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  • Christina Theodorakis

The Reality of Gender Inequality in Japan, Part 1

I'm back with another blog for you, which will look at a major issue that's deeply-ingrained in Japanese culture. As a woman living in Japan -- and a foreign one, at that -- I want to address the elephant in the room: Japan's gender inequality.

If you don't know much about Japan except that it's clean and safe, the trains run on time (to a fault, I would argue), and that it's a nice place to visit, then you wouldn't be wrong.

However, digging deeper into Japanese society, Japanese women in particular are set up for a losing battle.

(I won't go into the "What if you're a woman and foreign?" territory in this series of blogs about Japan's gender inequality since that involves Japan's xenophobia, but foreigners are essentially held to a different standard than Japanese people in Japanese society and are usually expected to behave in a "non-Japanese" way. I'll get into that in another blog.)

Anyway, let me preface this a little by saying that I myself am from the U.S., and I'm very aware that women there and in other countries are still struggling to get equal pay for equal work in relation to men, along with a laundry list of other rights, including but not limited to reproductive rights for their -- our -- bodies. If you think that it's bad in your country, Japan probably has you beat.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently released the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 with a ranking of 156 countries in the world (see page 10 of the PDF for the full list of rankings).

Most of the G7 countries fall in the top 30. The G7 rankings look like this: Germany - 11th place, France - 16th place, the United Kingdom - 23rd place, Canada - 24th place, the United States - 30th place, and Italy - 63rd.

Japan, however, is all the way in 120th place out of 156.

Among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it's not looking much better for Japan: out of 38 member countries, the only country with a worse ranking on the WEF's report is Turkey, which came in at 133.

As a further comparison, some other non-European and non-North-American OECD countries, like Colombia, Chile, and Japan's neighbor South Korea came in at 59, 70, and 102, respectively.

The ugly truth is that Japanese girls start at the bottom of a very tall ladder controlled by men at the top. Japanese society is strongly patriarchal and, therefore, sexist, as you may have heard from the former head of the Tokyo Organizing Committee and ex-Prime Minister of Japan Yoshiro Mori when he shared his colorful thoughts on women openly.

To put it simply, women have been part of Japan's labor force for decades, but expectations for men and women are vastly different. Although some younger Japanese people in their 20's believe that it's getting better, the trouble for women persists.

Japan's true sex crime rates have been an enigma for researchers for years because of the strong taboo in Japanese culture that discourages talking about them -- so much so that therapists are extremely hard to find in Japan, and their advice can leave one wondering how they got their Psychology degrees. I've been curious as to how many young girls and women in Japan are suffering with the scars of sexual assault silently.

Which brings me to the #MeToo movement in Japan: it was largely nonexistent. In October 2017, as some high-profile men in the U.S. were being cancelled or indicted due to sexual harassment and abuse allegations, I was in Japan waiting -- and waiting, and waiting -- for Japanese women to speak up using the #MeToo method. It hardly appeared in the news.

Instead of a massive cultural movement for improving the lives of women in Japan, #MeToo became #KuToo, a cute pun on #MeToo, which is a play on the Japanese word for "pain" (苦痛, kutsuu) and the Japanese word for "shoes" (靴, kutsu) because they sound similar. #KuToo was Japanese women's way of fighting for shoe equality in the workplace as strict dress codes based on gender often force women to wear high heels. The success of #KuToo is questionable; however, a major Japanese bank removed the formal dress code for its employees after the movement.

If this doesn't make you feel exasperated at Japan as a man or woman who believes in gender equality, wait for the next blog I'll be writing on this topic.


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