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

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