Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I'm bringing sexist back

Roll on the new term. It's pretty dull filling eight-hour days when you have absolutely nothing to do, which is why I've been blogging so prolifically of late.

Today is the last day of the fiscal and academic year. The Japanese public sector seems to love a reshuffle, so as of tomorrow quite a few of the staff here will switch. A similar thing happens at the schools; with only a couple of week's notice teachers are told where they will be working for the next two-plus years (you seem to enjoy reshuffle immunity for a year following a transfer), which could theoretically be a three-hour commute away at the other end of the prefecture. As I have opined before, Japanese teachers have to put up with a lot of shit. I have already learned of the departure of a couple of teachers that I had built up good relationships with, which got me down a little.

These line-up changes are of course accompanied by welcome parties, so I will soon experience another round of 'nomunication' (nomu means 'to drink'; this is a very old joke but it always gets a good reaction when it comes out of my mouth). Also, while JET works according to the Western academic year, the other agencies are turning over their employees now, so there will be fresh gaijin to welcome too.

After that, hanami (flower viewing) will soon be upon us. I continue to be surprised at how crazy Japanese people are about sakura (cherry blossom). To most people, the flowers seem to symbolise Japan even more than rising sun flag or Mt Fuji. All the Japanese beers have decorated their cans with pink flowers, which perhaps hints at the real reason for the excitement around hanami: by all accounts, it's a huge piss-up. As I understand it, it is one of the few occasions where it is perfectly acceptable to sit in a park boozing and eating from morning until sunset. There is even a Japanese saying capturing this sentiment: hana yori dango, meaning "dumplings rather than flowers". There is an official list of the 100 most beautiful spots in Japan at which to enjoy hanami, and wouldn't you know it, one of them is in Akayu, within staggering distance of my house. So, all in all, April is shaping up to be quite a boozy month.

Anyway, Adrianna asked about sexism in Japan, so I intend to kill some time today by offering my thoughts on that issue.

Is Japan sexist? On the face of it, no. Women are allowed to do everything that men are, with a few exceptions regarding ancient rituals; they cannot, for example, step inside a sumo ring, or participate in the 'Naked Man Festival'. Yes, some capsule hotels are men-only, but I would say this is for practical reasons. Capsule hotels are primarily aimed at drunk salarymen, the overwhelming majority of these are men, it wouldn't be considered proper (probably even in the West) to have men and women sleeping in the same room, so if space is limited you're just going to make your hotel men-only. There doesn't seem to be so much in the way of discrimination law for businesses here; onsens and gyms will routinely deny entrance to anyone with tattoos, since Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) members typically have ink. I've heard of places (usually in the sex industry) that refuse to serve foreigners. As a libertarian, I of course support their right to do this.

As an aside, the Japanese language is quite gender neutral. While the English honorific prefixes for names denote not just sex but also marital status in the case of women, -san and -sensei can be equally applied to men and women. The more informal terms are somewhat gender-coloured, with -kun usually used for men and -chan for women, but even these are somewhat flexible, so a female colleague or drinking buddy could be called kun, and a male to whom you feel particular affection could be chan. However, the language used by men and women differs to an unusual degree in Japanese, with women typically being more polite. So, the general polite word for 'me', 'myself' or 'I' is watashi, but a man will use boku in a more informal setting, or possibly go as far as the somewhat salty ore. Women will stick with watashi, or atashi if they want to be cute. Women use the honorific prefix o- more frequently, so while I can get away with talking about sake (confusingly, sake is the Japanese word for all alcoholic drinks; nihonshuu is Japanese for sake), a woman would probably soften it to osake.

In more subtle ways, though, I'd say Japan is more sexist than the West. I'm not well-placed to notice these things because a) I can't speak Japanese very well, b) I'm a man, c) I'm pretty dense at picking up subtle undertones in any language and d) I'm a schoolteacher, which is a profession with an unusual level of equality between the sexes.

For a start, in all of my schools, and at city hall, the principal/president and second-in-command are invariably male, and the admin staff are all female. Still, correlation does not imply causation, and this categorically does not prove that discrimination is afoot, as I am always at pains to point out to feminists. However, I have noticed that if work colleagues go to an izakaya (bar), it will always be a woman who fetches the drinks and handles ordering the food, regardless of how many male employees of equal status are present. In a similar vein, an ALT friend of mine told me about a time when some visitor came to her school and the secretary was away, so she was instructed by the principal to make tea for the guest, much to her chagrin.

So, there seems to be a general expectation that women should handle hostess-style tasks. That brings me to hostess bars, which I suppose are evidence of a striking gender asymmetry at the very least. While nothing untoward happens at them, I do find it a little strange that it is completely acceptable for respectable family men to go drinking of an evening with flirty and often provocatively dressed waitresses. I should say that there seems to be a spectrum of snack bars, with the classier ones (usually emplying older hostesses) being more focussed on conversation, while the more downmarket ones have more flesh on display and more wandering hands. I can only understand about 10% of what is said in punter-hostess conversations, but I was recently shocked to hear a man telling his hostess that she was flat-chested. She just shrugged this off with a cutesy pout, suggesting that that kind of banter was normal. Host bars for women do exist, but they are very much the exception that proves the rule - I've never seen one, whereas Akayu's small entertainment district must have at least thirty snack bars.

I'd say there is pressure on women here to be good wives and mothers (and daughters, since caring for your ageing parents is a big deal in the land with the world's longest life expectancies). It seems it is seen as a woman's job to make her husband an elaborate bento (packed lunch) each morning, even if she works too. It's a little difficult to put this in the proper context though, since this is a traditionally-minded region and I think men face a lot of similar pressures to support a family and live the standard Japanese dream. However, I suspect that women get the slightly sharper end of the stick. My favourite example of Japanese sexism is the brutal saying that women are like Christmas cake: very much in demand up to the 24th of December (i.e. 24 years of age), but no-one wants them if they are still on the shelf after the 25th. Single women in their late twenties or beyond do indeed seem to be gossiped about, and my female gaijin friends have told me that they are questioned by colleagues as to the nature of their relationships with any men they are seen with.

So in conclusion, I reckon Japan is maybe two or three decades behind the UK in terms of sexual equality, but it's not like it's Iran or anything. If anyone else has requests for blog topics, bring them on.


  1. Women have certain duties, do men too? Is there pressure on men to earn a living, have a family and go to Kareoke bars with their buddies? I'd prefer to make tea than do any of those.

  2. blog suggestion:

    in schottland protestants hate catholics, people from dingwall hate invernessians, ferry folk hate everybody - who are teh big rivals in Japan?

    do tokyessians hate hiroshimainians? is there a "bog people" in Japan? who are the butt of the jokes? who are the aberdonians? the irish? the jews? the blondes?

  3. To me, your descriptions make Japan sound sexist. All the women are cute/feminine (do you just describe the cute ones?) and the men do the drinking/karaokeing. Would a woman be hired as a salaryman? Also, by sexist I include discrimination towards men, for example some jobs may be thought of as female.

  4. Also: Still a libertarian? You are stuck in your early twenties (graphs 1 and 3):

  5. Politics: Interesting link, some nice analysis there. However, as the site acknowledges, I think it would be quite fallacious to equate the political leanings of a cross section of ages in 2010 with the lifetime trajectory of a person born in 1982. Surely the former will have more to do with the political/economic climate the person grew up in, i.e. wartime austerity, post-war boom, sixties liberation, eighties yuppies, etc.

    But, in many other ways, it is very true that I am stuck in my early twenties. At best.

  6. Sexism: There probably is an element of selection bias in terms of me giving disproportionate prominence to cute chicks. More generally, this blog probably magnifies the differences between Japan and the West, since the similarities generally aren't interesting.

    There is a lot of pressure on everyone to act in a proper, socially acceptable manner. Individuality is celebrated in the West, but not so much here; anyone who dances to their own tune is seen as either an eccentric fool or potentially hostile. It is true that what is expected from men and women is slightly different (women should be more ladylike and refined) but I'd say it's all part of the wider culture of politeness.

    I would say that Japan's drinking culture is fairly gender-blind, probably more so than the UK's. Women chug back beer like students in Freshers' Week; you can be a respectable middle-aged or old woman and get mashed on a weeknight and no-one will bat an uncreased eyelid.

    I don't know much about the world of the salaryman, as there are a lot more farmers and shopkeepers than thrusting executives in rural Nanyo. I could imagine that the mega-corporations of Tokyo are full of glass ceilings and rampant sekuhara (sexual harassment), but I'm not really in a position to comment.

  7. Disclaimer: I have been nomunicating for the last several hours, so the following comments may not be the most measured, or indeed coherent.

    Dammit Adrianna, you're like a mind-virus. I'm now questioning whether everything I see is sexist. Is Hello Kitty sexist? That vending machine over there, is that sexist?

    At the enkai (drinking party) tonight, I was at a table of three men and four women. So far, so not sexist. But, the men were all drinking beer, while the women were all on the oolong tea. My atrophied sexist senses were tingling. One of the women was clearly pregnant, so maybe we should discard her from the dataset. The fact remains that at the end of the party all the women scurried off back to their families, and I found myself on a minibus full of smashed male civil servants heading for a snack bar. I was forced to conclude that somewhere along the line, some sexism had occurred.

    I think I've maybe been a little too keen to defend Japan in this instance. This is partly because I don't want to be too rude about my hosts on the blog, but mainly because, as a culture shock coping mechanism, I've been trying to focus on the positives and gloss over the negatives. So yeah, maybe there are some sexism issues here.

    1. it! so rape games are not sexist,japan hight rates of pedhofile crimes are not sexist! womens´sexual exploitation,lower salaries are not sexist!japanese women love to be treated in that way! it´s all cultural shock!! I wonder what you would say about my country,in Latin America..probabily the same: we latin women love to be bad treated by macho-men,we love to be exploited in prostitution by sexual tourists,it´s all our culture!! wow! and you wpon´t be able to say anything to not affend the "poor men" and their right of treating us in that way! wow!

    2. A barely coherent diatribe on a 3 year old post doesn't really warrant a response, but I guess I'm just excited to get my first hater!

      - Rape games do indeed exist, and they are really creepy. But these are hardly mainstream fare; I don't think you can judge a nation on what a tiny minority of perverts get up to. Also, I doubt they actually cause anyone to go out and rape, considering that the majority of mainstream AAA releases in the West could be described as "murder games".

      - Does Japan actually have higher rates of child sex abuse than other places? I imagine it would be a very difficult thing to measure reliably, but I'd be genuinely interested if you have some data on that.

      - I'm not sure what you're referring to as "womens' sexual exploitation". Are we talking about comfort women here?

      - I'm no expert on this, but I'm pretty sure men and women doing the same job get paid the same in Japan. Differences in earnings between the average man and woman don't necessarily mean that anyone has been discriminated against.

      I don't know anything about sexual (in)equality in Latin America, so I wouldn't comment on it.

  8. How can Hello Kitty be sexist??!! Don't they have Dear Daniel and My Melody?? No one puts Hello Kitty in a corner...

  9. Well, in East Asia the generic impression of the level of sexism is Japan>Korea>China, and it is not just stereotype.

    1. sure man,i can´t understand why so many westerners,specially women(!! where are the female solidariety,ladies??)denay it!That prooves we women are responsible for this too,much more than feminists think!