National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Tabloid's objectification of women continues to stir controversy

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The weekly magazine Spa has apologized for an article it published in December that ranked universities in terms of how easy it is to get their female students into bed. The article generated backlash but the apology was issued in response to a petition that had been drawn up in protest.

The petition was organized by Kazuna Yamamoto, a student at the International Christian University in Tokyo. In an interview with the BBC, Yamamoto, who is Japanese but grew up mostly overseas, explained that she purposely launched the petition in English because she wanted its message to be heard by more internationally aware Japanese people — those who had lived overseas like her or otherwise had broad contacts with the international community — so as to exert pressure on Spa “from the outside,” the implication being that had she addressed Spa’s sexist purview in Japanese she would have had a harder time making an impression.

When the BBC interviewer asked her about the reaction among Japanese women in general, she said they weren’t pushing back at all. The international #MeToo movement to resist sexual aggression, she said, had yet to enjoy the same level of awareness and involvement in Japan. The interview didn’t allow for a detailed discussion of why Japanese women do not actively fight sexual aggression. Yamamoto boiled it down to conformity with social mores.

On Jan. 16, Spa posted on its Nikkan Spa website the minutes of the meeting its editors had with Yamamoto and her group. When Yamamoto asked the editor-in-chief, Takashi Inukai, how Spa came up with such an article, Inukai said that it grew out of a proposal to cover something called gyara-nomi no jittai — gatherings where women, often university students, receive prearranged payments to drink with men, as well as an app that solicits people for such parties. From that starting point the topic expanded and, Inukai admitted, the language became more suggestive “in order to attract attention.”

“We had no intention of encouraging sexual assaults,” Inukai said. “In the process of producing the pages, however, we became desensitized.”

Another editor added that the idea of ranking universities according to their female students’ perceived sexual availability was based on the “thinking” of the manager of a matching site. One of Yamamoto’s associates, Wakana Goto of the nonprofit organization Humanity, asked if Spa purposely treated women as “commodities,” and later in the discussion Yamamoto commented that anyone who read the Spa article would assume that men who attend gyara-nomi parties can have sex with the women who attend.

Spa’s objectification of women springs from its editors’ inherent understanding of sex as a transaction. Yamamoto told them they should commission more articles about “consent” and mutual satisfaction — sex as communication. The chief editor of Joshi Spa, an offshoot publication that targets women, recalled via email features she’d done that promoted a more “sexually positive” attitude for women with the notion that sexual “passivity” was “old-fashioned.” However, the goal of such features was “being attractive to men” rather than fulfilling a woman’s sexual needs. Ultimately, the articles still implied that women existed for men.

This dynamic also lies at the heart of a scandal involving photojournalist Ryuichi Hirokawa, who has been accused of sexual harassment by various women. Hirokawa, 75, is the founder and president of Days Japan, a pictorial news magazine that focuses on current affairs and which will cease publication this month, a decision that prefigured the sexual harassment revelations reported by the weekly Shukan Bunshun in late December.

The author of the Shukan Bunshun article, Hideharu Tamura, wrote about it in the Jan. 9 edition of Business Insider Japan. As a contributor to Days Japan, Tamura has known Hirokawa since 2004, and he heard rumors that Hirokawa had acted inappropriately with female volunteers and employees. He never said anything because it was none of his business and, more significantly, he didn’t want to jeopardize his professional relationship with Hirokawa.

That anxiety was also felt by Hirokawa’s victims, many of whom were working with him to advance their own careers in journalism. Tamura describes a woman who saw her job prospects fade after rebuffing Hirokawa’s advances. For his part, Hirokawa has denied that he purposely took advantage of his position, claiming he didn’t recognize the women’s true feelings at the time. What he thinks, however, is meaningless, since, according to Tamura’s reporting, the women he approached — both those who succumbed to his advances and those who didn’t — considered the sex a condition for Hirokawa’s attentions.

The scandal shocked essayist Karin Amamiya, who, writing in the online Magazine 9, said she was an admirer of Hirokawa. When Days Japan asked her for an article about suicide 10 years ago, it was one of the greatest honors of her life.

Now she doesn’t know what to think. In the past, she says, when she read an article such as the one in Spa, her reaction was disgust followed by numbness. Anyone who protested such articles knew they were open to public ridicule, so they held back. When she heard about Yamamoto’s petition, she shuddered. Here, she thought, was a new generation that could express their anger without compunction.

“She didn’t second guess her feelings the way I would have,” wrote Amamiya about Yamamoto.

Feminist writer Minori Kitahara wrote something similar on her Love Piece Club website. She references an open letter that appeared last year in Courrier Japan, written by one of the six Japanese female students who were raped in Rome in 1993. The media blamed the victims. Kitahara is “embarrassed” to recall the incident because she didn’t speak out “in empathy” for the women at the time. Like Amamiya, such news left her numb and also, like Amamiya, she is heartened by the simplicity and directness of Yamamoto’s protest.

“It’s important to look back on the past,” writes Kitahara, “and not repeat those mistakes.”

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