At the World Assembly for Women held in Tokyo last week, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, lauded the social achievements of women worldwide but added that “we are not there yet.” Sirleaf didn’t say where exactly “there” is, but during the same week, two media-related stories appeared that seem to indicate Japanese women themselves haven’t yet arrived at this desired destination.

The first was a video uploaded to the Internet by Nihon TV purporting to explain the rules of rugby to neophytes in advance of the Rugby World Cup, which NTV will broadcast later this month and Japan will host in 2019. The video showed young women dressed in tight shorts and sports bras demonstrating how the game is played. The network was immediately bombarded with complaints, mainly from rugby fans who thought the video mocked their favorite sport, but also from others who objected to its titillating nature.

The other story was about a new “mascot” for the city of Shima in Mie Prefecture, which will be the site of next year’s Group of Seven summit. The cartoon character is an ama, or female diver, a traditional vocation for which the area is famous. However, the depiction has been derided as “obscene” by many locals. Megu Aoshima, as the mascot is called, is young and dressed in clothing that accentuates her breasts and thighs. Moreover, she effects a demure, come-hither look typical of manga characters designed to be sexually provocative. The city officials who approved the mascot have said its detractors misunderstand and so far they have refused to change the image.

What these two stories illustrate with regard to Sirleaf’s comment is that there are still people in the world who inherently regard sexual allure as being the most salient female attribute. The fact that they do not comprehend this bias indicates that it is impressed on their sub-conscious in such a way as to make it self-evident to them.

Obviously, it is not self-evident to others — especially women. Minako Saito, in her Aug. 26 column in the Tokyo Shimbun, was incensed, extending this mindset to programming that doesn’t necessarily exploit sexual elements but nevertheless objectifies women. She mentions the long-running TBS information program “Uwasa no Tokyo Magazine” as one she particularly “hates” because of a regular segment in which reporters ask young women on the street to cook something so that middle-aged men back in the studio can laugh at their culinary ineptitude.

This sexism is often manifested in curious ways. Last month NHK aired a show on its educational channel called “Muchimuchi” that presumably may become a series. The home page describes it as a documentary program that “travels all over Japan” and takes the viewpoint of female high school students. Even before the show aired, the public broadcaster received complaints from people who assumed the show would “humiliate” and “sexually harass young women.” That much seemed clear to them from the title.

Muchimuchi” is one of those onomatopoeic terms whose meaning is pretty much whatever the reader or listener thinks it is, but if you type it into a Google search you get a lot of porn websites. In an article for the Huffington Post, writer Chika Igaya asked a representative of the broadcaster about the title, and he said it was meant to be “light-hearted” and not “salacious.” “Muchi” can also mean “ignorance,” as well as “whip,” neither or which sounds much better, but apparently these two homonyms are intended. In the show, a director “scouts” high school girls who are “chotto muchi” (a bit ignorant) and asks them the meanings of certain words. If they don’t know, the director wields the “ai no muchi” (whip of love) to get them to understand. Though “whip of love” is perhaps even more suggestive than “muchimuchi,” the girls are taken to places in Japan where they are brought face-to-face with the reality of those words. In the Aug. 20 installment the words were “Futenma,” the home of the controversial U.S. Marine base in Okinawa, and “Ohenro,” the famous pilgrimage route on the island of Shikoku.

The idea is to confront these girls with experiences that broaden their outlooks, but in terms of viewer edification the purpose is to tap their “expressiveness,” which NHK told Igaya is “richer than that of boys the same age.”

Setting aside the notion that NHK’s educational arm is mimicking the most risible habits of commercial TV, what’s intriguing about this controversy is whether the producers considered the possibility that viewers might find the title problematic. Even if lewdness is not the intended subtext, they must have known how a word like “muchimuchi” would register, so it’s impossible to believe that such a suggestion was not implied. Then again, as mentioned above, maybe the producers are the kind of people who take these matters for granted. It’s in their DNA.

Nevertheless, some viewers resisted. Igaya surveyed Twitter responses and found comments that took NHK to task for “treating those girls rudely” and “making fun of them.” One person admired a high school student who declined an invitation to go to Okinawa to learn about people who died there in World War II, saying, “I don’t think the dead would appreciate people coming to visit them out of curiosity.”

Though NHK deserves credit for not editing the girl’s comment, the prejudices evident in the thinking behind “Muchimuchi” are widespread in the media, which is why Asahi Shimbun columnist Genichiro Takahashi was pleasantly surprised at how much the so-called women’s weeklies, like Shukan Josei, have recently covered political topics “they aren’t normally interested in.” He seemed particularly impressed with teen fashion magazine Seventeen’s discussion among several young women on the meaning of the 70th anniversary of World War II, but not impressed enough to mention what they actually said, except that it was “soft and appealing.”

Girls who can talk about war. What a concept.


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