Commentary / Japan

Female objectification and gender gap in Japan

by Didier Andre Guillot

Special To The Japan Times

One of the major convenience store chains announced a few months ago its intention to cover with plastic the adult-related publications in its magazine sections. The goal is to render sexually explicit magazines less visible, and thus protect children but also all customers who would prefer not be exposed to such materials while shopping for daily groceries.

This is a welcome initiative, which will hopefully be followed by many others. Japanese society has arguably become addicted to pornography. But there is another more pernicious issue that Japan has to face; the soft objectification of its young women. Everywhere can you see suggestive images and representations, often anime characters, conveying ambiguous connotations.

Just to share one of the many examples I have encountered recently, take this month’s issue of a wine magazine found on the racks of my local bookstore (in the “food” section, between the “travel” and “sports” magazines). This magazine is of rather high quality, content- and style-wise. The goal of this publication is apparently to both introduce different wine types and provide information about wine-related culture. It shows an elaborate and fashionably appealing design; definitively a smart publication aiming at educating and entertaining wine lovers.

There is nothing wrong with that — society does permit the consumption of alcohol. But the cover of that publication is arguably more questionable: a full-size drawing of a teenage-looking female anime character, in school uniform, sitting on the floor with skirt riding high on her thighs.

Interestingly, a look at back issues revealed that all past editions were in the same vein, portraying only young-looking female characters in alluring poses, holding bottles of wine close by deep cleavages, low-waist jeans showing underwear, miniskirts. … The covers seem rather misplaced, or disconnected from the overall smart impression the magazine is trying to convey. But it is obviously not, with the marketing executives of that publication arguably knowing exactly what they are doing, i.e., that suggestive covers boost the sales of wine magazines.

And that is the core of the problem. Japanese society has become so used to such marketing gimmicks that they do not feel inappropriate anymore. But are they not? Is it really harmless to use suggestive images of teenage-looking female anime characters to sell all kinds of products or services? The objectification of women is, of course, a global problem, many societies (read governments) having allowed corporations to use female bodies to appeal to the reptilian brains of their male customers. But the situation is particularly alarming in Japan, because many young women seem to accept and emulate this objectified image of themselves.

Not surprisingly, but very unfortunately, this soft perversion of Japanese society has also invaded university campuses. At my institution, a recently affixed poster about the IT Passport program shows a teenage-looking schoolgirl wearing a miniskirt and thigh-high stockings. … Same kind of images, same pernicious way, this time to promote the importance of IT skills for soon-to-graduate students. Japanese society has made a choice to allow the objectification of (young) women to pursue consumerist goals, even within the walls of academic institutions.

As a university educator, I see on a daily basis the consequences of this social choice on students. On the first day of one of my courses last April, the amphitheater was perfectly split with male students on one side and female students on the other, and with a rather large gap of empty seats in between. As observed on many numerous occasions, men and women feel awkwardly incapable of participating in joint activities. They usually show stereotypical patterns of gender-based behavior, the “girlish” (kawaii) female students and their “stylish” (kakkoii) or “nerdish” male counterparts experiencing significant difficulties when asked to engage in group work. They seem to live their university years in adjacent but disconnected universes.

When they do spend time together, for example in sports club activities, women manage the preparation of equipment and supplies the men need for training sessions or games. They co-habit the space, but they do not fully collaborate in the activities.

If students do not learn on university campuses how to properly engage with the other gender, if they do not build an understanding of the importance of a truly respectful and egalitarian society, they enter the professional world, and their adult lives, with stereotypes that will color their grown-up behavior, and reproduce the social divide.

Since World War II, Japanese society has been famous for its middle-class egalitarianism, i.e., the sociological belief that people belong to the same social group. Of course, Japan like any other place has had, and still has, its “outcasts.” But among developed nations, Japanese society has experienced one of the highest levels of homogeneity in terms social status and economic opportunities. In other words, no major social divide came to split its society vertically into groups of significantly diverging realities.

But another type of divide has formed, that of horizontal division. Men and women are cast into stereotypical behaviors along their gender identity, and the two groups seem to be gradually drifting apart. One major cause of this problem today is the soft objectification of young women. One-half of the population considers the other half as a “product” to be enjoyed and used for mercantilist purposes. Patterns of communication gradually change, accepted forms of dialogue and encounters evolve, and the divide grows. It is not surprising then that after many years of co-habitation an increasing number of senior couples decide to “live apart together” (sotsukon) in their later years to achieve their separate dreams.

The future of Japan is full of challenges; its success will rest on the ability of its population to make social choices as one body. For this to happen, the issue of its fractured social reality needs immediate attention.

Didier Andre Guillot is a specially appointed associate professor at Fukui Prefectural University.