Japan, it seems, is forever discriminating against someone. Women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, lifestyle minorities, the disabled, part-time workers — all have made claims against a state and a national psychology that define acceptability very narrowly relative to most other developed societies. Who in this country isn’t discriminated against? Heterosexual able-bodied Japanese males?

No, they too are victims, and a headline introducing a report on the subject in the weekly Aera is accorded two exclamation points: “Discrimination against men is unforgivable!!”

Almost every week, the magazine tells us, angry men demonstrate outside one or another JR train station on Tokyo’s Yamanote loop line. The numbers are not imposing — 10 participants are counted at one rally — but the placards are big and bold: “This affects all of us. Men’s rights are being violated!”

Violated how? The people to ask are members of a group called Citizens’ Association to Ban Discrimination Against Men. It was formed in 2010. How many members it has is not mentioned, but to get an idea of how widely their complaint resonates, Aera polled at random 600 people nationwide — 400 men, 200 women — asking them if they feel there is such a problem. Among men, 55.8 percent say there is or at least might be. The corresponding figure for women is 32.5 percent.

Founder and chairman of the Association is Yuji Yoshida, a 30-year-old company employee. “What keeps me going,” he says, “is anger.” It started, for him, in 2005 with the introduction on some train lines of women-only cars, intended to protect women from gropers. Protection is an entitlement hard to quarrel with, but Yoshida sees collateral issues. Why should women be favored over, for example, elderly men? Why should women get to commute in relatively uncrowded comfort while men must endure jam-packed conditions in the rest of the train?

Trivial in itself, the train issue is a symbol of bigger things, insists Nobuyuki Kanematsu, whose group Discrimination Network has concerns similar to Yoshida’s. First, a general principle is at stake: Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees equal rights for all. Second, discrimination against men, Kanematsu argues, is wider than many people suppose. Hiring and promotion practices are commonly assumed to be skewed against women. That is not always true. In 2010, he says, among 13,981 people applying for clerical-level court jobs, 26 percent of men and 19 percent of women passed the written exam — but interview pass rates were 26 percent for men and 48 percent for women. “Clearly,” he says, “the government gives preferential treatment to women and discriminates against men.”

That will surprise most women, and not a few men. When the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report placed Japan a dismal 101st among 135 countries, discrimination against men was not the issue. Among the report’s damning figures: 62 percent of working women quit their jobs after the birth of their first child; female university researchers account for a paltry 13.8 percent of the total; in the Diet, female lawmakers comprise 18.6 percent of the Upper House and 7.9 percent of the Lower; meanwhile, 70.2 percent of the nation’s part-time workers are women, receiving less pay and fewer benefits than full-timers, often for the same work. Even women working full-time earn on average 30.7 percent less than men, the second lowest (after South Korea) among the major economies.

So when men, the supposed discriminators and beneficiaries, themselves cry discrimination, women might be excused for feeling insult is being added to injury. Still, Aera allows, the men do have a point. Women’s status is rising and men’s is falling. A single statistic is sharply indicative: Nationwide in 1997 there were 2.21 million executive-class employees; by 2010 there were 1.59 million. Most of those laid off under the “restructuring” pressures of a flat economy were men — who else, given male dominance of the executive ranks? It’s been a dispiriting two decades for men. Women may be rising more slowly here than in other countries, but their upward direction is clear — as clear as male decline. Maybe men should be forgiven a little sullenness.

Or maybe it’s time men said to women, “Your turn. You run the show!” Why not? Few looking at history or current affairs would congratulate men on a brilliant stewardship. Quite possibly women would do better.

But do women want that? Japanese women, by and large, do not, if a 2010 survey by the continuing-education firm U-Can means anything. It shows 53.9 percent among the 568 single women randomly polled would prefer, given a choice, to be full-time housewives.

Full-time housewives? Not corporate executives, political leaders, technological innovators?

The women’s magazine Josei Jishin takes up the subject with sociologist Masahiro Yamada, two of whose crisp coinages, “parasite singles” and konkatsu, have helped define our times. (Parasite singles are grown children living with and being partly supported by their parents; konkatsu, related to a similar word for job-hunting, means “spouse-hunting.”) “It seems to me more female college students lately are hoping to end up as housewives,” says Yamada. “It’s a way to escape from tough working conditions. What with the widening gap between rich and poor, there aren’t so many unmarried high-income men around anymore, so ideal and reality don’t often coincide.”

But they sometimes do. Josei Jishin introduces a certain Ms. Kawamura, age 46, who 16 years ago decided she would marry a doctor or no one. She took cooking lessons, frequented matchmaking parties popular with doctors, and found what she was looking for. “There was a guy I liked better, but he was poor, and I had an iron will. I dumped him.”

Everything worked to perfection. The couple’s young son is at school most of the day, and mom is what she always wanted to be — a happy member of the propertied leisure class. Just one worry troubles her: “Once the boy is grown and it’s just the two of us, whatever will my husband and I talk about?”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.