Japan’s men and women must stand together against the scourge of sexism

by Amy Chavez

Special To The Japan Times

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” program, which aims to put more females in managerial positions in companies across the archipelago, ignores the most fundamental issue preventing women from being promoted within the workplace: sexism. Just encouraging companies to promote women isn’t going to fix this problem.

Japan’s sexism is infamous internationally, and I’d even rank it as one of the scourges of the nation. Fortunately, it’s a problem that can be tackled through education. So why isn’t anyone doing this?

Sexism is endemic in homes, schools, universities and workplaces. From a young age, boys see women objectified in manga, anime and the Japanese tabloid sports pages. Men grope women on trains and stalk them. With such treatment of women being so common, is it any wonder more career women aren’t promoted to senior managerial positions? If women are denigrated outside the workforce, how are they supposed to survive and thrive within it — especially in a male-dominated workplace?

Rules on sexual harassment, formed to protect women, are a start, but why is sekuhara a purely judicial subject? Why are we waiting for guys to be taken to court and told that what they are doing is wrong?

I’ve endured overt sexism myself during my 20 or so years here. In addition to men asking me about my breast size and the color of my pubic hair, the following exchange took place just the other day.

I was talking to a male friend in his 30s about a new pudding that is gaining popularity in this part of Japan. It’s made from shonyū, the milk heifers produce just after they calve. This nutrient-rich milk is said to account for the dessert’s rich taste. The guy looked at me and said, “Oh, is it made from the milk from your breasts?”

I was shocked that he would say such a thing and I reprimanded him for it. He replied with “It’s just a joke,” as if that made it OK. Disguising a comment as a joke doesn’t make the comment any less sexist (or racist or bigoted). Needless to say, he didn’t understand what the big deal was.

Another time, I was with a female university student. Some middle-aged males were sitting near us, and they clearly thought she was cute. They asked her, jokingly, “What color underwear are you wearing today?” Embarrassed for her, I apologized and told her to ignore them. She said, “Oh, it’s OK,” seemingly accepting them as “men acting like men.”

We ignored their continued taunts for an answer, but now, I wish I had rebuked them. By ignoring lewd comments, we are effectively condoning the behavior.

I used to think it was just older men who were afflicted with this male solipsism, and that it was a generational problem. But now I know better. It’s that the older men are emboldened after having spewed degrading epithets for so long. This has become ingrained in their treatment of women.

In addition, Japanese women are so accustomed to this treatment that they think it’s normal. I would like Japanese women to know that this is not normal and not acceptable. As women, we need to speak up.

There are many Japanese men — hopefully most — who would never say such things to women. These men need to speak up for women too, so as not to contribute to this silent conditioning of men and dehumanization of women. This is so basic, it’s not even about unequal opportunity or unequal pay. It’s about mutual respect.

Men need to be called out on their behavior before it reaches the judicial stage. Women, with the help of men, need to raise the bar on proper behavior. Only by challenging these behavioral patterns will things get better.

We can start tackling the problem through public education and by addressing those men who don’t understand what they’re doing wrong, or who don’t know where to draw the line. And to be fair, women must be clear about not crossing that line either.

I offer the following guidelines for men dealing with women, inside or outside the workplace. Men: memorize them! Women: Pin them up on the wall for men to see!

Subjects off-limits when talking to women:

• Breasts and other female body parts, including shape, size, etc.

• Body: shape, size or weight (including weight gain or loss)

• Bras, panties and other undergarments

• Beauty, or lack thereof

• Sex, including sexual appeal or the lack of it

You might add to this list depending on your own situation and environment, but this is a start. Women will never be able to reach their true potential in the workforce if men don’t treat them with more respect.

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