Feminism in Japan - The Fight Against Japanese Sexism

Japan has a reputation for being a sexist country, with gender inequality and some cultural factors that favor machismo. This generates many questions and doubts. Aren't there feminists to fight for equality in Japan? In this article, we are going to talk about sexism and feminism in Japan.

The history of sexist Japan

Japanese society was never meant to be built under the idea of Gender Equality, at least not in the Western sense, the Japanese Sociology class itself talks about such a subject. Since the beginning of Japan, there was a hierarchy between the sexes.

During the Tokugawa period, women were subordinate to men and needed to be obedient to the men in the family, be they father-in-law, husband and brother. They were taught only to take care of the family and to be a good mother.

Even with the fall of the Tokugawa regime and the Meiji Restoration, the status of women in Japanese society remained unchanged. To this day women still have a strong role as a mother, except that culturally women take care of home finances.

The Meiji constitution of 1889 did not grant any legal rights, keeping women under the condition of subordinates and under the legal responsibility of “parents and heads of household”. With Westernization, Japanese women began their struggle for rights.

Despite the slowness in resolving some egalitarian situations, such a reform banned trafficking in women, allowed women to be allowed to file for divorce, and extended equal primary education to both sexes as early as the 19th century.

Feminism in Japan - a sexist country?

The history of Feminism in Japan

The history of feminism in Japan is quite old, but the struggles started along with feminism in the West. Many historians argue that Japanese feminism has its origins in the Heian period, some 1000 years ago.

However, this idea can be disagreed, since most Japanese during this period did not seem to have any awareness of gender equality and more as a consequence of cultural phenomena.

A more precise date would be during the early 20th century, when Western ideas began to flow into Japanese society. However, Japan has never had a large-scale feminist movement at any time in its history.

The only reason why women are protected by the same laws as male individuals was Beate Siota Gordon, an American civilian born in Europe who wrote the draft of Article 24 of the Japanese Constitution.

Many concrete changes were made as a result, including voting rights and reforms in marriage systems. In fact, Japan was quicker in allowing women to vote than most other countries.

Japan’s economic boom in the 1990s also led women into the labor market, which today may be independent of men. Unfortunately, gender inequality can be seen in salary differences between men and women.

Feminism in Japan - a sexist country?

Absence of 2nd and 3rd Wave Feminism in Japan

Second-wave Feminism is often considered a popular movement during the mid-20th century that focuses on women’s enlightenment, primarily on employment and affordability.

Women demanded access rights to privileges that previously only men had, so it can be described as women chasing masculinity, rather than gender equality.

Society has become tolerant of girls looking for masculinity, like purifying their scientific academic career, wearing men’s clothes (like jackets and pants) and having hobbies like shooting and driving, which has become a trend in the last century.

However, this movement never reached Japan, at least not on a large scale. It seems to be widely accepted that Japanese culture values a completely different concept in relation to gender equality.

Japanese feminism differs from Western feminism in that less emphasis is placed on individual autonomy. That's because Japan is a team-working society, so things like individualism aren't pervasive in Japanese culture.

The Japanese people's resistance to the struggles of feminism is deeply woven into the culture of enduring the worst situations without complaining or making a scene. Even with Shizue Kato and Chizuko Ueno's fights we didn't have that much progress.

Feminism in Japan - a sexist country?
Here we have Shizue Kato, Chizuko Ueno and Kaneko Fumiko.

Do Japanese women feel inferior?

According to a survey that asked people if they wanted to be reborn with another sex, 46.7% of men and women responded that they would like to stay as they are. Women seem to benefit greatly from this gender difference.

This is apparent when you look at Japanese teenagers. When you go to Tokyo Disneyland or music schools, art schools and language classes, most of the teenagers present are women.

Girls have much more opportunities to enrich their teenage lives than boys, because girls are exempt from social obligations imposed on boys, such as academic / professional success and family traditions.

While boys are stuck in cram schools and after-school curricula, often slaughtered by their instructors, girls can go out and follow their passions or go out with friends. So the kind of inequality in Japan is not 100% bad.

Japanese teenagers also have a great influence on our culture, which can be felt not only in Japan, but around the world. They are often the protagonists of many novels and manga that even define young fashion and vocabulary.

In addition, gender inequality in Japan is often reinforced by women themselves. Many older Japanese women tend to vote for conservative politicians. Shintaro Ishihara, a former Tokyo governor widely regarded as ultra-conservative, was elected with the support of older women.

There is also this arms race among women, especially housewives, about how to be a perfect woman. Obento is a clear example of this. That is, women are not trying to be men, because they like to be women.

Feminism in Japan - a sexist country?

Kikokushijo - Returned Children

Kikokushijo [帰国子女] refers to children of Japanese expatriates who participate in their education outside of Japan. It is often used to refer to immigrant children who have returned to Japan, or simply Japanese who had a Western life before Japan.

Feminism gains strength in Japan because of the Kikokushijo who have experienced feminism and freedom in foreign lands and are particularly passionate about changing the system. Similar to the Brazilians who live complaining about Japan and its culture.

There are many feminists in Japan, but the vast majority of them are repatriates, immigrants or people with some experience abroad. We rarely heard of a purely Japanese activist. As a minority, its influence is limited.

Feminism in Japan - a sexist country?

Japanese Feminists

Women with strong personalities, refused to accept the role of "good women" and ended up paying with their lives for their radical activism. Among them, Kanno Suga (1881-1911), Kaneko Fumiko (1906-1926) and Itô Noe (1895-1923) stand out.

Some other women tried to fight fairly by seeking support from liberal men, but failed to achieve good results in trying to change the policy. Of course, there are some movements that deserve to be highlighted in this article.

Prominent feminist scholars in Japan over the past few decades include sociologist Ueno Chizuko and feminist theorist Ehara Yumiko. Nowadays we have many women who follow an independent career, called Kyariaūman.

Mitsu Tanaka she was the most visible individual figure in Japan’s radical feminist movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s. She wrote a series of pamphlets on feminist topics, the most well-known being Liberation from Toilets.

Misako Enoki was a pharmacist who organized activists to push for the legalization of the birth control pill. His approach was to attract media attention by forming a protest group called Chupiren, who wore pink helmets.

We also recommend searching for:

  • Chizuko Ueno, a female studies scholar and activist;
  • Sayaka Osakabe - founder of Matahara Net;
  • Minori Kitahara, owner of a sex toy store for women;
  • Mitsu Tanaka, feminist, acupuncturist and writer;
  • Hisako Matsui, film director;
Feminism in Japan - a sexist country?
Sayaka Osakabe, Minori Kitahara and Mitsu Tanaka.

Feminist Movements of Japan

In 1970, in the wake of the anti-Vietnam war movements, a new women’s liberation movement called ūman ribu emerged in Japan from the New Left along with radical student movements.

This movement was in sync with radical feminist movements in the United States and elsewhere, catalyzing a resurgence of feminist activism in the 1970s and beyond.

Japanese feminists are so cool that in the midst of the freedom movement, they not only wanted equality with men, but also emphasized that men should be freed from the oppressive patriarchal and capitalist system.

In 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The convention was ratified by the Japanese government in 1985. Of course, that was not enough.

Sekirankai - Red Wave Society

Sekirankai, was the first socialist women’s association. Yamakawa Kikue and others organized the association in April 1921. The Red Wave manifesto condemned capitalism, arguing that it transformed women into slaves and prostitutes.

Rural families were forced to hire their daughters for factories due to financial difficulties. These girls were forced to live in dormitories, unable to leave, except to work. They worked 12-hour shifts in poor condition.

Sexism in Language

Often women in Japan are expected to speak according to traditional standards of onnarashii (女らしい). In speech, onnarashii employs an artificially loud tone of voice, polite forms of speech and frequency of words considered feminine.

Feminists differ in their responses, some believe that such language is based on gender and finds it "unacceptable". Other feminists argue that history and vocabulary differences by gender are not linked to equal oppression in the West.

Feminism in Japan - a sexist country?

The Results of Feminism in Japan

Throughout history the influence of Japanese and Western feminists has managed to make major changes in Japanese society. Below we will list a short quick history of these changes:

  • 1986 - Implementation of the Equal Employment Opportunities Law;
  • 1919 - Creation of the New Women Association;
  • 1921 - Law allows women to participate in political meetings;
  • 1923 - Formation of the Federation of Women’s Organizations in Tokyo;
  • 1946 - Women were able to vote for the first time;
  • 1948 - Abortion allowed in Japan;
  • 1976 - Men are allowed to use the woman’s surname;
  • 1985 - Approved Bill on Equal Employment Opportunities;
  • 1999 - The birth control pill has been legalized in Japan;
  • 2016 - Yuriko Koike became the 1st governor of Tokyo and was re-elected in 2020;

I intend to update this history of achievements, if you remember an important date, just comment ...

Other achievements for the benefit of women were the implementation of exclusive wagons and other establishments, thus allowing security. Another widely discussed subject is the security of women in Japan against perverted men.

Article 14 says: "All people are equal before the law and there will be no discrimination in political, economic or social relationships because of creed, sex, social status or family origin".

Japanese Constitution Article 14
Feminism in Japan - a sexist country?

The influence of women in Japan

Women in Japan are superior in many ways, I don't understand the idea of some extremist feminists wanting to be like men in some ways, I don't see any men wanting to wear a skirt or walk naked (without generalizing, I'm talking about extremists).

Women have been voting in Japan for more than 70 years, in fact more women vote than men in national elections. If Japanese women were seriously unhappy with their situation, they could support candidates who put “sexism” first.

Sexism and feminism is not a hot topic in Japan, even though the media frequently address such issues. We can culturally see the presence of women in Japanese media, they are protagonists of games and are seen as leaders.

Take any American game, cartoon, movie and TV show. Most of us have macho protagonists or stories centered on men. In Japan, most stories have female leadership and guidance.

Speaking of culture, the first novelist in the world is Murasaki Shikibu who wrote the “Tale of Genji” in the early 11th century. Literature in the Heian Period (794-1085) was more or less predominantly female.

Japanese education was free for the upper class at such an early and troubled period in history. All of this was thanks to low barriers and equal educational opportunities, unlike many developed western countries.

Japan's richest and most influential celebrities are women. Women have more social freedom and less pressure than men. Perhaps the fact that it is easier to be a woman than a man in Japan contributes to feminism's lack of power.

Feminism in Japan - a sexist country?

Is Japan really Sexist? Is there gender inequality?

In conclusion, there is a social structure within the country that prevents feminism from occurring and the reinforcement of gender bias comes not only from established men, but also from women themselves. The system works like this, whether you like it or not.

There are moves to change the system, but most of them are foreign-led or led by foreigners and have limited influence in Japan. Those who proclaim “sexist” Japan are predominantly foreign men and women.

When they are not foreigners, they are usually high-level career women. You will not see any interviews with ordinary Japanese women. You won't see quotes from ordinary Japanese women talking about sexism or feminism.

If you are a Brazilian who is complaining about gender inequality or sexism in Japan, know that Brazil is in 94 in the GII ranking and 79 in the HDI, while Japan is in 22 in the GII and 19 in the HDI. In other words, Brazil is more sexist than Japan.

These calculated values show that Japan loses 0.103 of development because of gender inequality, while Brazil loses 0.407. So before questioning cultural values, you may want to change your way of thinking a little.

It is undeniable that there is gender inequality or sexism in Japan, Brazil or any country in the world, and cultural factors denote this. Even so, before leaving criticizing the culture of the countries, it is better to try to look at the navel itself.

In fact, I have seen several Japanese people ask the same question about Americans and Brazilians. You should ask why humans are sexist and label the Japanese or Japan as sexist. Each culture and society has its own way of solving things.

A Japanese woman told me that the reason people think Japan is exclusively sexist is because they don't have enough knowledge about the history of "sexism", "the women's liberalization movement", "machismo", "chivalry" and others.

Excuse me, I didn't mean to be rude, but I honestly am tired of so much generalization that people do over a certain subject. It seems to be in Brazilian culture to complain about things, so such phrases are only for those who question Japan in a gross and unfair way.

This text was written based on the responses of several women on sites like Quora, in addition to thorough research in articles, books and academic research on feminism in Japan. These are not my words, but the words of the people!

In order to complement this article, we recommend reading our article with a theme: “Japanese women, respected or despised?“. I hope you enjoyed this reading! If you liked, share and leave your comments.

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2 thoughts on “Feminismo no Japão – A Luta contra o Sexismo Japonês”

  1. Acredito que as mulheres devam lutar por mais igualdade e liberdade, mas há de se ater aos perigos do feminismo, como se tem visto atualmente no ocidente, o feminismo quase nunca vem sozinho, acaba por trazer consigo um conjunto de ideias ultrapassadas, tais como o socialismo, além de conceitos perigoso como por exemplo, o distanciamento e em casos mais estremos, que são cada vez menos raros, a aversão e a propagação de ódio contra as religiões e as tradições, que são pilares fundamentais de qualquer nação prospera. Espero que as pessoas anseiem e busquem por mais liberdade, mas que reflitam sobre ela e que não se deixem limitar pela ideologia.

  2. I believe that women should fight for more equality and freedom, but there are á of sticking to the dangers of feminism, as is currently seen in the West, feminism almost never comes alone, it ends up bringing with it a set of outdated ideas, such as socialism, in addition to dangerous concepts such as, for example, distancing and in more extreme cases, which are becoming less and less rare, the aversion and propagation of radio against religions and traditions #231;s, which are fundamental pillars of any prosperous nation. I hope that people will yearn and search for more freedom, but that they will reflect on it and not be limited by ideology.

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