It was mid-April and our tour guide was a friendly young woman in a light yellow cardigan. She was Japanese, a fourth year student at the Japanese university we were touring. Although the international school counselors in my group were very impressed with her English skills, our compliments didn’t stop her from apologising, continually, for her lack of fluency and poor vocabulary as she led us around the campus, pointing out various classrooms and buildings we did not actually enter. My fellow counselors were a curious bunch and began asking her what she enjoyed about attending this university… what had been her greatest challenges… what were her plans for the future?
“I’d like to study abroad. I’d like to do my Masters in Australia. Australia is my first choice. But it will not happen.”
“My parents. They think it unnecessary for girls to study abroad. They say it is now my job to find a rich husband and get married. (In Japan, unmarried women over the age of 25 are often referred to as ‘leftover Christmas cake’.) They say that perhaps I won’t even have to work but I definitely want a job – but first I want to do my Master’s in Australia. Last year, I studied one semester in America and my parents checked my Facebook every day. Then they would call me. Who is the girl you had lunch with? Who is the boy in this photograph? They would call me at least once a day and often twice to interrogate me. I was happy there although America is very different from Tokyo. My parents say they do not want me ruined.”
The counselors changed the trajectory of the conversation by asking her more specific questions about her program of study and why she chose this university; these were safer questions, the kind of questions our own high school students would ask. While our guide was taking with a couple of the counselors, the only Japanese woman in our group leaned close to me and whispered, “She is what we call a ‘boxed girl’.”
On my phone, I googled the term hakoirimusume (translated literally as “daughter in a box”) and found this definition: “A young single woman who leads a sheltered life with her protective family.”
An image from my childhood popped into my head; I remembered a doll with soft blonde curls, a doll dressed in a blue dress with white polka dots. It may have been a Shirley Temple Doll. The doll was still in her original box, stored high on a shelf and I asked if we could play with it. The owner, an older woman, explained that it had never been taken out of its box, that the perfect condition of the doll made it worth more. I’m not sure where I saw the boxed doll but I’ve never forgotten the strong, pulsating sense that it was unnatural to trap the doll behind a layer of plastic and cardboard, to deny a child the joy of playing with it.
When our young guide dropped us off at the Admissions Office, she thanked us, several times, for allowing her the pleasure of serving as our tour guide. I gave her my name card. We bowed and then bowed again and said good-bye.
I’m grateful to my colleague for teaching me this phrase that perfectly describes the way that many girls and women live (and not just in Japan), this phrase that made my brain buzz with recognition and purpose. Without planning to do so, I’ve chosen to help boxed girls for my entire life. It’s why I worked in Residence Life at university, why I became a teacher and, later, a Counselor. It’s why I began creating online courses. I want to help girls and women out of their boxes, out into the glorious fullness of their lives. (I don’t think we can save other people but I do believe we can help.)
Another way to help others with the burden of their particular boxes is to become aware of the ways that I, myself, am still boxed ~ the ways in which I am boxed in by society and, much (much) worse, the ways that I have kept myself boxed up, behind a “protective” layer of cellophane.
My goal is to become a girl unboxed.
What are you doing, lovely one, to let yourself out of your box?
Note: This post was first published as The Sunday Reader on 15 May 2016. If you’d like to receive these essays directly in your inbox, subscribe here.