DISCLAIMER: This post is an opinion only. It is based on my experience living in Japan for the past two years. I had my good friend who is Japanese read it and see if there was anything she saw that was unfair or incorrect. We talked about it and I feel comfortable posting this online. Please, do not take my opinion as that of an expert though. I am not a scholar of Japanese culture, I am merely an observer and sometimes a participant. I look forward to learning more about this subject so if you have something to add please sound off in the comments.
There has been a lot of news lately in Japan and internationally about Japan’s problems with sexism.
If you haven’t been following the story, A female lawmaker named Ayaka Shiomura from a minority party was giving an address during a session on how government should change to support women. During her speech, a man from the majority party started heckling her on her marital status and why she doesn’t have children.
At first she laughed and continued, but as they continued to heckle her she ended her speech with tears in her eyes. (You can read the full story here)
When I heard this story I wasn’t too surprised that it happened or that it was causing a stir in international news.
The international news has been very condescending towards Japan and harsh about the problem of “sexism” that exists in the country. What has happened disgusts the international community, and rightly so.
But there are a few strong voices talking about how the international news are being too unforgiving of the Japanese people’s current situation with sexism and the progress the country has made in the last 10 years or so. They say that people are judging Japanese people without taking Japanese culture into account. Which leads me to the title of this blog post, “Does Japan have a problem with Sexism?”
I think the answer to this question is yes, Japan does have a problem with sexism. However, I also think culture is a big reason why Japan continues to have a problem. I want to make it clear that I think “cultural difference” is NO excuse for the state of women’s rights in Japan today. What this man did was wrong. The unfair treatment of women in Japan is wrong. Although the culture is not an excuse, I do think culture is a big reason why Japan is so far behind other developed nations. There are a couple of things in particular that I have noticed and would like to talk about.
Firstly, I think the gender separation in Japan plays a big role in this issue. Gender segregation is very strong in Japan. I teach at a high school and students of different genders rarely mix socially or academically. For example, they sit separately in most classes. All the boys sit on one side of the room and the girls on the other. Sometimes when making groups teachers won’t allow me to put students of a different gender in the same group.
It continues even past high school. It is rare for Japanese people to have friends of the opposite gender who are not a significant other. I learned this very early on while living in Japan because most of my friends in my immediate area guys. I often hang out with them and get dinner with them on weeknights in places where my students can see me. (I’m sure you can imagine where this story is going…)
A few months ago there was a rumor at my school that I had gotten married over spring break. Students kept coming up to me saying, “Happy Wedding!” and “Congratulations!” When I asked the students who told them I had gotten married they said they saw it on twitter. When I located the tweeting student and asked her why she said it, she said that she saw me eating sushi alone with a boy.
Let’s imagine what she was thinking, “Erin is eating sushi alone with a boy. She must have gotten married.” That’s quite a leap.
I think the gender separation from a young age makes a stronger gender divide and less understanding between people of the opposite gender. The point I’m trying to make with this is that perhaps Mr. Suzuki never befriended women other than his wife. Perhaps he has little sympathy for women because he sees them fundamentally different from himself. He doesn’t see us all as human or a part of the same species. If you are always separated, it is easy to gain a “us versus them” mentality.
Secondly, I think current events and problems facing Japan are a big factor in this particular situation.
Let’s think about what he said, “Why don’t you get married?” and “You should have children.” In Japan, they are facing a serious problem with the declining birth rate and the aging population. Many people think it’s because more women are choosing to focus on a career instead of having a family. Old fashioned people think career women are the cause of this declining birth rate and that we should encourage young women to be more ambitious about family and less ambitious in their careers.
I wrote all that out to explain why in this day and age I was not surprised when I heard this story came from Japan and why I believe Japan is behind the rest of the western world when it comes to gender equality and decency.
But things are changing. I was surprised to see that this story was causing a large wave in the national news as well. Public outrage is evident. There are rallies, news stories, and people discussing this story in the office at my school. Change is coming. I’m seeing it through the public reaction. While I think things are changing, I also believe they are changing too slowly.
Only a few weeks ago, I was reading “The Japan Times,” the English-language Japanese newspaper, when on the front page of the national news section (page 2 overall) was a story about women sushi chefs. They story was all about a group of women who own a successful sushi restaurant in Shizuoka. I read the story and couldn’t believe this was considered big news. It was NEWS in 2014 that women own a restaurant and are successful. It blew my mind. (you can read the actual article online here)
Another experience that surprised me since coming here was my first winter in Japan when I attended the end of the year enkai for my school. Before the party I was approached by a few of the teachers at the school I am friends with. They told me they were in charge of the entertainment for the party and had choreographed a dance and wanted me to learn it and preform with them. I told them it would be fun and that I was in. We decided to wear “Christmasy” clothes and practiced in our free time after school. (this is the dance I did!)
When it came time to preform a sudden realization hit me. The women who were dancing were the teachers under 30 years old who were unmarried. We were to dance for all of the school because we were single, young, and cute. Women who were married weren’t asked to join. Women who were 30 years and older and single weren’t asked to join.
I was shocked. I felt slightly dirty and I couldn’t help but think that this was a lawsuit at home. That it would never happen. Cultural difference or sexism? It’s a tough call.
So, why is Japan so behind the rest of the western world when it comes to women’s rights? The two reasons I stated above are my own personal thoughts. Some people have other ideas though. For example, maybe it’s because as an island nation it is very isolated from foreign influence. Maybe it’s because there is such a strong value and emphasis based on tradition and history. Another possible reason that many people also think is that Japanese women are to blame, that they do not demand more respect.
I know it seems crazy to blame women for the sexism they experience in Japan, but there is an argument to be made. A lot of times in the Japanese language what is perceived as feminine is perceived that way because it sounds less intelligent or more childish. For example the “female way” of saying “I” is あたし (atashi). The gender neutral and most proper way of saying “I” is わたし (watashi). Atashi sounds more feminine AND it also sounds less educated. My friend told me a woman who can’t properly pronounce the “wa” sound will change it into the easier “ah” sound. Women in Japan use atashi constantly in turn making it a feminine word.
When I heard this I thought, “why would you want to sound less intelligent or childish in order to appear more feminine?” To me it seems so backwards. However, in Japan young, childish, and cute are very desirable traits. They are seen as very attractive.
While the Japanese language is full of things just like this, as I think deeper about it, I realize that this is not a problem unique to Japan. Look across our universities’ campuses in America. There are very smart women all over the United States who pretend to be dumb to seem funny or cute. It happens everywhere. Sexism continues to happen everywhere. Japan is not the only country with a problem. These problems are still a worldwide issue.
Japan may be behind but let us not forget the problems within our own cultures. As the teaching goes, “how can you take a speck of sawdust out of your neighbors eye while you have a plank of wood in your own?” This news story should point fingers at Japan. Instead it should be pointing fingers at the problem that we all face globally.
So, is there a problem in Japan with sexism? Yes. Is sexism a bigger problem in Japan than other developed nations? Yes. I believe that there is undeniable proof that Japan is far behind the rest of the western world in terms of women’s empowerment. On the other hand, it’s not the only place where sexism still exists and I do see it improving. I see the public opinion shifting. It’s a slow hard battle, but all the best ones are.
If you want to read more on this issue here are some more articles:
The public reaction Ayaka Shiomura being taunted.
A blog post on Sexism from “This Japanese Life” one of the most famous blogs about expat life in Japan. (I cant wait to read part 2 when he publishes it!)