As a British male living in Tokyo, I often have many new and bizarre experiences, but I was taken aback when a journalist of a Japanese girl's lifestyle magazine asked me this question. She showed me four photos of Asian women, merely labelled "A", "B", "C" and "D", and I was told to choose one to illustrate my preference. The ultimate aim of this endeavor was to give young female readers tips on how they could more effectively attract a foreign boyfriend. I felt sorry for Japanese women who, in this day and age, are still given pressure to -- or even willingly -- adjust their standards of beauty based on the preferences of men, rather than believing in their own value.
The question stayed with me for several months and it became the reason why I decided to launch a website called riarumi ("real me" in Japanese), which aims to inspire and empower Japanese women by featuring the experiences of Japanese female role models and demonstrating how they can be themselves and still be beautiful. It shares stories of the incredible things all women are capable of, when determined to express their true potential and fight through any obstacles society places in their way.
Japan is notorious for having a poor gender-equality record, despite being the world's third-largest economy, and ranks 105th out of 136 countries in the world on the 2013 Global Gender Gap Index, just behind Cambodia. In an October 2012 "Public Opinion Poll on a Gender-Equal Society" by the Cabinet Office of Japan, almost 70 percent of respondents, both men and women, felt that "men are being given preferential treatment" with regard to the status of both sexes throughout the entire society. In that same poll, men who supported the perception that the "husband is expected to work outside the home, while [the] wife is expected to take on domestic duties" outnumbered those who were against it. So clearly, Japan is hugely lagging behind the global norm. Fortunately, progress is being made and a society of women who were once told to "walk one step behind men" are now racing ahead.
Take Asako Kirie. Growing up, Asako, 62, was disallowed from going to college by her mother, who told her, "girls don't need to study. Just hurry up and get married!" Even when she did finally fulfill her dream of gaining a scholarship to go to university after raising two daughters and aged 46, she was then told by a professor, "giving a scholarship to a young student would have been a plus to the school but granting one to a middle-aged lady like you is a waste of money."
In spite of a lifetime of enduring swipes at her sense of self-belief and self-confidence, she went on to complete her studies and subsequently author Bara To Bisketto ("Roses and Biscuits"). It's a moving story about a nursing home caregiver for which she won Japan's 13th Annual Shougakukan Bunko Shousetsusho for literature.
Japan enacted the Basic Law of a Gender-equality Society in 1999, but it did not help much to promote Japanese women's standing in society or help them advance up corporate ladders. Megumi Hagiuda, 32, owner of a Tokyo-based florist, "Africa no Hanaya", explained that, "as a deeply-rooted aspect of our culture, that kind of discrimination still exists. For men, it is easier to get promoted or to change their job. Whereas for women, companies are not well-prepared to support them when it comes to giving birth and raising children."
As a result, around 70 percent of women in Japan give up on their career after giving birth to their first child. Women in their 30s face a lot of significant, life-changing events, and only some are able to combine those events with their work. Others are forced to compromise and give up their careers.
Meeting her however, it is clear that these pressures don't exert themselves on Megumi, who was beaming with positivity for the duration of our conversation. Instead, she encourages readers to ask themselves how they want to be remembered and what they wish to contribute to society in their lifetime. "The biggest enemies are worry and fear", says Megumi. "For sure there are always risks in life, but fear of unknown risks and worries about potential failures are dangerous, since they may guide you away from the best opportunities that you might otherwise have encountered."
Of course, fortunately, some women in Japan don't feel any personal burden of gender inequality. When I met Ayako Mie, 35, an accomplished and well-respected reporter of Japanese politics, she explained that she has never been discriminated against because of her gender. "It's partly because I don't make excuses about being a woman when it comes to something I cannot do. And I believe there isn't anything that I, being a woman, can't do. So I don't need to make excuses," said Ayako. "You have to prove yourself. If you're a very smart and talented person, you'll do it. The only thing that matters is how much you want something."
So, having interviewed a number of bright, successful Japanese women, I now ask the same question; "What is Asian beauty?"
Beauty is the above examples of women who have freely expressed their true selves and believed in their full potential, even in the face of strong discouragement. What truly makes someone beautiful is when they are their real, honest, heartfelt self. They don't need to -- and won't -- hide who they are or try to pretend to be someone else, just to 'fit in' to a group. Beauty is inner-strength and self-belief, kindness to others, humility, and seeing the depth in other people rather than dismissively judging them by superficial measures. It's knowing all the things you are truly capable of being and achieving in this world and wanting to strive to do it.
This is the kind of beauty that can be found all over Japan, and the world over, and it's the kind of beauty that really is worthy of recognition and celebration.