Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

An open letter to Japanese womankind

Advice on how to take the best parts of the stereotypes without becoming one yourself

by Kris Kosaka

To my shimai (sisters) out there:

I know it’s difficult to be you, a young 21st-century Japanese woman, raised in this sometimes shockingly patriarchal society. You are teetering between two worlds, the traditional and the modern, as if balancing in a gorgeously bound kimono on stiletto heels. Recently ranked 101 out of 145 countries for gender equality by the World Economic Forum — and that’s an improvement over recent years — Japanese women indeed face a dispiriting reality. You look at the world of women on offer, bold and beautiful and emblazoned across international media and wonder: Where do I fit in?

But don’t be fooled by billboards. Being a woman today insists on an ability to navigate treacherous, stereotype-infested waters, and not only on this side of the Pacific. Headlines constantly remind us about pay inequalities and unfair power dynamics. For every Taylor Swift success story there’s 1,000 Keshas struggling to cope. And with the race for America’s White House shaping up as a woman against a misogynist, the sharp juxtaposition of possibility and limitation cuts clearly. More than ever before, conflicting stereotypes muddle a woman’s identity. How dare we swim triumphantly without sinking? By embracing transparency, sisters — and I don’t mean by wearing a sheer bikini to get what you want.

Fighting any stereotype, like steering through murky waters, involves clear-headed knowledge of what lurks below. To see out International Women’s Month and celebrate the start of a new business year, allow me to cast some clear light on four stereotypes of womanhood, spanning both East and West:

1. You do not have to use your sexuality as a weapon.

Western women are more prey to this vicious social platitude: that by embracing and flaunting our sexuality, women are strong, empowered and deserving of respect, although the newest Rola poster campaign in Tokyo, “Have a Nice Body,” shows Japanese (wo)men are not immune to this ultimately reductionist stereotype. Third-wave feminism and the sex wars aside, it’s amazing how many women buy in, baring cleavage or thigh while deriding men who stare. Do we respect men with unbuttoned shirts to the navel, penis enlargement or tight pants across the pelvis?

But look beneath the sexy stereotype to celebrate a fundamental truth: Women have the right to desire. We do not exist merely for men and procreation. In fighting the “original sin” hypocrisy in the West and “submissive female” cliche of the East, to wear a low-cut blouse can sometimes feel like solidarity with Eve, so flaunt when it’s time. But there’s always a time.

Women, like men, must earn respect with their actions, not with their looks. Be sexy when life merits that choice, but do not spend too much time on beauty, losing the time to cultivate something more meaningful. Too often the people putting down women are women themselves, by dressing to please a sexual stereotype.

2. You don’t have to be cute or nice, except as a human.

From high socks to the rise and fall of TV personality Becky, Japanese women must plot their own course around the particular stereotype of “cute.” Cute can be very dangerous, as it panders to a minimizing, demoralizing view of women as perpetual girls, easy to sexualize in some warped fantasy for stunted men afraid of adult women. Apart from the deviant sexual appeal, the cute — or “nice girls” in the West — stereotype can also disparage intelligence and make “career ambitions” a dirty word.

Common sense should tell you that being the cute, happy housewife or the nice, gentle caregiver only works if authentic; but it can work. Don’t reject this stereotype completely, because cute also signifies something beautiful: a person who is valued for compassion and patience, nurturing and creativity, joy and fun — something far removed from physical looks.

Don’t throw out the nice part of nice. Kindness, patience, perseverance, humility — these are the hidden values of cute, and core values for any human, man or woman.

3. You do have some hard choices.

Mothers among us: We can’t have it all, and fathers can’t either, although biology allows them an exit strategy. If you decide to mate and create, choose a partner who will sit down with you and discuss child care and child-raising strategies, especially in Japan, where the options are limited and the work-life balance for both sexes is truly atrocious.

And this one’s particularly difficult, as occasionally men on both sides of the world will talk the talk while indulging in chauvinistic double standards behind hotel room doors. (Disgraced former lawmaker Kensuke Miyazaki deserves a special place in feminist hell).

But let’s face it, ladies, it’s tough all over. Balancing a career and family takes sacrifice, creativity and inner strength, reserves of patience and compromise that can overwhelm either parent.

The most important work you will do as a human is to raise a discerning, compassionate adult. It’s time to admit that fact and rearrange the working world to reflect this social reality. Our children are our future and we must invest in them more fully and wisely — and no country has discovered the perfect solution. Yet.

4. You don’t have to hate men to be a strong woman.

This stereotype has an interesting Japanese twist, embodied by the legion of housewives who cleanly cut themselves out of their husbands’ boring salaryman lives, ruling home and children while gleefully castrating their husbands in fellow mommy meet-ups, bragging of sleeping separately and avoiding all intimacy. We have our versions in the West — the bitter divorcee man-hater, the cougar embracing a predatory lifestyle instead of a lasting relationship.

This stereotype is one for the haters of all sexes, and really needs to be exposed as baseless and backwards, with no hidden value. It speaks to not merely the battle of the sexes, but the battle between race or religion, ethnicity or sexuality — that one side can only gain power by demeaning, degrading and hating another. It’s why feminism became a bad word before women took control of the language again and celebrated the fundamental truth: I don’t have to hate you if we disagree; I do not have to put you down to pull myself up. I do not need to lose if you win.

I wish all of humanity would abandon this one. Don’t buy into the power of hate, in any form.

That’s it, ladies — a little sheer, unadulterated talk as you step into spring, another year in the glass box of Japan’s workforce, and of wondering how you’ll keep from slipping. Take heart in transparency. Keep aware and eyes wide open, and carve out a life where you can be seen as an individual human, not reduced to “cute” or “sexy,” “nymph” or old “obatarian.” Good luck.

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