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‘Softening’ of ‘cool’ Japanese men not what it seems: book

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

Japanese men are showing a “softer” side at work and in the home but some of their traditional masculine attitudes are still prevailing, according to new research by Cambridge University.

Graduates and academics have produced a book looking at how Japanese men are slowly changing their approach to home and work life in the midst of wider shifts in society and greater economic uncertainty.

The research, however, indicates the changes may be less substantial than they appear at first glance. There is suspicion that media images of “new” and “cool” men could be more to do with advertisers trying to tap new markets.

The authors of “Cool Japanese Men: Studying New Masculinities at Cambridge” found that, despite the hype, Japanese men are still asserting their dominance in society and women’s positions have not changed radically.

The book published by Lit Verlag also looks at Japanese men who tend to shun mainstream lifestyles and are considered otaku, meaning geeks.

Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in modern Japanese studies who edited the research alongside colleague Angelika Koch, said not much has changed.

“Although men are starting to have a softer side and help women, the basic postwar gender division of labor and male domination has not been radically questioned.

“The research shows that while ostensibly men are taking on more female characteristics, such as being more attentive, looking after their appearance and taking care of children, it is within a frame of masculinity: protecting other people and being tough, hard and successful.”

Steger said there is now more diversity in Japan in terms of careers, but the corporate world has not seen radical change and in some ways the demands on men are even stronger.

“There’s appreciation for a more wholesome, softer man but they have to do that in addition to what they did before; it’s not an exchange,” she said.

In one of the chapters, researchers Christopher Tso and Nanase Shirota examine Japan’s self-help literature on grooming and listening skills for businessmen.

Readers of such material are urged to avoid becoming oyaji — older salarymen who are often considered scruffy, preachy and inattentive, while having an aged smell called kareishu in Japanese.

Men are given advice on everything from eyebrow plucking, facials and hair removal to aromatherapy.

The material advises modern businessmen to listen attentively and empathetically to all colleagues, even their most junior. In this way, they will become more successful at work as well as more attractive to the opposite sex.

Tso and Shirota write, “Although such men may represent a gentle, more caring form of masculinity, keen to discuss emotions and distinct from the loud-mouthed, visually offensive oyaji, we have seen that within the social context of a stagnant economy and aging workforce the self-help literature still very much reproduces orthodox corporate masculine traits.”

The researchers said that while this new type of businessman “keeps his body odor in check and listens attentively” it is “not necessarily because he is more caring and wants to put himself on an equal footing with those around him, but to prove his conformity to familiar traits of masculinity that value his productivity and dominance over less worthy men and all women.”

Tso and Shirota did sound a note of optimism, however, writing, “A beautiful and attentive businessman does nonetheless show some change in masculinity, which in the future might open up possibilities for further change in society, including a general shift away from patriarchal attitudes in Japan.”

The research goes on to explore the phenomenon of ikumen: cool fathers who take an active role in raising children.

In recent years, men have been encouraged to be more involved dads through flattering campaigns comparing ikumen to superheroes.

Hannah Vassallo, who researched this chapter of the book, found fathers are indeed taking a more active role in parenting and that many found this natural and enjoyable.

However, in reality, she found ikumen often come up against prejudices and find themselves having to conform to long working hours and relegate most of the child care to the mothers.

Vassallo also discovered that a lot of the publicity around ikumen reinforced stereotypes of strong men who provide “support” and “understanding” to their wives.

Gender dynamics is another area that is explored in a university hip-hop dance club and finds women failing to assert themselves with the men for fear of losing their femininity.

Interaction between otaku and the “idol” bands, chiefly AKB48, is also examined.

The idols are often styled as schoolgirls and act in a childlike and helpless manner, which many of their fans, who are mainly single, find particularly appealing. The images projected are sexualized and the fans frequently describe having protective and fatherly affections toward the girls.

In another study in the book, Rosie Dent-Spargo concluded: “In an era when Japanese masculinities are increasingly under threat, the image of the infantilized, sexually objectified adolescent idol has captured the otaku cultural imagination because it empowers them. As one fan put it, ‘They make me feel brave.’ “