Apr 27, 2019
Before living in Japan, I’d never really considered myself as a feminist because quite frankly - and honestly quite ignorantly - I’d never had to think hard about it. As a woman, I hadn't felt like I couldn’t pursue certain careers, or felt disadvantaged from being female in my home country. I’m incredibly fortunate in that regard, since I know it’s absolutely not the case in other parts of the world, but I’d never have thought that Japan would tick me off so badly with the rigid roles that women are expected to adhere to.
Each year here in my small Niigata town, there’s a festival called the Naked Pushing Festival held at the end of winter. Men push and jostle their way to be first in line to worship Bishamon, the God of the main temple here. My daughter’s preschool had some of the participants come and teach them about the origins behind the festival before the big day, and one of the trademarks of the festival is when the men chant “Sanyo, Sanyo!” through the streets as they're on the way to the temple itself.
Well, my daughter came home from school that day excitedly telling my husband and I about how she got to learn about this interesting cultural festival, and that she was copying the men's chant, but then she said “Teacher said I can’t say sanyo, sanyo, because I’m a girl”.
Hold the phone!
Look, I get it. Japan has a lot of things that are tied to tradition. I get this is a festival where the participants are male - no biggie. It’s not like I have any desire to be strutting around in a loincloth in freezing Niigata temps anyway. The thing that grinds my gears is the “You can’t do this because you’re a girl” attitude that seems to permeate Japanese culture in so many ways.
You only have to pick up a newspaper here, and I’ll guarantee there’s almost always idiotic reasons for women not being allowed to do stuff or being blatantly discriminated against - and a lot of the time it’s these “traditions” at the root of it. Many of them are often archaic and outdated, but people hang onto them like society is going to crumble into a heap if they don’t.
Some of you may remember the story a year or so ago, where a man collapsed inside a sumo ring, and the paramedics on hand were female. They were initially barred from entering the ring because they were women, and “ancient tradition” sees we ladies as impure because of menstrual blood. I wish I was kidding - but tradition dictates that it’s smarter to let a guy potentially die from a heart attack than be treated by a trained professional who just happens to be female.
It’s not just that instance though. There was also the Tokyo Medical University scandal where female students test scores were being altered to ensure only a certain ratio of women got accepted. There’s the attitudes towards women at work, particularly women who have children or are at childbearing age - I've personally known women who have conveniently been let go once they were pregnant. There's the crummy wage disparity between men and women, and the fact that women are expected to do the vast majority of unpaid work around the home even when they are in paid employment - such as cleaning, meal preparation and caring for children.
I'm sure there are those who would be offended by a foreigner offering critiques on hundreds, even thousands of year old traditions and the attitudes towards gender roles here. But surely, at a certain point, fresh opinions are needed. Women aren't second class citizens. A four year old excitedly chanting a slogan from a historic festival (that just happens to be comprised of male-only participants) isn't a reason to be hushed. She's a kid - and the last thing I want indoctrinated into her mind at this age is that she can't do something just because she's female.
After spending the last several years in the beating heart of Tokyo, I will be spending the next three in the countryside of Japan. I adore this country and all it has to offer - and I'm always learning more and more about life here as I go along!