The Cultural Limits of Japanese Feminism

06.16.16
Toshihiro Gamo
World News /16 Jun 2016
06.16.16

The Cultural Limits of Japanese Feminism

What is a “comfort woman”? Late last year, the Japanese and Korean governments ended negotiations over a fund which the Japanese government would pay to South Korea over Japan’s use of “comfort women” during World War II. One striking detail of these negotiations and the media coverage of them is the usage of whitewashed terminology. Comfort women is an easier way to say “sex slaves.” It also absolves Japan of addressing what actually happened, a troubling pattern for a country that already has major issues in the realm of gender equality.

Why is gender equality so obviously missing in Japan? One would typically assume that a country which is progressive on gun laws, and healthcare would be similarly progressive in the realm of gender, but all is not well in the land of the rising sun. Feminism has a long history in the nation, dating back to the 1930s when Shidzue Kato worked as an agitator, advocating for greater access to birth control for women, for whom manual labor was incredibly common at the time. It could be argued that Kato and women like her have made tremendous strides, as women in Japan did gain greater access to birth control, although they still do not have easy access to quality birth control. While condoms are in widespread use in Japan, it still remains difficult to acquire oral birth control, with doctors often only prescribing one month of low doses at a time.

The second wave feminist movement in Japan began to gain steam about 40 years ago, and feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno has been one of the women’s movement’s foremost activists and scholars. So what has 40 years of feminism accomplished in Japan? To use her own words, Ueno sadly notes that this question is in fact embarrassing and responds that, “We struggled, fought, but unfortunately, were incapable of making a real change.” These are powerful words from a respected figure that highlight the need to change hearts and minds on the gender issue in Japan.

The endurance of the Japanese people is deeply intertwined with their culture. This somewhat stoic ideal of being able to endure the worst situations without complaining or making a scene is central to the idea of strength and morality, even in contemporary Japan. The unfortunate truth is that this ideal can be subversive in the way that it causes people to view sexual violence against women. In no example is this more clear than when examining the problem of sexual harassment on commuter trains.

In the early 2000s the Tokyo Metro Police Department worked with the East Japan Railway Company to survey women about their experience on the trains. A full two-thirds of women reported that they had been sexually assaulted (groped) while riding the crowded trains. This statistic is shocking enough, but to consider that Japanese women historically do not report these incidences and we are left with an epidemic that has no end in sight. In a culture where it is considered shameful to “make a scene,” there is little room for women to speak out against harassment and assault, even while it is happening.

Recognizing the severity of this problem, Japanese train companies began to institute women only cars, with various rules, typically mandating that the cars be used only for women during the most crowded hours. While many lauded this change as providing a safe space for women, this should be viewed as a temporary solution to a long term problem. These cars were implemented in 2005, and a full ten years later, nothing further has been done to mitigate sexual assault on trains.

It could in fact be argued that these all female train cars are a step backwards and any good student of American history is likely having flashbacks to the segregation movement at this point. It’s time for the Japanese government and train companies to recognize what others have known for years: separate but equal is not ok. For these separate train cars to be viewed as anything other than a stop gap measure on the road to a more equitable solution is a travesty of gender equality.

Unique “solutions” like these have been employed in other areas of Japanese society as well. Recently, cell phone manufacturers were required to program all camera phones in Japan with a mandatory audible shutter noise, in a move that was meant to crack down on men taking inappropriate pictures of women in public areas.

Unfortunately this is hardly the limit of institutional level gender inequality in Japan. When considering the picture of Japanese labor, women have made tremendous strides in joining the workforce, but as a whole are still only symbolically supported by the Japanese government in their bid for equal standing. In 1985 the Japanese government passed the Equal Employment Opportunities Bill, which was meant to eliminate barriers to female professional level employment and punish companies that discriminate against women.

The only problem with this bill is that it is completely unenforceable in terms of punishment and is entirely symbolic. An analysis of women’s place in the workforce in Japan in fact shows that the gender pay gap is one of the largest among developed nations. According to OECD data from 2013, the median working male earns 26.6% more than the median working woman. As highlighted by Chizuko Ueno in a lecture at the University of Chicago, almost two-thirds of working Japanese women are referred to as “temporary” or “irregular” workers. This means that they have no standing within the company that they work for and can be eliminated at will.

Given the declining Japanese population and the growing need for labor, the top priority of the Japanese government should be to create a more inclusive workforce for both genders, but with female representation in the Diet consistently hovering under a dismal 10%, it seems unlikely.

“Omotenashi” is a Japanese word that was highlighted recently when the Tokyo Olympic bid was officially accepted. It is a complex word that speaks to the heart of the Japanese people, their hospitality, hard work and general inclusiveness of foreign guests. As we approach 2020, and Japan will once again be placed in the world’s sights, it is high time to expand this concept of generosity to include the women of Japan.

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