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Selected Work by Judy Sklar Rasminsky

She Never Looked Back

Working Woman, May 1983
Feature, 3200 words  

“It's very hard to lead life with a woman like me," says Kyoko Saida, MD. "I can't be the nice wife or mother that my husband and children see in Japanese families where the woman stays at home. My husband must adapt, and we discuss, argue and even occasionally talk about living separately."

There is clear evidence of a special fire in this 41-year-old neurologist and researcher at Utano National Hospital in Kyoto, Japan, a nation where women certainly are not expected to have distinguished medical careers. Although she says that she is not unusual, Kyoko admits that from the time she was very young she was aware of the difference between the lot of men and the lot of women, and she vowed to imitate and keep up with the men. She has never looked back. "If the way seems difficult, that's reason enough to go ahead. For me it is better to act, to do, to move. Even when I make a mistake, if I do it with my best thought and energy, there won't be much to regret. I hate to regret not having done something."

Kyoko was a great surprise to her father, professor of pathology at Kobe University Medical School, who had traditional ambitions for his children: His son was to be a doctor and his daughter the proper Japanese wife of a proper Japanese husband. Her great-grandmother, who lived with the family in the traditional Japanese manner, taught her the necessary womanly arts when she was a child. Kyoko could sit on her knees for hours, thanks to Oobaachan's pinches. And because her legs were tied together at bedtime, she had learned to sleep demurely on her back, with her body under control. Her father would arrange her marriage to a man of his choice, for even today about half of Japanese marriages are arranged. Kyoko's mother was the perfect example for her daughter. The typical, respectful Japanese wife who obeyed her father when she was a child, her husband after she married and would obey her son when she was aged, she never argued with her husband and regarded being his wife as her life's work. She called him "my master," the Japanese expression for husband, while he addressed her as "person in the house," meaning housekeeper, the term for wife.

Their children, born during World War II, had their own ideas about their future, though. The son became an engineer and went to Australia, where he couldn't possibly fulfill his duty to look after his parents when they were old. The daughter, perversely, insisted on being a doctor, over her father's objections. Despite the enormous respect she had for her mother, Kyoko had decided early on never to be like her. Instead, she took her father as her model. Bright and determined, she won a place at Kyoto University's prestigious medical school, one of eight women in a class of 100. There she chose her own husband, a fellow medical student named Takahiko Saida. Once they finished their studies, Kyoko's father urged her to begin a private medical practice to allow Takahiko to go into medical research, but Kyoko again went her own way—she wanted to practice medicine in an academic setting where she could do research, too.

It did not occur to Kyoko not to have children. Neither did she think of stopping work to have them. "I was born female," she says, "which is fate. As a female, I wanted to achieve all possible things, such as giving birth and nursing. But I also wanted to live as a human, that is, to live like a man working in society." Her daughter, Eriko, was born in 1969. After Kyoko's maternity leave expired, she returned to work at Shinko Hospital, leaving the baby nearby with her mother. But when her son, Hajime, arrived two years later, Kyoko was working at Kyoto University Hospital, far from her mother's house. That presented a real problem for a working, nursing mother.

Struggle for daycare. World War II produced vast changes in Japan. In 1947, under the American occupation, a new democratic constitution was drawn up, giving women full equality for the first time—the right to vote, the right to inherit property, the right to divorce. Because so many men had been killed in the way, women also gained economic power—the nation needed their labor, and they joined the work force in droves. Usually they left their children with their mothers or mothers-in-law ("We don't have babysitters; it's not the custom yet," says Kyoko), but slowly charitable groups, Buddhist temples and workers themselves began to organize daycare facilities, since 40 percent of the work force was women. By 1965 a working-women's movement was demanding "as many daycare centers as mailboxes," but progress was slow. In 1971, Kyoto (a city of 1.4 million people) had about 30 publicly supported centers, including two at Kyoto University, but few of them accepted babies. Kyoko and the other women working at Kyoto University Hospital were negotiating with the hospital for a nursery that would care for infants at 6 weeks of age—when official maternity leave ended. The question had particular urgency for Kyoko, who was expecting her second child that September.

Traditionally, Japanese mothers stay close to their babies—carry them around, touch them often, nurse and feed them on demand, and sleep with them until they are quite big. It would be folly to put a baby into a daycare center, where a stranger would care for three babies under the age of 6 months, warned Kyoko's in-laws, women colleagues and friends. It certainly would distort their deepest emotions. But Takahiko supported Kyoko, as did the university union and the other women who took part in the 12-month negotiations.

In October 1971, eight tiny babies, including Hajime, began coming to three rooms on the hospital's second floor. Says Kyoko, "We were very excited, young and full of high spirits. But we also were afraid, because it was the beginning of autumn and it was getting cold. Carrying 6-week-old babies on public transportation and handing them over to 18-year-old teachers who had no experience with newborns was quite an undertaking. We were proud but also slightly unsure of what we were doing."

Children of the wind. The mothers—MDs, nurses, secretaries, technicians, laundry-women and so on—took 30 minutes each morning and afternoon as well as their lunch break to nurse their babies. "They could breastfeed as long as the mothers' milk held out," says Kyoko. The mothers also took over for sick teachers (at their own expense), kept the nursery clean, raised money for furnishings and equipment and met weekly with the teachers to discuss their problems. "The parents wanted to over-protect the babies, and the teachers wanted to do what they had learned in school—such as undressing the babies and opening the windows in the dead of winter! One child caught pneumonia. We argued a lot. But the teachers usually won, because we thought they might take it out on the babies if we disagreed." By 1973 the city and government had lent the center their official financial support and opened Kazeno-ko (Children of the Wind School) to everyone in the local district. Now some 90 children, ages 6 weeks to 5 years, including 20 under 1 year old, attend it.

In 1973 Kyoko decided to come to the United States. It is normal for men in her position to go abroad—perhaps 20 to 30 percent of them work as research fellows for one or two years early in their careers, often leaving their families at home. The decision for Kyoko to go, leaving her husband and two children behind, was a difficult one. But it was important to her. "This is the era of the United States," she says. "The US is like Rome during the Roman Empire—the center of the universe." Determined to experience it for herself, she wrote to 25 hospitals and was accepted by three: Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Vanderbilt in Nashville and Ohio State University Hospital in Columbus. "Someone told me that I couldn't go out alone after 4:00 p.m. in Cleveland, and I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to understand Southerners speaking English," she confides, "so I chose Ohio State."

Takahiko approved of the move. "That's why I married him," Kyoko says. With the help of his mother, her mother, and the daycare center, he remained in Japan with the children while Kyoko went off to Columbus to work as a resident in neurology. The children and her mother joined her a year later. Daycare veterans by then, the children went straight into Kiddy-Prep, a church-run daycare center near the university. When the other youngsters teased them about not speaking English, they quickly learned the language and adjusted to American life more easily than Kyoko did. Her boss terrified her because he swore a lot, and swearing is a serious matter for the Japanese. "It took me a long time to figure out that it had nothing to do with me," she says. Her mother returned to Japan the following year, and with a helping hand from kind Japanese neighbors, Kyoko and the children managed quite nicely.

In 1976 Takahiko and Kyoko both were offered jobs at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and the family was reunited in Philadelphia. It was a good environment for productive work, and Kyoko thrived. Initially assigned to projects that already were under way, she and Takahiko were keen to do research of their own. In three years in the lab there, they published several scientific papers describing a new antiserum they developed, using a component of rabbit nerves. When injected into other animals, it causes nerve damage that resembles Guillain-Barre syndrome, a life-threatening condition notorious because of the cases that occurred following the swine-flu immunization program in 1976. The Saidas' antiserum has provided a useful way to study this kind of disease in animals.

In 1979 the family returned to Japan. Attracted to the openness and pragmatism of American society, Kyoko wanted to stay in the US, but Takahiko's parents were ill, and he felt responsible for them. The Saidas also worried that their children, who had been in American schools from the beginning, were becoming altogether too American—"When we spoke to them in Japanese, they answered in English," Takahiko recalls. It seemed essential to put them into Japanese school as soon as possible if they ever were to be part of their own culture. (Ironically, on their return the children were teased about being too American and quickly became very Japanese, refusing to speak English.)

A doctor first. Both Kyoko and Takahiko now are practicing neurology and doing research at Kyoto's Utano National Hospital, where Kyoko is chief of the neurology and physical medicine services and the laboratory of neuromuscular disease and Takahiko is director of the hospital's Clinical Research Center and chief of the laboratory of neuroimmunology and tissue culture. As government employees, each of them earns about $25,000 a year after taxes, and their salaries are regulated—the same for every medical graduate of their year all over Japan. (As they get older their earnings will increase.) Although she is one of perhaps 13,000 women physicians in the country, Kyoko is a loner at work. As a neurologist, she has entree to the man's world and does everything male doctors do. "But," she says, "I still wonder, especially now when I'm entering my 40s, about my ability to do research. I tend to escape—I do not study hard or spend time thinking creative thoughts or doing experiments, because I must go home to the children. I say I cannot concentrate on doing research because my time is scattered, but I know that's an excuse. If I were an airplane, I wouldn't stop my engine or I'd crash."

The daily grind takes its toll on her time and energy. Up at 7:00 a.m., she prepares lunch boxes, makes breakfast, washes clothes and hangs them to dry in the sun before she drives to the hospital. Arriving between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m., she makes rounds, teaches residents and nurses, sees patients in an outpatient clinic, goes to other hospitals for consultations, attends meetings and conferences and tries to squeeze in as much time in the laboratory as possible. There are days when she doesn't do experiments because she has to leave between 6:00 and 7:30 p.m. to cook supper. Once a week she shops on the way home. "When the children were small, they didn't protest when I wasn't there; now they demand that I cook better food and take them places." They attend juku—an after-school school that many Japanese consider necessary if their children are to enter one of the better universities—and come home alone. Kyoko phones to be sure they've arrived safely. Because "they're at sensitive ages," she wants to be home with them when she can be. After dinner she reads the newspaper, does chores in the house, helps the children with their studying and watches the television news. She usually goes to bed at about 11:30 p.m.

Still, she says, her priorities are similar to those of Japanese men. She is a doctor first, and her patients have first call on her time. Her children and husband come second, although she admits that "if they were very sick in body or mind, I would stay away from my job for a while." Research and study rank next, then her parents-in-law and mother. (Her father died several years ago.) Housekeeping and social activities, both personal and work-related, are very low on her list—a source of guilt. Takahiko says philosophically, "There are merits and demerits in having a working wife, and they probably cancel each other out. I happened to fall in love with a woman who wants to work. It is a reality I've accepted." He dislikes their arguments over women's issues and feels somewhat at a disadvantage when competing with men whose wives stay at home, but perhaps a Japanese marriage, where expectations are different, can withstand more stress of this kind. Kyoko and Takahiko see their problems as minor—for both, work is more important.

For Takahiko, work always comes before family. Kyoko or one of the children would have to be quite sick to keep him away. "Of course, he was at work when both children were delivered," Kyoko says. "Most Japanese males are. They think childbirth is a job for women that has nothing to do with men. When Eriko was born, Takahiko took me to the hospital in the morning and went to work. He came to greet Eriko two hours after she arrived. Hajime was born at 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and he didn't visit us until late afternoon on Sunday, after he finished work." Normally he is at the hospital from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., staying until 10:30 at least twice a week. When time allows, he is with the children, and he also sweeps, cooks and washes dishes, demonstrating that he is far better at helping than most Japanese husbands, who often spend their evenings drinking with male colleagues or, if they come home, expect their wives to serve their meals without sharing them. About four times a year, he backslides and they have a big battle for a better division of the household chores.

Recently Takahiko's father became very sick following a series of small strokes, and his mother, herself suffering from thyroid and heart disease, found it difficult to care for him. Kyoko and Takahiko invited the older couple to live with them, as Japanese custom dictates, although lack of space rules out this solution for an increasing number of families. "We don't have nursing homes or apartments for the aged," says Kyoko. "The Japanese aged aren't ready to live alone. They lived for their children in the hope of living with them when they got old." Kyoko, who always refused before, now is looking for household help. "Takahiko keeps telling me, 'Get help from somebody.' I think he is tired," she comments wryly.

Feminist at heart. Despite her achievements, Kyoko believes that she is an ordinary Japanese woman, who feels and understands all that other Japanese women feel. One of the hardest things for her to deal with is her own weaker self, which is introverted and uncertain and wants to be helped. "Sometimes," she says, "when I am so tired physically and psychologically, I dream of quitting the job and staying home. Since we do not have enough vacation time, our need to rest and relax, to work in the house, and to be with the family is stronger than Americans'. But Japanese men and women accept things as they are. We have an Indian, Buddhist way of living.” Conflict is just part of life.

Kyoko thinks a lot about what to teach Eriko. "Theoretically I tell her, 'Forget about being a woman and you can choose to be anything.' But in the real world that's not the way it is. We are watching her to see what suits her." When she was in elementary school, Eriko used to say that she would stay home and look after her children. Now, at age 14, she is less sure. Because she lived so long in the US and speaks fluent English, she is considering a career as a diplomat. As for 11-year-old Hajime, Kyoko tries to teach him to be a kind man and to do housekeeping jobs when possible. He doesn't mind that his mother works, and he enjoys visiting her lab. When he marries, he says, "It will be up to my wife whether she works or not."

Although she no longer is involved actively in women's issues, Kyoko is a feminist at heart. The ideal goal, she says, is for women to be themselves and be able to work at anything just like men. The way to achieve it is for men and women to share family responsibilities, not necessarily equally but well; to give equal opportunities and education to girls, and to teach boys to share and do "women's work" while they are young; and to have good, publicly supported daycare and after-school care. Recruiting the next generation is a social act, she believes, and therefore society's responsibility: "We pay taxes, and taxes can be used efficiently for this. It is productive for society. In Japan, major companies have started to have their own daycare centers, and of course they see profit from doing so." And above all, women should not use being a woman as an excuse. Now in a position to employ women herself, Kyoko is bothered when they quit their jobs to marry, to have babies, to follow their husbands to another city. She says, "During the 15 years of our marriage, we lived separately for five years because Takahiko wanted his job and I wanted mine, and unfortunately the jobs were in different locations. This is the hardest problem of all to solve.

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Copyright © 1991 by Judy Sklar Rasminsky. This material may not be reproduced in any manner or medium without written permission. For information, contact jud...@challengingbehavior.com.

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