Language | BILINGUAL

Japanese women find strength in Me Too

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Last month, sociologist Ryosuke Nishida wrote in a letter to the Asahi Shimbun that it’s time for men — himself included — to reflect on what they say to and about women, especially in 飲み会 (nomikai, drinking party) situations.

It’s good timing for that, because this past month and the next are crowded with one nomikai event after another. As the 人事異動 (jinji idō, personnel changes) kick in, there are 送別会 (sōbetsukai, formal farewell parties), 壮行会 (sōkōkai, casual farewell parties), 歓迎会 (kangeikai, welcome parties) and, of course, the お花見 (o-hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties).

As the weather turns warmer and among the 桜 (sakura, cherry blossoms), it’s easy for parties to turn into 無礼講 (bureikō, free and easy) gatherings. After a few drinks, men tend to dive into the pool of 猥談 (waidan) or 下ネタ (shimoneta), both of which can be described as “tasteless sex talk.” For women and even some men, they can be hugely demeaning to listen to. No one should be forced to endure such remarks for the benefit of those partial to waidan, and in this 御時世 (gojisei, day and age), the time-honored excuse of 飲み過ぎて何も覚えていない (Nomisugite nani mo oboeteinai, “I drank so much that I don’t remember anything”) just won’t cut it anymore.

But nomikai behavior may be undergoing some updates. The somewhat derogatory custom of お酌 (o-shaku, women pouring out the sake for men) is fading out, unless the woman is doing so of her own free will. It’s also considered ダサい (dasai, not cool) for bosses to force alcohol on anyone, as this is a form of アルハラ (aruhara, alcohol harassment), now frowned upon in many companies. The younger generation of Japanese are apt to bow out of company-sponsored nomikai anyway, preferring to go out with 同期 (dōki, colleagues that entered the company in the same year) or friends.

My friend Asumi always says, 会社の飲み会に行ったら次は女子会に行かないとストレスが溜まる (Kaisha no nomikai ni ittara, tsugi wa joshikai ni ikanai to sutoresu ga tamaru, “After attending a company drinking party, I need a girl’s night out to alleviate the stress). Asumi is in her 40s and has always held that エイハラ (eihara, age harassment) in the Japanese 会社 (kaisha, company) is just as bad as セクハラ (sekuhara, sexual harassment).

For many Japanese women, age and sexual harassment are two sides of the same coin, though few had been willing to discuss it until the Me Too movement reached these shores. Misaki Endo, who recently quit her job with a temp agency, says: セクハラは社会の中のことだけじゃない。家庭内の男性の意識も大問題だよ (Sekuhara wa shakai no naka no koto dake ja nai. Kateinai no dansei no ishiki mo daimondai da yo, “Sexual harassment doesn’t just happen in society. Men’s awareness inside the home is a big problem too”).

Endo is also in her early 40s and the mother of a 6-year-old girl. She says she’s worried that giving up her job has lost her the little respect her husband had for her: わたしのことをおまえとか、おばさんとか言っていて、それがとても嫌だ (Watashi no koto o omae toka, oba-san toka itteite, sore ga totemo iyada, “He refers to me as ‘you’ or ‘old woman’ and I can’t stand it”).

Taeko Oshiro, a single woman in her late 40s, adds: 日本の女性は年をとるとなるべく大人しく、透明になることを求められる。直接性被害に遭わなくても傷つくことはとても多い (Nihon no josei wa toshi o toru to narubeku otonashiku, tōmei ni naru koto o motomerareru. Chokusetsu seihigai ni awanakute mo kizu-tsuku koto wa totemo ōi. “When Japanese women get older, they are expected to shut up and become invisible. Even if a woman isn’t victimized sexually, there are plenty of cases where she gets hurt or damaged”).

For others, Me Too has brought a greater sense of awareness. Yuko Sekiguchi, who is in her mid-30s and works for a pharmaceutical company, said that acts of harassment great and small were so much a part of the daily fabric that she had ceased to give it much thought. But in 2016 she started following the U.S. presidential elections and, she says, 大統領候補がセクハラで糾弾されてもずっと選挙活動をしていたことが信じられなかった (Daitōryōkōho ga sekuhara de kyūdan sarete mo zutto senkyo-katsudō o shiteita koto ga shinjirarenakatta, “I couldn’t believe that a presidential candidate could be accused of sexual harassment and still continue to campaign”).

After that same candidate became president and she learned what Me Too was all about, Sekiguchi realized that as a 普通の人間 (futsū no ningen, ordinary human being) she had a right to stand up for herself: やっぱりセクハラで泣き寝入りしちゃいけないんだって 思った (Yappari sekuhara de nakineiri shicha ikenain datte omotta, “It struck me that victims of sexual harassment shouldn’t cry themselves to sleep”).

Nakineiri is a phrase that Japanese women hear all too often, and it goes as far back as the Edo Period (1603-1868). The general idea is that when harassment-related disaster hits, the best solution is to cry oneself to sleep because speaking up will either 1) land you in a hellhole of trouble, or 2) you will be ignored and/or ridiculed. The term is in the same ballpark as phrases like 諦め (akirame, resignation) and 我慢 (gaman, endurance), but nakineiri is apt to be up there on the pitcher’s mound, defining the game of survival in this heavily conservative, rigidly patriarchal society.

The tunnel may be long, but at least there’s a light at the end of it, and it’s gradually growing bigger. On March 3, the Asahi Shimbun carried a story about a pin badge that said: 痴漢は犯罪です。私は泣き寝入りしません (Chikan wa hanzai desu. Watashi wa nakineiri shimasen, “Groping is a crime. I refuse to cry myself to sleep”). The badge was inspired by a 女子高生 (joshi kōsei, high school girl) who was groped on the train on her way to school until she attached a handmade card with the very same slogan on her book bag.

Three years later, thanks to the crowdfunding efforts of the 痴漢抑止活動センター(Chikan Yokushi Katsudō Sentā, Groping Prevention Center) group, the badge is sold in train stations along the Odakyu Line and a 雑貨屋 (zakka-ya, general store) in Harajuku.