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

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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For the rest of the photos, click here.

Listening to: “Blues Drive Monster” by The Pillows

Japan and Dallas Unity Concert by Fujisan Kaen Taiko

For me, taiko symbolizes power and unity.  The various drum beats come together to resonate through my body.  When I was an ALT, learning taiko gave me a way to connect with my students, as well as people in the neighborhood.  It opened up the gates of communication when words failed.  It also let me spend more time with my fellow ALTs when we had our music group.  In short, taiko has a special place in my heart, and I was thankful to experience it again when I saw Fujisan Kaen Taiko perform at the University of Texas at Dallas’ Clark Center.
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Founded in 1985, the group hails from Fujiyoshida, a city in the Yamanashi Prefecture that rests at the foot of Mt. Fuji.  The surrounding scenery serves as inspiration for their music.  Fujisan Kaen Taiko currently has 30 members, half of which are kids.  They have visited overseas five times, excluding their performance with their sister city of Colorado Springs that occurred right before they came to Dallas.  Member Machiko Kanda has local connections and helps with the UTD Mochitsuki New Year’s Celebration.  With her help, the UT-Dallas Asia Center and the Japan-America Society of Dallas/Fort Worth were able to bring to Dallas “Kizuna – Bonds of Frienship: Japan and Dallas Unity Concert” by Fujisan Kaen Taiko.

Kizuna – Bond of Friendship” opened the show, and immediately the passion and high energy of Fujisan Kaen Daiko was evident.   According to the concert program, “this piece was made with the idea that many people, connected by a strong bond, would come together as one to overcome the challenges we face today.”  A moving number, it set the tone for the rest of the night.
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Akafuji – Red Fuji” demonstrated the influence nature had on their songs while “Fujisan Kaen Taiko” was an amalgamation of pieces representing aspects of local culture, such as kagura (a form of Shinto dance) and yabusame (mounted archery).  It evoked the spirit of a matsuri (festival), particularly with the incorporation of flutes.

The youngest members of the group were featured in “Koyu – Taiko Play”.  The free rhythm gave them a chance to be creative, and individual solos allowed them to show off their skills.
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Fuji Raimei – Wind, Trees, and Thunder” was another powerful nature-inspired piece.  It was followed by “Etsuryu – The Flying Dragon”, which began a drummer in the center with his back toward the audience to show off the dragon on his outfit.  He would rise to strike the odaiko as though he were a dragon climbing towards the sky.  Fujisan Kaen Taiko concluded their performance with the spirited “Kenka Mikoshi – The Fighting Shrines”.
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For an encore, the group assembled in the lobby to play “Hayashi” and to let people try their hand at taiko.  The interactive experience eliminated the divide between performer and viewer, further highlighting the theme of unity.
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There are videos of Fujisan Kaen Taiko’s concert that others have uploaded onto Youtube.   While I encourage to check them out, there’s nothing that beats watching taiko live and being able to feel the rhythm of the drums.

More photos can be found in this set: Concerts.

Listening to: “Terpsichore” live by Strange Artifact

Coming Full Circle

Hisashiburi!  Sorry for disappearing again, but I was swamped with events and assignments, one of which is the subject of this post.  Last month, I got to help with hosting activities for a group of kids that included my former students.  It was a great experience, and I thought I’d write about what Sister Cities and JET have done for me.

My first trip to Japan (real trip and not an overnight layover) happened through the Southlake Sister Cities Youth Ambassador Program. Although 19 made me technically too old to be considered a “youth”, my parents managed to convince the organization to tag along with my brother and the other high schoolers. I was nervous because it would be the first time I’d be out of contact with my family for more than a couple of days. On top of that, my finger had gotten a horrible infection before the trip. It felt as though I was going to be on my own. That turned out to be not true at all.

My host family, as well as the individuals overseeing our trip, made me feel at home. I fell in love with Tome, which was large enough to have different things to do (like shop, learn kendo, listen to music at a pub) but small enough to experience the peaceful solitude of the countryside. One of the days I met an American woman who was an assistant English teacher. She encouraged the high schoolers who were eating lunch with us to speak English. I remembered that she came to Tome through the JET Programme, and I saw that as my ticket to return to Japan.
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I came away from the trip with new friends, better insight on Japanese life, and a greater love of cultural exchange. My parents also visited Tome with the Sister Cities adult trip, and the connection they formed helped me adjust to moving to Japan when I got accepted into the JET Programme. Most applicants don’t get to go to the city of their choice, but because of the relationship between Tome and Southlake, I got what I wanted. This time around, I would be an employee instead of a visitor. That gave me a whole new perspective on Japan.

I loved teaching my students about American life as much as I loved experiencing Japanese life. My biggest success was getting the second year elective class to write letters to my brothers’ friends and classmates back home. Despite the joys of facilitating cultural exchange, being an ALT wasn’t my calling. I probably should have realized that I wasn’t ready to step into the parent-like role of a teacher when I was more comfortable with my third grade girls calling me “oneesan” (“big sister”) than my kindergarteners asking me whose mom I was. There was much I still needed to learn about life, and thus after many tearful goodbyes to new and old friends, as well as my “kids”, I came home.
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I couldn’t quit teaching though, and that was how this blog got started. Even after moving, I remained connected to Southlake Sister Cities because I knew that it would allow me to see some of my students again and possibly return to Tome. However, I would have to be patient. The 2010 trip had been cancelled early on due to H1N1 concerns, and the following year was when the Tohoku earthquake struck.

Finally, last month, a group of high school students came to Southlake. Among them were two of my junior high students and one elementary student (whom I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t recognize and who gave no indication of recognizing me). I take no credit for their improved English skills, but it was rewarding to see how far they’ve come. While I got a brief taste of my former ALT celebrity status again, the focus was all on the kids.

When my parents hosted in the past, I was always away at college. This time I was able to help; I learned firsthand how much work hosting is. One of the days was devoted to activities with the family, and I was in charge of it. Being the fun oneesan is still a more comfortable role for me, but I sort of reverted back to my ALT duties of encouraging conversation at the youth party and keeping an eye on the reticent students for concerned host parents. At the party, my former junior high schoolers decided to turn the tables on me after finding out that their friends’ host sister had a Japanese textbook. They quizzed me on basic grammar, and I passed. I couldn’t help but think that things really have come full circle.
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Of course, I’m not going to be satisfied until I get a chance to go back to Tome again.

Listening to: “www.” by Alice Nine

Beneath the Layers – Mika

We go all the way to across the Pacific to find this month’s Beneath the Layers cosplayer (to check out my previous interview, click here).  Mika is a fellow assistant English teacher from northern Japan.  Although some know her as “Mikachu” or “Mallet Girl”, she typically opts to use her real name.  When she’s not busy with high schoolers or costumes, she enjoys dressing in Lolita and going to concerts.  Mika has frequented conventions and cosplay events in both the U.S. and Japan, giving her insight on what both cosplay communities can learn from each other.

NOTE: As this interview series aims to help banish harassment and bullying of cosplayers, any inappropriate comments made toward the interviewee or cosplayers in general will be deleted.

1. What is your favorite cosplay?

My MOST favorite cosplay may be Lady Asuka from Rayearth but that was worn ONCE and retired since it was heavy and long and had white fabric that I had to tell people not to step on.  Right now [the uniform from] Shuffle! may be my favorite since it is easier to wear.

2. What are the best and worst parts of being a cosplayer?

The best part about it is losing yourself in what you do: becoming that character for how many hours you are in said costume.

The worst part is making all the insane cosplay props. I am no good at them. I have super glued my fingers together before so not a fun part of making any prop or cosplay. I guess the cosplay-related injuries fall in the bad part.

3. What are some of the big differences between cosplaying in America and cosplaying in Japan

For me, I feel you get more respect in Japan at events than in America. People follow the rules for the most part and know when to back off. I tend to feel more comfortable in Japan since they do actually enforce the rules and regulations here whereas in America, it would have to be something big for it even got noticed.

Yuuka Kazami (Touhou Project)

4. What can cosplayers and photographers from each country learn from one another in terms of etiquette and attitude?

Oh a lot, but I will keep it short.  Ask permission to take a photo or anything else.  Do not touch the cosplay that someone is wearing and no jumping on people.  These all pertain to cosplay in the States.

One thing the Japanese cosplayers and photographers can take away is don’t be shy.  No one likes to be followed around waiting for another to ask for a photo. Just ask.  The worst that can happen is we say “no”.

5. Do you ever feel like you get treated differently as a foreigner at cosplay events?

Hell yes I do!  The fact that you stand out does not help.  Most of the time people are scared to talk to you because they don’t know if you will understand them.  I even had one guy pull out an iPhone and start talking through that until I spoke Japanese to him. I never think too much into it especially at tiny venues.  It’s not common for them to get many foreigners, let alone ones that really stand out.  Never been turned away or anything bad. I usually just get the deer in the headlights look and them looking mortified because they think I speak ZERO Japanese.

6. Why do you think there is this popular belief that Japanese cosplayers are better than others?

I guess it’s since most of them go all out when cosplaying. I have seen amazing Japanese cosplayers, but I have also seen really good foreign ones.  Also the fact anime comes from Japan could be why people assume that by default Japanese cosplayers will be the best.

7. Have you been sexually harassed, bullied, or discriminated against while in cosplay?  Please describe one or two incidents.

Bullied, no.  Sexually harassed, yes.  It’s sad that I push it off as a convention mentality. I tend to cosplay many things, but that does not make it a reason for anyone to touch you or even ask for sex.  I love many ero games and venture into the uniform realm, but dressing like a Bible Black character does NOT make it okay to touch me because I “should be in character”.  It NEVER makes it okay.

I guess that was the worst one in the States—being cornered by a fan after asking for a photo.  It’s fun to play around in character, but when you mistake me for that character and attempt to copy a scene from that show is when I draw the line.  Once my friends realized it was not a joke, I was more than happy to have them jump in and intervene and stop the unwanted roaming hands.

Japan is a bit better though depending on the photographer, harassment ends up being in the form of “Lean back this way or just move your skirt a centimeter or two higher”.  I would take that form of harassment any day compared to what I put up with in the States though I wish both could be eliminated.

Cirno (Touhou Project)

8. Do you have any stories of glomping gone wrong?

Yes. I had decided to break out a cosplay I have been working a year on, Lady Asuka from Rayearth—part hand-beaded monstrosity and massive amounts of fabric.  As fate would have it, another cosplayer from the series got a little too excited and pounced on me, causing me to lose a couple beads that took forever to find, and stepped on the white lower half, getting it dirty as well as ripping the back bow out.  I was so upset I only wore that costume once and retired it after that incident.

9. What can cosplayers do to protect themselves from harassment and bullying?

Be aware of your surroundings. Stay with friends and in a group you can trust if possible. This is to help the harassment issue.  NEVER change yourself or what you like doing. If you stop wearing what you like because of harassment, they have won. If you are bring bullied, inform a close friend or family member.

10. How can the relationship between cosplayer and photographer be improved?

By having a mutual agreement.  Photographers need to be more open with cosplayers. I know most pictures will end up on facebook and am fine with that.  I just like to know where I will be and have approval power over it ‘cause not all of us like 4-chan or want anything there.

11. What should conventions do to help prevent harassment and damage to costumes?

I guess no matter how many guards there are, it’s hard to help. Most places have a “no glomp” rule to prevent damage, but cosplayers need to be firm with telling anyone whether it’s okay to touch a costume since some people ignore the rules.

Harassment should be taken seriously.  If someone complains, check it out don’t just ignore it. Make it a known issue. If people know it happens and look for signs, maybe we can help by policing each other, being a tight knit community.

12. How do you feel about the idea that cosplayers should dress up as characters of their race, size, and overall appearance?

When people say you should only cosplay who you can pull off, I then usually tell them that if that were the case, no one could properly do it, not even the Japanese. How many naturally blonde, overly busty, and big blue-eyed Japanese girls are there?  Hell, I have seen some pull off a great Himemiya [from Utena] cosplay and none of them were tanned skin.  No one told me that I could not be a Sailor Scout because I was not pale. If it does not matter to the country that made anime, it should not matter to cosplayers.

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Multi (To Heart)

Cosplay is something done for fun and to make YOU happy. Don’t let your body type, race, age and everything else stop you from having fun. I plan to be doing this FOR YEARS and no one will rain on my parade!

13. In your eyes, when does a costume become inappropriate or in poor taste?

When there is too little clothing.  Kids will be at the cons; showing too much can be inappropriate. You can cosplay without showing all of your goodies.

14. What makes a cosplay stand out from others?

Being in character and presenting yourself right makes it stand out. I have seen many Yuki cosplayers from Haruhi Suzumiya.  When they are too bouncy and bubbly, I don’t remember them well, but when they are quiet and in character, I seem to remember them more. The costume helps, but the way someone carries themselves makes a big deal.

I say this because some cosplays are so simple say a simple white dress and a wig (Luka from the “Just Be Friends” PV).  Not many will know it, but if you borrow actions or personality, you will become much more memorable and maybe people will remember who you are cosplaying.

15. How has your life changed for the better as a result of cosplay?

Miharu Himenomiya (StepXSteady)

I have made many new and life-long friends from all over the world.  I may not be the best cosplayer and have seen so many amazing ones, but in the end, we all have this hobby in common.  It’s nice to know that other fun and crazy people like me exist and that once the con ends and you leave the Big Sight on the last day of Comiket, your phone will ring and you have a new friend who wants to get to know you as well as the cosplay you.

Even with all the bad that can and will happen, I would not change a thing. It’s hard to believe that a lot of my friends came out of small events or from a simple “Hey you’re cosplaying my sister! Let’s take a photo together” type of situation.  That’s what makes this hobby worth while!

16. Anything else you would like to tell the cosplay community or con-goers?

Have fun. Treat others how you would like to be treated.  Respect and a smile go a long way. We remember that, and the kinder you are, there is a high chance we will remember you.

どうも ありがとうございます Mika-sensei, for sharing your experiences and providing all the photographs (except the one of Multi).

Listening to: “Kimi no masshiro na hane” by exist†trace

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