The media often presents Japanese women as sexy and strange. Yet it also frequently reports on the pressures women face to become successful in their careers, suggesting they have a duty to assist Japan’s economy.
This week, the readers of the leading US business newspaper the Wall Street Journal were presented with a striking image of three Japanese women wearing bikinis, bathing in red wine at an onsen. Apparently Beaujolais Nouveau is good for the skin. It was a typical fun picture story and a dramatic contrast to the heavyweight piece in the Financial Times about female entrepreneurs being coached for leadership roles. The FT piece showed two women leaning over a laptop, working hard.
The FT explained that the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for more women to take leading roles in business and government. If he succeeds in closing the gender gap in employment, Goldman Sachs estimates it would boost Japan’s gross domestic product by almost 13 per cent.
The contrast of the pictures and articles in the FT and the WSJ reveal Japan’s dilemma over gender. Many sources this week covered a report from the World Economic Forum showing that Japan ranks 101st out of 142 countries in the global gender gap index. That was a few places higher than last year but Japan’s female participation rate in the labour force remains one of the lowest among developed economies.
It has been claimed that one of the reasons for this is because many women have trouble maintaining careers after having babies because of “mata hara,” short for “maternity harassment at work. A government survey suggested this is a widespread problem and the British newspaper the Guardian cited it as an example of widespread discrimation against women by Japanese men.
Examples of Japanese male chauvinism are seized on by the press. Take the case of the manga cartoon called Himozairu. It showed men learning how to become good at housework in order to attract girlfriends. The Washington Post said that the cartoon by Akiko Higashimura, a well-known Japanese manga artist, was withdrawn from a magazine called Morning because some readers claimed it was demeaning to men.
Another area where there is a lively debate over gender is gay rights.
Japanese women are often seen as depending on men for emotional and financial fulfilment. Yet the widely circulated photographs of Hiroko Masuhara and Koyuki Higashi, who recently signed a civil partnership in Tokyo, presented a different image.
The Tokyo ward of Shibuya has issued them with a certificate which allows them to enjoy many of the benefits of a couple which are normally reserved for married people. Writer Erica Friedman discussed the issue in Slate and asserted that LGBTQ groups in Japan are becoming braver every year. She said that many people who have never really thought about gay rights are now considering the issue due to the media.