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Some time ago, I told the story of how I developed a taste for coffee when I was teaching an early-morning English class at a Japanese company in Tokyo. I used to hate the bitter beverage, but I was too polite to refuse a cup when it was first provided to me at our mid-class break, and after only a few weeks I began to like it. Initially, exhausted as I was by my busy teaching schedule, I craved the drink only for its stimulative caffeine, but eventually I grew to like its taste – so long as it was laden with cream and sugar. Even today, as far as I’m concerned, the closer to warm melted coffee ice cream, the better.

One of the reasons I acquiesced to the initial coffee offering was my uneasiness over how it had arrived. I taught a class of office workers at a well-known energy company, and it was split roughly evenly between men and women. The men were popularly known as “salarymen”, and the women as “office ladies”. For all its modernity and technology, Japan is a very traditional country, and the starkness of the workplace gender split was quite unfamiliar to me. Sure, in American offices, secretarial roles were still predominantly filled by women, but at the professional and executive levels, women were common and unremarkable. In this Japanese office, however, all the women were office ladies – there was no such thing as a “salarywoman” – and they all had administrative support roles. When the class break came, the men sat back in their seats to chat, and the women all got up to prepare trays of coffee in little Styrofoam cups to distribute to the men. As far as I could tell, this happened with no discussion at all: the women knew their place, and the men understood their privilege.

As a liberal-minded American, I was astonished and nonplussed by the apparent indignity, and could not bear to add to it by refusing the cup offered to me. It wasn’t that I did not understand business hierarchies. I had participated in meetings in the U.S. in which the administrative assistants were expected to provide coffee service. But I was surprised by this live illustration of how rigid these hierarchies were in Japan. All the women were servants, and all the men were served.

This was in the early 1990s; perhaps there are more opportunities for Japanese women now. But their opportunities back then seemed pretty limited to me. And after seven or eight weeks of observing the situation in this particular office, I decided that maybe I could do something about it. After all, this was a fairly advanced English class; I was expected to teach not just the language, but something about American culture. So one day, as we reached the mid-class break, I made an announcement. In the U.S., I explained, men and women did not always divide up their working roles so neatly as was done in Japan, and as a demonstration that day, rather than having the men relax while the women head into the kitchenette to make coffee, I wanted the women to stay seated and the men to go prepare the refreshments.

The great thing about being a sensei (teacher) in Japan is that your students, no matter how old they are, feel they must obey you. So when I made the announcement, there was no protest or complaint. But there was puzzlement, bordering on mystification. The men looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language – that is, a foreign language that they weren’t actually studying – and asked me to repeat what I had said. I did, and they looked shocked and uncomfortable, as if I had told them all to go put on bras and high heels. Still, they had a can-do attitude, and in short order they filed out the door, conferring amongst themselves and, on their way out, asking the women what I was sure was quick questions (in Japanese) about how to operate the coffee machine.

When they were gone, I looked around the room at the office ladies, expecting to see barely suppressed smiles of satisfaction and triumph. And a couple of the women, without saying anything about it, did seem to quietly appreciate the turnabout. But mostly what I saw was discomfort. When I asked them if they liked the change, several blushed and avoided answering the question, and one specifically said that it had not been necessary. And when the men came back into the room – with a slightly hapless air about them – some of the women reflexively got up to help them distribute the cups and condiments, and both they and the men seemed visibly relieved.

It was probably a little heavy-handed of me to impose this experiment on my students. While I like to think that it gave a few of them, male and female, food for thought, it would have been grandiose to imagine that it was going to change their office culture. Still, I think we all got something out of it. My students were forced out of roles that they took for granted, and I learned that such shifts of perspective can be much more disconcerting than expected. Such a shift doesn’t have to come from an experiment in gender equality; it could be the result of a promotion, or a new job, or a new set of responsibilities. I think my Japanese students were more self-conscious of the role eviction than I would have been, because Japanese culture is more sensitive to roles and station, but anyone can find it unsettling. It is worth telling ourselves, whenever we find ourselves trying something new – whether desirable or unwanted, and whether out of ambition or obligation – that we might at some point feel like a student being given a test he had not prepared for.