A friend asked me today how women are treated in the Japanese culture. And it brought me up short, because I’d never even considered that question seriously. It’s funny, because most of my exposure to Japanese culture has been J-pop, and a through that, a couple of hundred young women and girls. So you’d think the question would be on my mind, but it actually wasn’t.
The problem with that question, though, is that anyone from America who tries to answer that question, though, including me, is going to do so through a western lens. And the problem with that western lens is that we in the west go through hoops upon hoops trying to reconcile irreconcilable positions. Many in my culture believe in multiculturalism (all cultures are equal) and at the same time think that human rights in cultures such as Japan are backwards. Those are not two beliefs that you can hold at the same time without some cognitive dissonance. There are also beliefs many of us hold around gender, etc., that are just as irreconcilable. So whichever belief holds supremacy is the view from which we will look at the Japanese culture – and two people, even side by side, could see the same thing (such as “maid cafes”) and see it either as empowering or demeaning, or even maybe both at the same time.
So if I were to look at it from a western viewpoint, I don’t have a good answer. I think it is true that most Japanese are not feminist in the western sense of the word, and I think they have a very different sense of gender roles and sexuality, one that may not be even compatible with a western sense of feminism. Their culture is very purity oriented, as purification is very important in Shinto, so it makes sense that they would put a value on purity that we in the west don’t. Their culture also puts a great deal more value on the health of the collective than on the individual, where I think it’s defensible to say that western feminism puts more emphasis on the rights of the individual.
I think many in the west would consider Japanese culture regressive, though. I don’t, really, but then I’m not really a feminist, at least not by the more recent definitions of the word. I think in some ways they treat women (and people in general) poorly, and in some ways they have attitudes that I think we have lost at our peril (one parent at home with the children, for example, and divorce being less common). As with everything in a culture, there is good and bad.
Japanese culture will, though, start to have to actually address this issue, though. As their birth rate continues to decline, they are going to have to start opening up their gates to foreign workers just so that they can keep their country running, and with foreign workers come foreign attitudes and morals. It’s then, I think, that we’ll discover what they can give up and what is important to them. I hope they choose wisely.
More wisely than we have, anyway.