GENDER ISSUES IN JAPAN
PART ONE: THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER
(originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Sun, 11 Oct 1998)
I know there's recent stuff on the list by Richard, Joe and Olaf on Academic Apartheid that I should be dealing with, but I'm feeling a bit abstemious at the moment--due to a different essay topic burning in me. That of:
MEN AND WOMEN IN JAPAN
"Y'know, I really hate Japanese women." Thus spake my friend, a Caucasian American woman, on a hike up a Hokkaido mountain we took with the Boy Scouts some years back. I gasped incredulously and asked her why.
"Because they're so competitive. I'm approaching thirty and losing all my friends. With my outdoorsy personality most of my friends are males, both Japanese and foreign, and at this age they're getting married to Japanese women. Which means that all contact gets severed. Why? Japanese wives hate their husbands hanging out with a single woman--me--no matter how long we'd been friends in the past. So once they get their claws in their men--poof! I have to start all over again, finding guys who are willing to get used to my personality, without the wrong idea about my being single.
"And that's getting harder and harder as I get older--fewer guys my age are single anymore. And more and more people ask when I too am going to get married these days, looking at me funny because I don't follow the established patterns of lifestyle. Sure, I've got nothing against marriage, but I don't see any prospects. Again, because of Japanese women.
"I can't compete. They dress better, they do more house cleaning, they often take a submissive or at least a subordinate role in public and private. They definitely do all they can to be compliant and appealing. And that's where they win. I can't get all cute and competitive just to 'snare a man'--I want an equal relationship if one at all. But men get promised the world by a Japanese woman. End of discussion. How can I match terms like that? It wouldn't be like me. It would be insincere. But Japanese women don't seem to have a problem with insincerity.
"I hate--simply hate--Japanese women," she concluded as she pulled ahead on the trail.
Let's discuss this. This post is organized thus:
1) WHY THIS TOPIC MATTERS
2) THE EFFECTS OF JAPAN ON NON-JAPANESE WOMEN
3) POSIT: TWO REASONS WHY AMERICAN WOMEN "LOSE" TO JAPANESE WOMEN
1) WHY THIS TOPIC MATTERS
I have been criticized for putting up long posts on DFS with peripheral, if any, bearing on Japanese politics and economics. I say so what. We can talk to asphyxiation about who's next in line to be the next PM or why the yen rate fluctuated to the degree it did. And one gaffe-filled speech or tinkering with basis points later, it is entirely possible that none of it will have mattered. Thus, although insightful, economic news and commentary obsolesces too quickly to become part of my software for life in Japan.
But talking about the human condition--the effects of an insular society on the outsider--is far more timeless. Money and commerce? Sure, but they are sprog topics; the Plaza Accord has been around for a couple of decades, the lack of a gold standard a generation, international trade a few thousand years. But gender issues? They have been around since meiosis and dig into such an ore of soft social science that the anecdotes abound and the generalizations evade.
So let's focus on the dichotomy of treatment not just of foreigners in Japan in general, but of foreigners by gender. Japan for foreign males is seen as a sexual playground, but for females looking for relationships it's depicted as a desert. And that causes otherwise rational people to do apparently irrational things. Like:
>>On Sun, 4 Oct 1998, Jan wrote:
I am a former model !! I am a 34C-26-35. 5 foot 7 inches and a face to stop traffic!! I mean, I'm sorry, I am a beautiful woman!! I have had nothing but problems with men harassing me for sex everywhere I have tried to work all my life and that includes Japan!! I made myself as ugly as I could -- long skirts, severe hair, no make-up -- and it helped a little, but still, working is such a pain. Finally I became self-employed to put it all behind me!!
Wow. Talk about self degradation. What caused this?
That's hard to tell, and thus part of the analytical challenge is realizing that there is a viewpoint that I can never have, no matter how many years I stay in Japan--that of a Caucasian woman. But's let's give it a try:
2) THE EFFECTS OF JAPAN ON NON-JAPANESE WOMEN
The themes of posts from DFS women have all been negative, if not adversarial, towards Japan, its women, and their men--to a degree I find stupefying. Passionate-types like Jan give the impression of near-hatred for Japanized men:
>>On Sun, 4 Oct 1998, Jan wrote:
I would like to announce the Japanized Gaijin Male as Jerk theory. This one goes: the gaijin male goes to Japan, adapts himself to the bootlicking ways of the single Japanese female and thereafter HAS to marry a Japanese because no non-Japanese female can bear him. Therefore, though he may try to leave his adapted cocoon, he flounders badly when he goes abroad, insulting and infuriating the women he tries to date, and ultimately returns disheartened and settles in the land of Wa. There, his newly ensconced J'ese wife proceeds to browbeat and budget him into complete submission. He has recurrent nightmares of losing his work visa and being deported, but having nowhere to go.
The Japanese woman as addictive catnip with Samson scissors? I--and I am not being sarcastic when I say this--have never thought of it that way before.
Calmer posters have been no less moving. Doreen has indicated derision towards Japanese women for setting traps for their men via frequent housekeeping and flippant lovemaking (twisting the screws after the wedding bells sound). Second-hand stories from men about foreign women here depict loneliness, culminating with them either getting the hell out of here or going a little weird. I myself have seen how inordinately Japanese the Caucasian women fashions get, affecting the hairstyles, the wan-piisu dresses, and even the follow-me-home-and-fuck-me shoes to try to fit in here. It's going on everywhere yet to me inexplicable.
Katrina sheds the most light on the mystery with posts like:
>>On Mon, 05 Oct 1998, Katrina wrote:
Women like me are kinda different. Through our interest and investment in Japan, we have already self-selected into a different category than our male counterparts. The enticements that Japan holds for men, sexual, financial, honorary, are muted or nonexistent for women. We know that going in. We know that Japan is a sexist patriarchal country and that it's going to be a struggle. Although our male counterparts know these things too, they also know they aren't going to be subjected to them directly. This means that we have largely self-selected into a group of strong, self-confident women, especially after the first year has weeded out the ones who won't or can't put up with it.
The next bit is the best: about the aspect of solitude and its ill-effects on self-esteem--something as a man here I've never had to deal with:
>>On Mon, 05 Oct 1998, Katrina wrote
For western men, Tokyo is a sexual playground. For most western women it is almost the opposite. To the extent that no one even looks at you. I would hear that Japanese men were interested, but unless they were in hostess bars or drunk as skunks they rarely showed it, and then it was only in the crudest terms. The western men are too busy chasing Japanese girls to pay any mind either. Since a lot of us, men and women, use our sexual identity to form our own self impressions, this is no small matter. Just watch the shy young American guy whose ego balloons after a few months of Roppongi to see the other side of this coin, while either a woman's self-esteem drops or she consciously decides that the lack of a sex life is not a marker of self-worth---but usually somewhere in between.
Then there's what we see and are told. We see Japanese women treated
awfully. Sexually objectified from a very young age, tied up in all sorts
of humiliating positions and delivered to our mailboxes as video ads every
day. We see single women deferring to men in everything because their hopes
for social and economic position are almost entirely dependent on a successful
marriage. We are compared to them and found wanting. Told that what we
have worked to create and admire in ourselves, our independence, our strength,
our opinions, make us "naturally" undesireable. Sometimes we're
told with sympathy; sometimes we're told by people who wish to change us--both
Japanese and foreigners; sometimes we're told by example. Like one woman
I knew. Mid-40s, blonde, great figure, always dressed perfectly, sharp
as a whip, funny, strong-minded, a great leader and organizer, successful
in her career as a professor, and she'd been in Japan for 15 years. In
all respects she was attractive and admirable in my eyes, and yet I noticed
that not only was she single, but she was very lonely. She joked about
it, but there was a bitterness at the edge of her voice. Here's this wonderful
woman, and the perception was that she's too much for any man. I saw her
and I didn't want to become her.
We're back outside the quotes again. What I have cut and pasted up above is probably nothing near thorough enough to foment generalizations or conclusions. Which is my precisely my point: this is but a shard in the excavation site. There is a huge body of experiences out there that I can only glean from second-hand reports from women here who generally keep it to themselves. I want more.
That is one purpose of this post. The other is that I would like to go out on a limb (as usual) and suggest why American women (I'll restrict myself to "American" from now on, since I can speak from more experience on the mindset) in particular are at a disadvantage when it comes to interpersonal "competition" (this word because even women on both sides portray it as that) with Japanese women, i.e. the Social Darwinism that occurs when people try to do more than just be friends.
3) POSIT: WHY AMERICAN WOMEN "LOSE" TO JAPANESE WOMEN: TWO POSSIBLE REASONS
Reason One: THE AVERSION TOWARDS FEMININITY
Another friend of mine, a Spanish woman with conclusive experience in the US, said something interesting: "American women are like horses. They're big and strong, they're competitive, they're always racing with men. And they don't strike me as wanting to be feminine at all."
That right there I think is a big factor in the equation. One of the things I notice about American women's lib is that it has the tendency to treat femininity as a male construct--i.e. something created by men as part of an older society and foisted upon women as some sort of power structure. Which means that IMHO in America the "equality of the sexes" means a minimization of not only gender roles, but gender *differences*. Consequently, looking "appealing" to men implies at best inequality, at worst submissiveness, and is thus something to be avoided. However you choose to define it, "being appealing" includes a degree of femininity.
Contrast this with "Japanese feminism" (Scoff if you like, but I know from firsthand experience of working in an office of only women, under a woman kachou, that it does exist.), where the genders should not be "equal" as such, but instead "separate but equal" (to project an American concept onto Japan for ease of reference). You see it in the Japanese job market: certain occupations (such as nursing, grade school teaching) and roles (such as homemaker and mother--ah, I'm not telling you anything new) are not only thought to be naturally better for women, but also NOT OPEN TO MEN. And men entering this form of women's society are just as likely, in my experience, to experience outsider treatment and ijiwaru as women would entering the male-dominated Japanese officeplace.
This seems to be bubbling out into labor relations instead of gender issues, so I'll pull it back. My point about the two feminisms is that American feminism tries to break down the walls between the genders, while Japanese feminism in stark contrast WANTS those walls, so that women can do their job and men theirs.
Now don't get me wrong: I'm not defending the Japanese system, nor am I saying that American feminism is full of it. What I am saying is that with the clearer separation of worlds by gender, this concept of femininity in Japan is not seen so negatively--instead as a natural consequence of the separate women's world. That will have an effect on how women and men attract and interact.
That is to say, Japanese women can be more attractive to men than American women because they have less culturally-induced aversion towards "being feminine".
Now for reason two:
"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY?" THE PRESSURE ON AMERICAN MEN:
>>On Sun, 4 Oct 1998, Jan wrote:
This is what I think: the reason so many gaijin men who are in Japan get married is that they know they can't get women anywhere else. That's not hard to understand, once one spends a little time around them. There are so many gaijin men in Japan who are complete losers elsewhere, but they go to Japan and are married in nothing flat.
While I'm not taking umbrage at being conflated with "losers" (I myself got married real quick myself--my second year in Japan, but that was because I went to Japan to see my penpal-turned-girlfriend-who-became-my-wife), there is something that needs to be said about the blame men are being assigned for not meeting overseas standards.
The amount of pressure that white-bread WASPy America puts on its men to appease women is at times overwhelming. I'm talking both little and big things: having to divide the dishwashing days, feeling perpetually guilty for not being home enough and for focussing more on the career, considering marriage as if it's another job-- i.e. another "thing to work at", even having guy talk derisively called "male bonding". Not to mention the pressure in bed ("College women can smell out [sexual] inexperience, like dogshit": Tom Cruise in RISKY BUSINESS); real men bring you to orgasm and if they don't there's something wrong (read any Cosmopolitan). The onus is on us.
All of which is fine if men are allowed by social convention to accomplish a certain level of "proof of commitment" and then relax. That doesn't happen. The pressure is constant. Men in America get told by their women that they have to keep tinkering with the relationship or it will break down, keep communicating with them or love will fade, stop being a caveman and start being a "sensitive human being". As, generally, women define one.
Again, that's fine for lots of people, especially the lot of women, and social empowerment of women is far better than the opposite. But my point is that this system grinds a lot of men down, and people who decide to opt out of the American system entirely and marry a Japanese woman should not be slapped with the "loser" label. It's more a difference in personal preference and taste. But with Japanese women it is a powerful taste indeed. Which brings me to the next thoughtful post:
>>On Mon, 05 Oct 1998, Katrina wrote:
Which gets me finally back to my main point, why being a single gaijin female sucks. I'm not trying to say that men are beasts, but that the circumstances of living in Japan are such that a foreign woman witnesses the worst side of male behavior. This informed my decision to leave. Not only was I tired of being single, and felt that it was unlikely that was going to change as long as I stayed in Japan, but also I noticed that my psyche was actually being damaged by being there. Put another way, I consciously realized that a negative opinion about the trustworthiness of men in male-female relationships was not healthy. And yet I was seeing no counterexamples. I had to get back to a place that was balanced, where both the men and the women have to work to find, attract and keep their partners.
Fine. Good point. Now let me answer that with a very powerful series of paragraphs on the theme of "having to work to keep your partner". From a writer who writes well about the human condition yet is definitely not known for his literary diatribes:
"In time he had become alert to his wife's military tactics. When she said, 'We shall have a wonderful trip, shan't we?', it signified that she had certain specific ideas of what should be done and the least expected of her husband was blind obedience to her strategy. If she confessed, 'John, I'm worried. About us!' it presaged a manly, heart-to-heart talk, the first half hour of which consisted of a recital of her defects followed by three cruelly efficient minutes during which he agreed to give up something which offended her. The poker games, the class reunions, the fishing trip to Androscoggin, the old felt hats, the dinners with Posonby... All the marks of John Millstor as a man had slowly been erased and in their place had been drawn, in fine woman's script, the clean handsome outlines of the world's most pathetic modern miracle: the typical American husband." (pg 349-50).
"From that day John Millstor had known no peace. It seemed
to him that all aspects of American society--toothpaste ads, editorials,
women's magazines, community gossip--were dedicated to the job of reminding
men that in the American woman they had a treasure never before equaled
in the history of the world and that only through the most meticulous attention
could any man hope to retain his prize. Once, as a young man, John had
naively considered marriage a rather delightful and normal prelude to having
three or four children, a family pew in the Episcopal Church, a recognized
niche in society and a happy home. It had seemed as simple as that. Now
he discovered how ingenuous he had been. 'Marriage,' once of his wife's
clippings had read, 'is a social and psychological jungle in which only
the eternally vigilant can find their way'. "Liz agreed with this
concept. 'Really, John,' she had often said, 'I think marriage is the most
difficult of all social relationships. It's something you've got to WORK
at.' And working, John discovered, meant sacrificing every normal, relaxed
instinct he had ever known. It meant making the right friends, bucking
for more pay, being a pal to the chldren and not just a father. Above all
it mant that he had to be understanding when his wife dallied in mild flirtations
with other men..." (pg 360)
The author? James Michener, RETURN TO PARADISE. Published in 1950 so it's a bit dated in places (particularly in the man's idealized "apex of life" and the newfound feminization of the postwar media), but if anything the social phenomena mentioned are even stronger now than then.
Granted, Michener was twice divorced (his third wife remained until death), and one may say he's a rum person to quote about matters of the heart. But I have included this excerpt because it largely matches my (sufficient) experience with American women. Work, work, work on your relationship. Or else. As though the "default mode of love" is towards maximum entropy and minimum enthalpy. It's tiring to have to deal with that. No wonder, I say, so many American men fall for the charms and into the arms of Japanese women.
In Japan, gender roles are more defined--a Japanese woman clicks into them very quickly. However, with an American woman the roles are mainly what you determine together--meaning that all new and modified groundrules--such as who washes the dishes next Tuesday--necessitate a constant series of renegotiations. And if office work came up and made you late for those dishes, tough beans for the man. A Japanese woman, on the other hand, would in my experience be much more forgiving and do the washing up, especially if the problem involved your office work. The old American-woman saw of "what's more important--me or your job?" simply is not part of the software here.
Again, the point: A foreign man's relationship with a Japanese woman, with all the gender separation of roles and attitudes, for the most part feels much less contrived. The "default mode of love" for a Japanese leans much more towards inertia. It's an undeniable advantage in the dating game.
I know that my post may sound disrespectful towards women, their advances in the US and their plight in Japan. But please don't misunderstand my intentions. I'm trying to do two things:
1) Speak about the Japanese-Non Japanese love relationship from the point of a gaijin male, since people have attempted to give the American woman's side in the equation as the victim and not a possible cause.
2) I'm trying to encourage (even through flames, if necessary) more people to take this subject seriously and say more. Katrina has made the most positive, constructive start on this list so far (sorry for the incorrect attribution of my name to Jan's post), so let's keep going. I would like more good study, or at least some good literature, on this little-discussed subject. We still haven't really touched upon what happens when non-Japanese women actually forge relationships with Japanese men.
Give us more. With issues of gender, only the ladies can say what does on before the mirror in the Ladies Room. Thus I write this rather controversial post hoping to invite women to publicly connect the dots between their experiences, and channel this turbulent undercurrent of frustration into something even the men can, like "sensitive human beings", emote with.
PS: Ladies, if you think Japan is a desert for male relationships, I suggest you go to another island society--Britain--and feel the mirror image. A huge number of dumpy, sarky women for the American man, but lots of well-dressed, eloquent and charming men for you. Britain is an American woman's paradise. Ask my mother.
got more. Lots more.
To see a survey of the responses I got to this controversial essay, click here)
Copyright 1998, Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan