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Parsing gender stereotypes in Japan’s media landscape

by

Special To The Japan Times

Tomomi Inada’s resignation as defense minister ended a tenure that often made reporters wonder if her transgressions had more to do with ignorance than with incompetence. It would be wrong to associate her failures with her sex, though there were some in the media who harped on her fashion sense or supposed emotional instability as indications that she wasn’t suitable for the job.

Inada didn’t actively discourage these indications. In June, she addressed the second plenary session of the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where she expressed in English how privileged she felt to “share the podium” with other defense ministers, namely Marise Payne of Australia and Sylvie Goulard of France, saying that “We belong to the same gender … the same generation and, most importantly, we are all good looking.”

As mentioned in a June 14 article in the Huffington Post, Mayumi Mori, the Asahi Shimbun Singapore correspondent, noted that Inada was obviously making a joke “to relieve tension,” and that there were a few chuckles in the hall. The correspondent from Le Monde said the joke was in questionable taste. Regardless of Inada’s qualifications for her lofty post, she didn’t know how to read a room.

The author of the Huffington article, editor-in-chief Ryan Takeshita, wrote that Inada has always played “cute” to be accepted by the men who control Japan’s political world, but even if her remark about the female ministers’ looks was made in jest, it reinforced the idea held by many people that appearance is paramount, especially for women.

Japan doesn’t have a monopoly on sexist behavior and attitudes, but according to a recent series of forums in the Asahi Shimbun the Japanese media still subscribes to gender stereotypes in advertising and reporting. As one Asahi writer pointed out, these stereotypes are the media’s problem, not the public’s. In fact, responses to a survey conducted by the newspaper indicated that the general public is acutely sensitive to gender references in commercials and news bulletins.

A cited example was a two-minute ad for Unicharm diapers featuring a young mother having a rough time caring for her newborn. What offended some viewers was the almost total absence of a man in this scenario, implying that mothers should expect to go it alone. Then again, the CM also had female defenders who said they admired the spot’s honesty, since in their experience husbands, despite PR to the contrary, still are too busy to participate in child rearing.

At least the Unicharm spot stimulated a debate about how the media portrays gender roles. More problematic were older ads canceled due to sexist themes: a campaign for the Lumine department store in which a male boss ranks his female subordinates’ looks; a spot for Shiseido cosmetics showing two women celebrating their friend’s 25th birthday by saying, “You’re not a girl any more”; and a Suntory ad that portrayed women as convenient sexual targets.

But the ad that received the most attention in this regard was Miyagi Prefecture’s recent PR campaign to boost tourism. Featuring actress Mitsu Dan, who is famous for flaunting her allure, the ad is filled with double entendres that make travel to Miyagi sound like a sexual adventure. The campaign triggered a backlash, but initially the governor of Miyagi, Yoshihiro Murai, said that such a reaction was intended — that the purpose of advertising is to get people’s attention, and the Mitsu tourism spot had done exactly that.

Murai obviously adheres to the philosophy of “there’s no such thing as bad PR,” though he forgets that while people will surely gravitate to an ad because they are curious about all the fuss surrounding it, they could very well react negatively. But what Murai’s attitude really reveals is that he recognizes the sexism inherent in the ad and cynically accepts it because he thinks it sells the product. This position is a corollary of the old cliche that says everybody (meaning every man) has these nasty thoughts, so why not admit it?

The problem — and it is just as manifest in Inada’s IISS speech as it is in the Miyagi ad — is that the appeal to appearances and impulses has little to do with the subject at hand, be it world security or tourism promotion. Though political correctness has been knocked lately for creating an atmosphere of intolerance, it has forced people to question their conventional values. The U.K., for example, says it will crack down on advertising that sets forth any kind of gender-specific roles. One of the most celebrated commercials shown during the 2017 Super Bowl was for the auto manufacturer Audi. It appealed directly to people with daughters and the message was clear: If you are proud of them, then you must demand that they be paid the same as your sons.

Among the comments by respondents to the Asahi survey were objections to media assumptions that men’s and women’s tastes and sensibilities were by definition different; concern that salacious content was held to be automatically appealing to men; and strong feelings about how physical appearance was often the basis for comedy routines, particularly when it came to women. One exception to the general tenor of the responses was a man from Kyoto who wondered if discouraging or banning gender stereotypes wasn’t an undemocratic form of “mind control.” And a gay man complained about the thrust of the survey itself, which seemed to be “biased toward women.”

These issues have been discussed for years in Japan, but the editor of the Asahi forum said that instead of obsessing over gender, the media should present the news in such a way as to “promote equality.”

Nevertheless, there are just too many conventions that still hold sway. In sports and show biz reporting, for instance, female professionals are invariably described as bijin (beautiful women). Though the word is meant to be flattering, it makes these women’s achievements secondary to their appearance. It’s probably a word Inada uses often, perhaps because it informs the way she sees the world.