are suffering. As one serious indicator, during the same years that school bullying has increased, since 2016 suicides among school children have increased in Japan annually, to 499 cases in 2020. One out of every 50 elementary and middle school children nationwide stopped going to school as of 2021, half of them citing depression and anxiety as the reason. This rate has increased for eight consecutive years. Moreover, the demographics are changing. Japan is home to a diverse 2.2 million international migrants while the ageing nation's total population is predicted to decline by 31 percent by 2060. It's time to tolerate different lifepaths and expressions, to revitalize the nation.

"Many people in Japan actually believe Japan is fully diverse," said Shahran Ishino, a naturalized Japanese citizen and a Newsweek Japan columnist on diversity issues. Yet he is regularly called a "traitor" and told to "go back to your country" in the comments section of his articles. Ishino is concerned for the future of his daughter in Japan who is of mixed race.

I left Japan as a teen because I wanted to find my own voice and opportunity, and to escape the bullying culture that suffocates and excludes. I studied human rights at the University of Chicago and corporate diversity at Columbia University. Only after a few decades of academics and building my professional confidence in tech and finance in New York City have I finally found the courage to come back to Tokyo to run a diversity-driven transformation company.

From this perspective, and as a mother of a daughter who is multi-racial, I want Japan to change, starting with how we treat Princess Mako. Symbols and role models matter. Mako is going to New York, but nobody should have to leave their country to find freedom.

Let's teach our children how to empathize and speak up.

Aya Shimada has lived in Tokyo and New York City. She is a visiting University of Tokyo scholar and founder of an innovation and transformation company Culturelabs.co. She previously worked as a COO in the financial services sector in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.