Hina-matsuri: on feminism in Japan

Today is hina-matsuri (雛祭り), otherwise known as Girl’s Day. As per tradition, if you were strolling around Japan you’d see tiered arrangements of dolls in shop windows. The placement orders are strictly prescribed – but what else did you expect?

Food-wise, this is the time for drinking shirozake (fermented rice booze) and candies and crackers in pretty pink, white and green colours. But it’s also a good time for thinking about what it means to be a girl in Japan.

I lived in Osaka for a year, where I taught English in all manner of state schools from special needs junior high to the Japanese equivalent of a pretty elite grammar school. As you usually do with a bunch of 16-year-olds learning future tense, you eventually end up talking about what they want to be when they grow up. Having gone to a girls’ grammar school myself, I expected answers like ‘doctor’, ‘solicitor’, ‘journalist’. What I got from my sixth-formers was several instances of ‘wife’.

These girls were in the minority but they were also smart, well-educated and learning a language that would open a lot of doors for them. It was shocking but my eyes gradually got more agog with debate lessons on housework where there were many allusions to how keeping home is a woman’s job. Cultural understanding shoved firmly to one side, I ended up turning conversation class into the occasional motivational speaking session.

What’s interesting about Japanese feminism and gender roles is that there’s nothing religiously prescriptive saying that women should be one way and men another – it’s more or less entirely cultural. The idea of woman as caretaker and homemaker is at the heart of this and whenever you think of Japanese gender roles, you have to consider the entirely different attitude towards individuality that underlies everything. To start breaking moulds as a woman you begin to mess with complex networks of how we function – if you go to work, who’s going to look after not only the kids, but our ailing parents?

Japan is changing – divorce is becoming more common, more women work after marriage (hard to afford not to these days) and Japan is fairly up to speed on things like reproductive rights. However, it still feels like the Land that Feminism Forgot. And to add a little more into the mix, it didn’t have the backhanded semi-advantage of chivalry. In other words, you can get drunkenly groped but you can’t get a door held open for you.

I’ll happily being proved wrong, but aside from stunted ambition I was also alarmed by the fact that a woman’s sexuality is still not her own. A lot of the stories from Western male friends revolved along a similar theme of take girl home, do the nasty, wake up in the morning to find she’s already done her make-up…and your laundry. Japanese lingerie is either cute or slutty – and you sometimes get the sense the same perception applies to the women who wear it. The highly disturbing rape-based nature of Japanese pornography seems to back this up. (Seriously though, a wander around a porn shop with some girlfriends turned from being a giggle to wanting to cry). I disagree with pornography, but it makes you miss the Western stuff where at least she pretends to enjoy it.

Then again, if you looked at the men’s mag section in WHSmith’s you would be forgiven for thinking that Britain was no different. There are amazing women in Japan forging paths and putting up with an unbelievable amount of rubbish in order get the careers and relationships they deserve. But these women are still having to wait for a time when you’re not expected to pour the drinks for your male colleagues.

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