Misogyny in Japan – an ALT’s perspective

When I heard about the incredibly sexist remarks that some members of The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly made towards Ayaka Shiomura, I had a feeling of déjà vu. Almost a year ago, I had read about the women in the Texas Legislature dealing with similar harassment. It was a sobering reminder that underneath Japan’s polite exterior lies the sinister misogyny that plague all of society today.

The news report and a series of posts from This Japanese Life about sexual harassment in Japan got me thinking about the misogyny I encountered as an ALT. Back then I was very oblivious to a lot of problems in society, namely the microaggressions and rape culture. Even though I called myself a feminist, I saw nothing wrong in the victim blaming rhetoric of the JET Handbook that This Japanese Life pointed out. My friends had dealt with worse, but I’ve come to realize that I had some pretty unpleasant encounters.

The creepiest was a guy named Hiro who had accidentally dialed my landline and decided he wanted to chat up this gaijin on the other line. I politely insisted that I didn’t know enough Japanese to tutor him in English. He asked for my cellphone number and then called me a liar when I gave out a random string of numbers. I finally just hung up on him and would do so anytime he called. When I asked an older male friend for help, he just told me to refuse the guy on the basis that I did not know Japanese. He didn’t really understand the anxiety I was feeling. I’ve never really talked about this because I felt stupid for not being more blunt, but you never know how a person is going to take that either.

I do think, however, that there is too much of a focus on being courteous and maintaining wa (social harmony). Following traditions is important when you’re a foreigner, but when the customs reinforce misogyny and you find yourself in physical or emotional danger, you have to fight. It’s something I wish they told us more in our JET orientations.

When it came to smaller things like the way I sat (cross-legged, which is how the men sit), I was very unapologetic about my tomboyish ways. My co-workers knew that I crossplayed and liked motorcycles, and I’ve always kind of wondered if that spared me from being told to help serve tea to male teachers. Of course, it could just be another incident where they had overlooked the gaijin. I also wonder what would have happened if I acted upon my desire to join the soccer club, which only consisted of boys.

Speaking of sports, my junior high school did have a girl on the baseball team. My fellow ALT was concerned about how she was treated, which I didn’t understand until it occurred to me that there could be a lot of bullying. As a far as I knew, she did well in the club. Likewise I had a tomboy sixth grader who stated that she wanted to be a farmer. It was refreshing to hear considering how strongly established gender roles were at such a young age.

The lesson about occupation names was one of the few chances I could instill a bit of feminism into my students. I would always point out that there were female firefighters and male nurses (“doctor” and “nurse” were especially confusing terms). It’s not that small-town Japan doesn’t have female firefighters or doctors, but it’s less common and there’s the flipside of pointing out that there’s nothing shameful in being a male nurse or pastry chef.

I don’t have solutions on how to deal with harassment or sexism, but I do know that the small opportunities like slipping in lessons to combat gender stereotypes will help make a difference. Even though we had to maintain wa, we can still combat misogyny in little ways. I remember a fellow ALT who advised us to insist that we are from a different cultural background in sticking up for ourselves, and sometimes establishing that difference is the key. Trying to figure out when to turn the other cheek or to speak out is not easy. However, we can’t let misogyny in Japan or anywhere else (because sexism Japan is really bad… but America is pretty awful too) bring us down. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, and if we focus on that and push the ones we can influence in that direction, the world would be a better place.

Listening to: “Seishun no Matataki” by Ringo Sheena

Why I won’t tell you where to buy yukata anymore

My most popular post is “Where to buy yukata”?  Nowadays, instead of pride, I feel guilty.  As I’ve gotten more socially aware, I have realized that it is no longer my place to supply this information.  Since I am not Japanese, I am contributing to cultural appropriation, and that is not something I want to do.  I apologize to any individuals of Japanese descent for offending them.

Cultural appropriation is hard to define.  It’s often explained as borrowing or stealing of elements from one cultural by another, usually dominant one, but that ignores cultural exchange, which is not a bad thing.  As The Long Way home points out in this great article (a must read), “cultures aren’t tangible things that can only be possessed by one person.”  The issue with cultural appropriation is then the removal of culture out of the context that surrounds it.   You can’t just wear a yukata because you think it’s pretty.  That ignores the history of oppression faced by Japanese people and all the times they were forced to adopt a Western style of dress or get rid of any Japanese items.   It ignores the fact that Japanese kids get bullied for dressing different, that Japanese women are still fetishized (Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls and “Asian Girlz” anyone?), and that there are people who think that the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami was some sort of divine retribution for Pearl Harbor or the fishermen killing dolphins (I knew a woman who believed in the latter).

Yes, it’s not fair that people have spoiled the opportunity for others to appreciate Japanese culture through clothing.  It’s also unfair that white men are the stars of samurai movies in the West and that Chinese actresses were cast in Memoirs of a Geisha.  Furthermore, there are other ways to appreciate a culture: learning a language, hosting an exchange student, attending a local festival, purchasing music and movies from that culture,  or (if you’re in Japan) taking classes in wearing kimono.  I’m NOT saying that you can’t wear a yukata or a kimono, but you have to really dig deep and think about why you’re doing it and you’re going to have to prepare for the stink faces that sometimes are a gut reaction (I give it to non-Chinese people who wear qipao outside of volunteering situations even if they are my friends).

There’s not a clear line between when a non-Japanese person can and cannot wear a yukata or a kimono.  Different Japanese people have differing opinions about it.  However, there are obvious things that you should not do, and I hope you can learn from the mistakes I made with yukatas and kimonos.

The first outfit was a costume based on an image of Nana Osaki in a robe (last photo in Nana 1st Illustration here).  It’s acceptable to wear kimonos and yukatas if you’re cosplaying a character at a convention, but you have to do it right.  Confusing a robe for a yukata/kimono is not doing it right.  Furthermore, my roommate picked out a brocade with a “very Chinese” (a Japanese co-worker’s term) design.  I should’ve said something, but I didn’t and I wound up making things worse by tying the obi in the front like Nana did with the robe.  Major fail.

The middle picture would not have been so bad if I hadn’t decided to stick a wig on it.  The JETs were invited to wear yukatas to our farewell party; that’s a perfectly good time to wear one.  Due to my problems with self-image and attention, I decided that I would stick a pink cosplay wig.  This Tumblr post describes why wearing cosplay outside of a convention is problematic.  I basically took an honor and selfishly stomped all over it.

If I had not learned my lesson, I again committed a horrific act of bastardizing a yukata via steampunk.  There’s a difference between making an outfit with components inspired by traditional Japanese clothing (like “kimono” sleeves or wa-lolita) and altering the original garment itself.  While there are Japanese steampunks who do alter yukatas or accessorize it in an atypical way (as non-Japanese steampunks who have the knowledge and the proper motivations to do the same), it is not my place to do so.

How about when it is okay to wear a yukata or kimono?  A safe bet is whenever you are invited to by Japanese people.  The photo below on the left was taken when our ALT music group was invited to perform and given the opportunity to rent kimonos and be dressed by a professional.  On the right, I’m being dressed by a Japanese friend from Sister Cities during our charity concert.  It was originally my idea to wear my yukata in order to attract attention towards our efforts to raise money for earthquake and tsunami survivors, as well as to celebrate the kindness of my co-workers in Miyagi who gave me the yukata.  My friend approved, and she’s actually asked to borrow it to let a Caucasian girl wear it to help promote our organization and its exchange program.
kimono photo 090621_14100001_zps515c8a10.jpg  photo 76f99f35-f8d7-4a6b-9e7f-369c61f91b93_zpseb754e6c.jpg

These are my opinions, and I’m still adjusting them with new information I receive.  I don’t have an answer to whether you can wear a yukata to a matsuri, like my “Where to Buy Yukata?” post encouraged.  The Tumblr post I had previously linked makes a good case for why it’s not a good idea.  I can’t prevent anyone from wearing a yukata, but if you do, please don’t put on awful “geisha” make-up (that’s the equivalent of blackface) and purchase it from a Japanese seller.  The least we can do is to support the original culture’s economy instead of buying non-Japanese kimonos and yukatas.  If you want another perspective, a good site is This is Not Japan.

Listening to: “Ibitsu” by the GazettE

2012 Japan-America Grassroots Summit

The photos have been sorted through, uploaded, and watermarked, which means I can finally make this long overdue post.  Before I do, I must announce to those who haven’t heard that Purple SKY will no longer be updated.  I’m currently looking for writing opportunities, and that may affect the content of this blog in the future.  I’ll keep everyone posted.  Now onto our regular schedule programming.

From August 28 to September 3, North Texas hosted a delegation of over 150 Japanese visitors for the 2012 Japan-America Grassroots Summit.  I’ve already written about the inspiration behind the Summit, the friendship between John Manjiro Nakahama and Captain William H. Whitfield.  The John Manjiro Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange and the Japan-America Society of Dallas/Fort Worth worked together with fifteen cities to give the visitors an unforgettable experience.

I wasn’t able to participate in the first day’s activities due to work, but the Summit got off to a great start with Japan-America Friendship Night at the Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays game.   Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, along with the rest of the team and gloops International, Inc., helped sponsor the Ishinomaki Little Senior team.  They were one of the three youth groups from Tohoku visiting through the TOMODACHI Initiative.  I’ve never really been a fan of baseball, but I definitely support the Rangers for  their kindness.

Wednesday night was the Opening Ceremony at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth.  A lot of big names were present, including many of the DFW mayors, a former ambassador to Japan, the Consul-General of Japan in Houston, and descendants of Commodore Matthew C. Perry (pictured below), Manjiro, and Captain Whitfield.  The Kesennuma youth group made a very touching presentation about surviving the tsunami.  Then the mood was lifted with barbecue and line dance lessons.
Opening Ceremony11 Opening Ceremony15

I found it odd that the food wasn’t labeled and had to instruct a couple of people on the purpose of gravy.  After overhearing one of the guests mistaking a jalapeño for some eggplant-like vegetable, I tried to do a bit of damage control.  Another thing I overheard was the bartender not understanding a boy asking for “cola”.  Somebody should have told them that in Texas, “coke” can mean a lot of different things.

The visitors spent a little more time in Fort Worth before splitting up to the various host cities the next day.  I helped welcome Southlake’s ten-member delegation at city hall before accompanying them on a tour of the DPS. There was a retired fire chief in the group so it was interesting to hear from him what was different about American firefighters and fire stations.
Thursday13 Thursday17

That evening, the city held a reception where two of the visitors performed a traditional Japanese dance.  Since I knew one of the dancers (I met her while I was a JET and my family was hosting her), I wound up getting recruited to assist them in teaching everyone.  I was nervous, but I had some kids from one of the host families by my side and even the mayor wound up jumping in.

There was an after party at a Southlake Sister Cities member’s house.  They attempted to do karaoke, but it didn’t really work.  One of the visitors, an old monk who had been soaking up every minute of the Summit, did sing the Japanese version of “Tennessee Waltz” a capella.  The guy knew how to live life to the fullest.

Friday began with an optional tour of Central Market.  We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant that also served ramen.  I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan of this idea because while I personally don’t like Tex-Mex, it is a huge part of Texas.  Our visitors seemed to want a taste of home, but I don’t think anyone was really impressed by the meal.  I took the rest of the day off since I had no interest in going across the metroplex to attend a high school football game even if it was the first game at a new $60 million stadium.

On Saturday, we met up with a couple other host families for a big American breakfast.  Then all the Southlake hosts and guests drove two hours to Morgan Creek Ranch in Corsicana.  The owner of the ranch opened the place up for our group and the one in Irving.  Although I wasn’t thrilled about the drive and the heat, I had a good time.  There were all sort of the things you could learn and do, like horseback riding, ATVing, lassoing, or feeding the animals.
Saturday12 Saturday27

The ranch hands also put together a cutting demonstration (cutting is an equestrian event based on the ability to separate a cow away from the herd… hey, I wound up learning things about “Texas culture”).  By the end of the day, I was wishing we could’ve hung around longer to try out more things, but we had to get ready for our last day with the guests.

The Closing Ceremony was held at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.  I liked how the setting provided a foil to the Opening Ceremony, as Dallas is more urban and Fort Worth is reminiscent of the Old West.  In addition to a bunch of speeches, there were performances by the SMU Belle Tones and the Gyozan-ryu Mitobe Shishi-Odori Preservation Group.
Closing Ceremony08

Members of the delegation from Shimane also took the stage to introduce their prefecture, which would host the 2013 Grassroots Summit.  After a completely unnecessary introduction of the Dallas Arts District (guests and host families alike were falling asleep), we got to explore some of the nearby museums.  Something also worth noting was that the visitors’ hotel was across the street from AnimeFest so a couple of people expressed both surprise and amusement at the sight of cosplayers walking around.

The Japan-America Grassroots Summit was a fantastic experience.  It did come at a bad point in time for me so I regret not being as sociable.  I found out that I’m better at talking to people younger than me probably due to my experiences as a JET.  In any case, everybody had a good time. I definitely recommend volunteering for the Summit if it ever is in your neck of the woods.

For the rest of the photos, click here.

Listening to: “Blues Drive Monster” by The Pillows

The Legacy of John Manjiro and Captain Whitfield

Araaa, where did September go?  It was a crazy month with the Japan-America Grassroots Summit, starting a new job, and some other events that kept me away from blogging.  Not to mention I had hundreds of Summit photos to edit before I could make a post.  In the middle of my editing, I realized that the majority of my readers probably don’t know the inspiration for the Summit exchange program.  It’s a really interesting story that gets overlooked in the history books.

In 1841, the John Howland, a whaling ship led by Captain William H. Whitfield, rescued, five members of a Japanese fishing vessel marooned on an island in the Philippine Sea.  One of the castaways was fourteen-year-old Manjiro.  As the other men learned about whaling, Captain Whitfield taught Manjiro about American customs, such as maintaining eye contact, and ideals, such as equality.  Manjiro’s shipmates chose to disembark on the nation of Hawaii while Manjiro went with the rest of the crew to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, making him the first Japanese person to set foot on American soil.
img04_2, From the John Manjiro-Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange (CIE) website (From CIE website)

Manjiro adopted the name “John Manjiro” and completed schooling in America.  He lived and worked on Captain Whitfield’s farm.  With a desire to see his mother and open Japan to exchange, a 24-year-old Manjiro used the money he earned from the Gold Rush to buy himself a boat.  He reunited with two of his fellow castaways in Hawaii before heading for Japan.   Because Japan’s isolationist policy made leaving the country punishable by death, their journey home was a risky one.  He and his friends made it all the way to Tosa before being interrogated by officials.

In October of 1852, Manjiro finally returned to his home in Nakanohama.  The reunion with his mother was brief, as he was called back for more questioning.  However, he was able to spread the knowledge he gained while being a teacher.  Around this time, he adopted the surname Nakahama.

The following year, Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan to put an end to the country’s isolationism.  Manjiro helped interpret and negotiate for the Shogun, and eventually the Convention of Kanagawa was signed.  Manjiro continued working for the Shogun and teaching people about whaling and American culture.

He returned to the U.S. as a member of the 1860 delegation to San Francisco.  In 1870, he traveled to the Europe and on his way back home, stopped by Fairhaven where he reunited with Captain Whitfield.  The friendship that lasted almost thirty years between the two passed on through their descendants.  171 years and seven generations later, the Nakahama and Whitfield families still maintain the bond through communications and visits.
Opening Ceremony12Robert Whitfield, fifth generation descendant of Captain Whitfield, and Aya Nakahama, sixth generation descendant of John Manjiro at 2012 Grassroots Summit Opening Ceremony

In 1990, the Manjiro Society was founded to promote mutual understanding and friendship between America and Japan.  The first Grassroots Summit took place a year later.  In 1992, the John Manjiro Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange (CIE) was founded to oversee the annual Summits, which alternate between taking place in Japan and America.  Every year, a member of the Nakahama family and a member of the Whitfield family passes a globe to one another. It’s a symbol of the continuous exchange and friendship that many Americans and Japanese are able to experience thanks to John Manjiro and Captain Whitfield.
Closing CeremonyRobert Whitfield and Aya Nakahama’s daughter at the 2012 Grassroots Summit Closing Ceremony

“Capt. William H. Whitfield and John Manjiro Nakahama: A Friendship for Many Lifetimes” – Waxahachietx.com
“Introducing John Manjiro”  by Prof. Tetsuo Kawasumi – The Manjiro Society
John Manjiro-Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange

Listening to:Fukan Show” by BIGMAMA

Flashback con report: Neko Neko Maid and Host Club interview

With A-kon 22 quickly approaching, I thought I would post some unpublished material about last year’s A-kon. My first flashback con report is an interview with two members of the Neko Neko Maid and Host Club. They will be making an appearance again at A-kon, as well as at Houston’s Comicpalooza this weekend.

Neko Neko Maid and Host Club (originally the Neko Neko Maid and Hostess Club) is a traveling maid troupe that makes appearances at anime conventions across the country. Unlike most anime con maid cafes, which consist of cosplayers serving food, Neko Neko brings the interactive experience integral to Akihabara maid culture to its guests. The girls (and guys) make small talk and play games with guests and sing and dance to J-pop songs. I met up with one of its founders and maid leader Kitti Maherin and maid assistant Minami to learn more about the club.

How did Neko Neko get started?

Kitti: We formed on July 4, 2009. It started as four girls who enjoy maid cafes. When I went to Japan, I fell in love with the maid café I visited in Akihabara.

What made you decide to focus on the performance aspect rather than serving food in cosplay like other maid cafes at conventions?

Kitti: I enjoy performing, and it was a low cost option.

Who decides on the music you dance and sing to?

Kitti: The maid leaders and assistants choose the music. Miki, our choreographer and another founder, has a lot of input.

How long do you practice your dances?

Minami: It depends on the dance.

Kitti: I practice every day.

Right now, themed cafes are very popular in Japan. Have you ever done themed events?

Minami: Yes!

Kitti: [2010’s] is “20Tengoku”. “Tengoku” means “heaven” in Japanese so our maids have been wearing angel wings. I’m a fan of word puns. The theme we’re planning for 2011 is fairy tale.

Have you ever considered moving Neko Neko outside of conventions and starting up your own business?

Kitti: We would like to do that one day. Right now, we’re planning an independent event.

Where is everyone from?

Kitti: Minami is from Arizona, and I’m from California. We’re based in California, but we have branches in other states.

Where do you get the funding for travel?

Kitti: We hosted a couple of small events in restaurants in Little Tokyo. However, most of our funds come out of our pockets.

I noticed that there is a male host in your club’s website.  Are you planning on having more male members?

Kitti: Yes we are. Right now we have five potential hosts at A-kon. They audition by shadowing the maids to get an idea of how the club works.

What do the hosts wear?

Kitti: They each have their own style, like some will do J-rock, but they all have a standard butler uniform.

What do you look for in auditions?

Kitti: People who are compassionate and have a good personality. Dancing and singing skills are a plus, but you don’t have to be good at it since we’ll teach you the basic dances. The most important thing is personality. [Author's note: Neko Neko is currently looking for prospective maids and hosts in Houston/Galveston and New Orleans for Oni-con and Mechacon.]

When you’re working as a maid, do you assume a persona or is it part of your personality?

Minami: In the beginning, I switched into a persona. We had people make characters.

Kitti: It’s become a part of me. After doing it many times, I find myself becoming naturally more bubbly and charming.

Maid cafes often get a lot of criticism. What is your response to those who say that maid cafes promote subservient roles for women?

Kitti: We do serve, but no one is making us do this. You know the princesses at Disney Land? I see us as doing the same thing: helping people have a good time.

Minami: We have fun doing it.

Have your customers at A-kon been mostly men or women? Or a mixture of both?

Minami: We have a lot of men, but the hosts have brought in more women.

Lastly, what does the word “moe” mean to you?

Kitti: Moe is a feeling of adoration. It means “blooming” in Japan and that is the feeling you get in your chest. When something is moe, it makes you go “ahh.” [Holds her hands over her heart.]

Thank you to Kitti and Minami for taking the time out of their busy con schedule to do this interview.

For more information on the Neko Neko Maid and Host Club and a schedule of appearances, go to http://nekoneko.makesmehappy.net

Special note: Recently one of the club’s members was in a car accident. Although she didn’t sustain any major injuries, the maid uniforms, props, and decorations in the trunk were destroyed. Neko Neko needs your help in recovering what was lost. The club is accepting donations through May 25 at Kitti’s maid page.


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