The Japanese national identity: the barrier to gender equality

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

Japanese identity has been becoming increasingly debated over the past few years. Recent conflicts over Japan’s colonial past, such as the Islands dispute and comfort women, have been exacerbated by the embracing of an old-fashioned Japanese identity by nationalist Prime Minister Abe. Abe’s politics hearken back to an imperial glory of traditional Japan. Yet at the same time, the Japanese government is attempting to tackle the poor state of gender equality. Unfortunately, the stronger the Japanese traditional identity is, the weaker the already ailing fight for women’s rights becomes due to the passive image of womanhood often promoted by traditional Japanese culture.

Abe has called for “a departure from the postwar regime” and stated his intention to “bring back Japan. The removal of Western political influence with the focus on traditional Japan is not unpopular. Japanese identity is based on its history and traditions. According to a 2003 survey, between 25.9-36.2% of people (depending on age group) considered “respecting Japanese traditional culture” an “important criteria [in] making a person Japanese”. Yet while these traditions enshrine Japanese culture, they also enshrine a regressive attitude to women.

One of the most popular aspects of traditional culture is the festivals. Every March 3rd, families with daughters take part in Hinamatsuri, or Girls’ Festival. Dolls representing the imperial court are displayed in the hope that a family’s daughters will grow up to be as beautiful and elegant as the Empress. However, they must be removed immediately afterwards; otherwise, the daughters will not get married. Peach blossoms, symbolising a woman’s delicacy and passivity, are also a recurrent theme.

It used to be paired with Tango no Sekku, or Boy’s Festival, but in 1948 Tango no Sekku was renamed as Kodomo no Hi, Children’s Day, and made a national holiday. Yet Children’s Day is merely Boy’s Festival with a different name; daughters are not celebrated on this day. Boys fly carp kites, because unlike the peach blossoms that are carried downstream, the strong carp swims upstream.

While Boys’ Festival celebrates strong masculinity, Girls’ Festival celebrates the woman who is passive, delicate, beautiful, and soon to be married. This woman does not inconvenience men: she does not require a national holiday, so male-run businesses can remain open, nor does she complain that Children’s Day is still only Boy’s Festival.

Admittedly, Japanese identity is also partly constructed by its modernity—yet often this modernity merely reconfigures traditional culture. While geisha and maiko are becoming rarer, maid cafes are thriving. At a maid cafe, a predominantly male clientele is served by women dressed as maids. The maids talk to the guests, and also dance and sing as entertainment. It’s not sexual; most of the people who go are just lonely, and there are strict behavioural rules enforced. The maids are essentially geishas for a modern audience who have an inclination for anime. The motif of woman-as-entertainment, with her real identity, thoughts, and wants subsumed by her costume and role, has continued.

Presenting women as convenient, gentle, and devoid of personality or wants is problematic—especially when we consider the state of gender equality in Japan. The Global Gender Gap Index ranked Japan at 104 out of 142 countries. Although the saying that ‘a woman is like a Christmas Cake; after the 25th (year), nobody wants her’ is now outdated, it’s still common for a woman to consider herself too old to find a husband. In 2010, Takemaru wrote about the term urenokori, unsold merchandise, being used for women in their thirties. This makes the warning against leaving dolls out too long so your daughter gets married in time much more concerning. Furthermore, in a country where only 6.2% of women hold management positions in the private sector, less celebration of female passivity would perhaps be beneficial. To put this in perspective, a third of management jobs in the U.K. are held by women (not that this is a statistic to be proud of).

More disturbingly, this is a country where 20% of porn is rape porn. While there is a low crime rate that has fallen for 11 years in a row, reported rape remains high—despite tighter definitions of rape than in the UK and a legal loophole stating that if a man doesn’t realise it’s rape, it’s not a crime. A WHO-funded global survey determined that 7.2% of women worldwide had experienced sexual assault from a stranger in 2010, yet found that the figure was up to 16.7% for women in Japan. In 2014, while robbery decreased by 5.2% and murder decreased by 8.8%, sexual assault increased by 13.7%.

In an attempt to counter this issue, there are designated female-only carriages on the trains. Unfortunately, when men board them, no-one complains. In fact, it’s more common for men’s rights groups to complain about the inconvenience of these carriages. Even more striking is the presence of posters encouraging women to say something when they are assaulted; there is a disturbing trend of women remaining silent as a stranger molests them on the train. So surely it is time to see women as possessing wants, and to stop encouraging daughters to be passive? Surely it is time to say that women inconveniencing men by demanding safe areas are respected is a good thing? Women in Japan need to speak up more, regardless of whether their words are convenient.

Yet under a Prime Minister who in 2007 attempted to silence the claims of inconvenient women, it’s hard to imagine these attitudes changing. As part of his return to the idea of a pre-Treaty of Peace Japan, Abe tried to rewrite history by stating that there was no evidence that comfort women were forced into prostitution, causing international outrage and anguish for many living survivors. While Abe’s ‘Womenomics’ is to be admired for finally encouraging women to work—now that it’s convenient for the Japanese economy—he still believes he can sweep aside inconvenient accusations of sexual violence to promote images of a glorious traditional Japan.

If the Japanese government want to promote gender equality, they need to move away from traditional ideas of womanhood that promote gentle passivity—even if that means negotiating the role of traditional culture and identity.

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Tanya Newton 11 Articles
After studying English Language and Literature at King’s College London, Tanya moved to Japan where she teaches English. She loves to read and write, and loves tea almost as much. She is strongly interested in cultures and social structures.

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