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JAPAN IN TRANSITION

Sexism remains a rampant social disease

by Roger Pulvers

I am fortunate to be able to count among my relatives a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter. Felix, appointed to the court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a cousin on my mother’s side of the family and, needless to say, far removed from me in age.

Cousin Felix was renowned for many landmark decisions, but few people today may know his role in determining whether a particular book, picture or photograph was obscene or not. Anything “that gave Felix an erection,” in short, was deemed pornographic.

Now during his early years on the court, when he was still a relatively young man, even the most vaguely racy turn of phrase or image could get a rise out of him. But as time passed, an aging Cousin Felix would stare for long moments at a photo and say, “No, this one is fine by me.”

Thus was the liberalization of a country’s obscenity laws built into the body, as it were, of American law, thanks to Felix Frankfurter’s simple rule of thumb.

Each era in any country brings changes to the confines of the acceptable and the offensive, and each generation adapts to new freedoms or new restrictions, constantly judging them and extending or retreating from the definitions of the past. Traditionally the Japanese, despite their strict moral code governing male-female relations, have been relatively free of the kind of Puritan inclinations that have fettered such matters in the Judeo-Christian world. Japanese people may be coy, shy and not prone to public displays of affection, but they are not, on the whole, prudes. Japanese art and literature abound in unrestrained, erotic and often most amusing sensual and sexual encounters. Before the Meiji era, which began in 1868, the Japanese attitude toward our bodily functions may be said to have been most refreshing, if at times hyperbolic and gloriously grotesque.

Men, of course, have always been rather free to express their desires, and this has resulted in a largely exploitative, genitally driven culture of sex. Without the legal restrictions or social stigma connected to the depiction of women in a demeaning manner, the Japanese male mainstream, inspired by a corporate culture that itself overly emphasizes male bonding values, has created a nightmare scenario for women: either play the demure, submissive type and put up with the degradations of being treated as a passive sex object; or feel free to let it all hang out, give of yourself aggressively and be treated as an active one.

Popular weekly news magazines, with few exceptions, publish sex-object photographs of women — some of them depicting women bound or chained — and articles that present women as rampantly sex-starved individuals desperately seeking satisfaction. Many cartoons in the press feature unashamedly randy middle-class men, a popular type. Of course, the cartoonist may be striving to ridicule men for their infantile behavior. But are such cartoons a genuine send-up, or are they merely reinforcing and condoning the trappings of a crude and unsubtle male attitude?

Programs on daytime commercial television can freely degrade women, particularly overweight women, who may be forced to undergo various physical hardships in the studio. Popular variety programs on nighttime television deliberately hire women of limited intelligence who often make breathlessly inane comments, showing up the men of equally limited intelligence in a favorable light. Would, I wonder, the media get away with such blatant discrimination if the people in question were not women but members of minority groups or the disabled?

The corporate-media establishment of Japan certainly condones the most awful treatment of women as part and parcel of its self-serving culture. Emphasize male posturing, a fanatic commitment to company welfare over family concerns, an often ludicrous separating in spirit and practice of what is considered “serious” male preoccupations over “frivolous” female needs and what you are left with is a gap between men and women in this country of formidable proportions.

From the very first months after my arrival in Japan in 1967, I was struck by what virtually all Japanese people called “the man’s world” and “the woman’s world.” It was assumed — and I think it still is to a surprisingly large degree — that men and women have diametrically opposed social views, and that, come what may, true collaboration of the two in and outside the family is virtually impossible. This is why men rarely discuss their business affairs with their wives, and wives refrain from informing their husbands as to what is transpiring in the home.

Who is entertaining these notions now? Who is making the decisions in the media? Why is Japan being left behind the rest of the world in realizing that women demand equal treatment publicly and privately, that they will no longer tolerate degradation, subtle or not, or restrictions on their freedom of expression?

The upcoming generation of Japanese men is relatively free of the hideous prejudices of their fathers and grandfathers. Many companies are now coming around to more equitable practices, where no man is permitted to make personal remarks about a woman’s body or personal life during a job interview (this was not uncommon in the past). Sexual harassment is now gradually being taken seriously by the corporate culture, though the Japanese forced tendency to grin and bear it and to keep social and personal sin as private as possible often prevents victims from seeking rectification.

There is nothing wrong with free sexual expression by all adults in society, whatever their preference or persuasion. We can surely sit down beside dear Cousin Felix, whose yardstick for such matters grew more pliable with the times, and have a good look and laugh at ourselves with or without a stitch on. Redressing the bias of these awful, ingrown ills should not be an excuse for a return to prudery.

Japanese people, like any nation, will only realize their personal and national potential when men cease to use degrading images of women to enhance their corporate self-image and women are given the chance to transform and revitalize the ethical underpinnings of this society on their own terms.

There are many obstacles to equality in Japan — historical, social, economic, religious. But, to my mind, the greatest one is planted firmly in the male ego; and this must be uprooted before a true reformation can take place.

Then both sexes can jettison the heavy baggage of separate worlds, come together and take each other with an honest seriousness.

No human being asks for or deserves derision or humiliation. And that, sadly, is what the Japanese male-dominated corporate culture has dealt out to women for much too long.