To be honest, I feel quite nervous writing about this because I don’t feel qualified. I’m sure I’m going to say something that’s not technically correct, or use a wrong term, and be attacked for it.
What do I mean by this? Well, I know I’m a feminist, and I’m going to put it like this: I think people shouldn’t have more or less opportunity, or criticism, because of their gender. I didn’t do gender studies, or anything political, legal, or human rights related at school or university, so while I have a few more outspoken feminist friends, I see myself as a layperson in this field. Hence the nervousness: many people know more about this than I do. But here’s my take on it.
I think there are lots of people with feminist views in Japan, but most aren’t very loud about it – or if they are, I haven’t met them. My perspective in Australia is quite different, as most of my friends are university-educated Gen Y city kids from a western background, like me. Many of my friends are vegetarian feminists, and the others are non-vegetarian feminists, as far as I know. I know some sexist people too.
It’s not the first area in which I’ve made this remark, but Japan seems to be a few decades behind when it comes to sexism. I’m not talking about laws, which are probably not so far behind, so much as the culture, which says that women can’t be sushi chefs because their hands are too warm. They obviously haven’t felt my mum’s hands. (Cold hands, warm heart, I know, Mum.)
This may be largely true in Australia too, but women are the family cooks in Japan. It’s generally taken for granted that women do the cooking and cleaning in most families, including making lunch for everyone to take to school and work – including women who work full-time. I have known one woman in her 40s who doesn’t cook for her husband, and that’s because she lives with the husband’s parents and her mother-in-law cooks.
There’s a reality TV show on Japanese Netflix called Terrace House. It’s about 6 people in their twenties, three girls and three boys, living in a house together. It’s set up with a light, bright room with 3 bunks for the girls, and a darker room with darker wooden furniture for the boys. On the first day that all the housemates arrive, as soon as one of them gets hungry, two of the boys say something like ‘I hope you girls can cook.’ The girl who studies med smiles ‘I don’t think so,’ and another girl says she doesn’t want to feel judged on the standard of her cooking. They then immediately assume the roles of homemakers, and when one of those 2 boys later says ‘should I just leave my dirty clothes next to the washing machine?’ one of them says ‘yep.’ (To be fair, he may have been asking because the machine was in use, I don’t know.) As well as the housemates, there is a panel of commentators in a studio on the show, and none of them comments on this assumption that the girls will naturally be the cooks in the house.
Incidentally, so far as I’ve seen on the show, when the boys on the show talk about which girl they think is cute, or whose [body part] they like, the girl studying med never comes up.
I think both language and products are more gendered in Japan than in Australia. The kids in primary schools in Japan all pretty much wear the same indoor shoes. They’re white with colour on the toe. Mostly, the girls wear red and the boys blue, except apparently the red only goes up to 23 cm or so, so some girls wear yellow. Some kids have white or green. Pencil cases: girls have pink, purple or maybe light blue or yellow. Boys have black and dark blue. Bags are the same. And at my adult Japanese class, all the women are given name tags on red lanyards. The men’s are blue.
There are particular ways for women to speak and men to speak. I think this is actually more limiting for men than for women, the same way that women in the world can generally choose to wear skirts or pants (trousers, you Brits) but men don’t have so much choice. If a woman wants to come across as assertive, or cooler or aggressive, she can choose to speak in a way that would usually be associated with a man speaking. I don’t think it’s true in the same way that men have a useful option of wanting to come across as more feminine, unless they want to send themselves up as being pretty camp.
I found this interesting book on the topic of women in Japanese language and society, if you’re interested. It was first published in the 60s but I think a lot of it is still relevant.
All of the above is for cis people, of course: people who identify as the gender they were documented as at birth. What happens to non-binary people in Japan?
Update: I got the following comment from a good friend when I shared this post on Facebook – a friend who’s better informed on this than I am:
(what? two colons? Are they stackable?)
As someone who studied a lot about feminism in relation to Japanese women, it’s really important to remember our western biases when it comes to traditional and contemporary forms of feminism. Western feminism has been slower to catch on in Japan for many reasons, not the least of which because it would be disturbing the harmony of the community. I’ve seen some changes to national legislation for women which seem progressive and others moving backwards, but I think in general Japanese women are trying to make strides for equal opportunity in the workplace especially. But Japan is not the west, and despite having a Western-style capitalist economy, I can see any form of societal or gender equality being very slow to come around.