Japan. We love this country. Millions travel to Japan everyday, enjoying its cuisine, sights, fashion, culture, everything. We know that Japanese people are all hardworking and courteous, always smiling and bowing whether you are buying a snack on the street or shopping at a grand department store.
As outsiders, we see Japan is the perfect country. All the hotels or apartments we stay in are pristine and beautifully designed. Their beauty products are high quality and cutting edge. Food in Japan is delicious, no matter a simple bowl of ramen or a Michelin starred restaurant experience. Their stationery is stylish yet functional. The world always looks out for Japan’s weird and funny commercials. The country introduces the most novel trends and the rest of the world follows. What more can one ask for?
But an underlying social issue is coming to light with the onset of feminist movements: Japan’s deep and persistent gender gap.
Japan has enacted legislation over thirty years ago to equalise opportunities for both men and women. However, Japan still ranked 121st out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s annual gender equality ranking in 2019.
This is reflected in Japan’s politics: women make up a mere 5.3% of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet. A government investigation in 2018 uncovered that the Tokyo Medical University (TMU) and other medical schools have tampered with the results of female applicants to bar them from entry when another study in 2019 concluded that the pass ratio of female applicants to TMU is higher than their male peers.
This doesn’t only apply to the political and medical sectors. More and more Japanese women are completing university degrees and the Japanese government continues to introduce national legislation to push for gender equality. But the gender gap in Japan still persists. Why?
An Outsider’s Perspective: Japan’s Traditional View of the ‘Family’
I am not Japanese myself. But having travelled to Japan countless times, I have developed a deep appreciation of their culture. Through retrospective realisation and further research I have formed an outsider’s perspective on Japan’s traditional views, which I feel is worth sharing.
If you casually wander through busy cities like Tokyo and Osaka, it is easy to pick up the Japanese view of a typical family. The man is usually the breadwinner, as seen by the mass of businessmen in suits and carrying briefcases during rush hour commute. When we see children on the street, we will see (or even, expect to see!) the woman as the main carer. Mothers gently tugging their children along as they run domestic errands around town, taking care of their elderly parents-in-law, tending to their every need et cetera, these are all common sights in Japan. It is clear that the patriarch leads his wife and children along during family outings.
‘The Angel in the House’: The Inherent Domesticity of Japanese Women
Japanese women rank highest in the world for things like personal autonomy, physical safety, education and health care. Yet, the traditional belief of how women are ingrained into family formation still prevails. Women with a mid to high-level status in the workforce are bound within this social construct. As soon as they get married or have children, women are expected to resign and leave their profession.
The interesting thing is that no one is imposing this on them. Japanese women aren’t considered helpless or incompetent in the household. Men and women are equally respected for performing their gender-specific roles well in the family. This is just their culture.
This social concept resembles the ideal woman in Victorian England. They think women are best suited to remain in the domestic sphere, and the ideal woman is lovingly dubbed ‘The Angel in the House’. Even though our views have far moved on since then, I cannot help but see some shades of it in what is still expected of Japanese women today.
Breaking the Stigma: Japanese Women Challenging the Status Quo
I can certainly go deeper into how things like language and history shape the gender gap in Japan. But the more important thing is to consider this: What can we do about it? Is it possible to shift such deep-rooted views? These questions all still need much discussion.
To me, ‘feminism’ is the belief that women are allowed to make their own informed choices about themselves. We shouldn’t condemn women for wanting to give up their careers to start a family. At the same time, society should not limit women with so-called ‘traditional roles’ if they want to do something completely different. We as women have the right to make our own choices, and that is the thing that I wish for everyone to take away from this.
To end, I want to introduce some Japanese women who are challenging the status quo. They are the ones who are truly empowering women in Japan.
Ito is a freelance journalist and filmmaker. She was a major figurehead of the Japanese #MeToo movement, because she accused prominent TV journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi of rape. Her outspokenness was a bold move, especially in Japan. She eventually won the lawsuit against Yamaguchi in 2019. She writes about her experience in the book Black Box (which won Freedom of the Press Award in 2018), and continues to advocate for women’s rights through her journalism and social media.
Watanabe is Japan’s most followed person on Instagram with over 9 million followers! She is precisely breaking the mould of the ‘typical’ Japanese woman, being a female comedian (a heavily male dominated industry) and a plus-size model. She is outspoken about body positivity and is constantly challenging the status quo with her continued success not just in Japan, but internationally (she was recently featured on Queer Eye!). Follow her Instagram to check out her quirky personality and all the exciting things she is up to.
Sawayama is an up and coming superstar! Aside from releasing good music and showing off her unique style on Instagram, Sawayama also speaks out about unrealistic beauty standards in Japan (and Asia in general). She has done a visual series on this issue with artist John Yuyi in 2016. She identifies as bisexual and pansexual, so she’s not afraid to talk about LGBTQ+ issues. No wonder she is one of the ‘Women of the Year’ in Vogue Japan in 2019! This girl is going places!