Japan: How Can You Guys Still Be So Sexist?

by ashkaufen

I’m not exactly sure how to talk about this topic without offending anyone, but I’ll do my best. Hopefully it will make sense and not come off as rambling. It probably will, though. You’ve been warned. Also just want to give a heads up that the subject matter I’ll be talking about is a little risqúe. You’ve been double-warned.

I’ve had Japan on the brain lately. Also, I just came back from Okinawa 4 days ago (first and only trip to Japan). It was absolutely wonderful, the weather was perfect, the sea was gorgeous, the food was amazing, and the people – true to their worldwide reputation – were unfailingly polite, courteous and kind. Besides my recent travels to the actual country itself, I’ve recently resumed teaching at a Taipei branch office of a major Japanese company (where the student herself is Taiwanese but speaks fluent Japanese at work). Then, at this stage I’ve accumulated several years worth of teaching Japanese students English here in Taiwan, a wide range of ages, from children to adults, both men and women.

Most of my students were and are salarymen. I might add, that to my surprise lot of them were really open and candid with me. I may have been more of a therapist than a teacher on more than one occasion. Some, true to our western cultural stereotype, were more reserved. Once, a pint-sized CEO bellowed at me during a class “Americans have no morals!” I hadn’t done anything to provoke him, maybe it was just a bad day. Maybe he was going through culture shock in Taiwan and having periodic outbursts. Hard to imagine since he had shared that he was enjoying more perks in Taiwan than back home, things like a personal chauffeur. Who knows. With my Japanese students, as with Taiwanese, I’ve had hours of conversation across a wide range of topics. Cumulatively, all of these experiences, taken together, have led me to ponder deeply on some of the phenomenons of Japanese culture. I can’t help myself, I was a Cultural Anthropology major and I am a huge culture nerd.

So, that Taiwanese student who works at the Japanese company I’ve recently resumed teaching English at just told me that she is not afraid to argue with her Japanese boss, but when doing so will use English. My first thought? “You are awesome.” I am not a fan of strict hierarchies in the workplace, everyone should be open to critiques. That’s my opinion. Western workplace M.O. is open communication. Nobody can opt out. If your seniority makes you untouchable, that’s a really inflexible work environment. In other words, it would be a breeding ground for resentment amongst employees toward senior staff. In Asia, strangely, it doesn’t usually play out that way. Out here people tend to embrace whatever level they’re own and conduct themselves accordingly. If you’re ‘underneath’ someone, you embrace that role and serve them to the best of your ability. It results in a functional system that as well as it works, baffles me. I guess western people just don’t like hierarchies, and we can only serve others so much before we start to hate their guts.

Anyways, according to the student, Japanese language constrains such things as arguing with one’s boss if you are in the subservient role.  Not speaking a word of Japanese myself, beyond konnichiwa and oishi, I was both disturbed and intrigued. I’d heard from other (Japanese) students of mine in the past that in Japan one must adhere to the spoken style of Japanese deemed appropriate for his or her status in relation to others (especially in a professional setting) lest they appear inept or idiotic. Also, that there are gender-specific spoken Japanese styles for both men and women, with different grammar forms and vocabulary. Still I didn’t realize that the entire language had been engineered in order to guide behaviors. Scary and fascinating.

I realize I may sound like I’m attacking Japanese culture. But that’s not so much my intention. Rather, I’m just looking in from an outside perspective, and using the little bits I’ve learned to make a critique. I mean, I can’t really help but feeling like a lot of the practices that are so ingrained in their mode of thinking are inhibitive of progress, especially for women. Not saying my home country of the USA is any beacon of righteousness or anything, either. It’s not. There is no such thing as a perfect culture. Moreover, the whole world is a hot mess right now. But Japan has been sexist for way too long and everyone has just kind of let them be that way. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that 1. They’re rather homogenous, and 2. They’re remarkably insular as a social group. Korea’s no different, really. Taiwan is much more of an open-minded society when it comes to foreigners (not just any foreigners, maybe only white foreigners and Japanese). Still Japan is renowned for it’s exclusion of foreigners.

The thing that grinds my gears most of all about the Japanese mind (a term one of my Japanese students used to refer to their thinking, he acknowledges himself that their values are stringent, inflexible and difficult to change) is the attitude toward women. Women in Japan, as a general rule, do not work after they marry. And that’s not all, married women working in Japan is something that is considered ridiculous, even humorous. Seriously. Ambitious women who want a career after they tie the knot are fodder for comedy. Say what? How can this be so in 2016? Facepalm. Japan, get it together. You can’t go on like this..

Let’s talk about the business culture in Japanese society. Aside from attending regularly scheduled work in the office, most Japanese salarymen engage in after-hours business, too. The place wherein which they go in order to do this are venues that in English are known as hostess bars. These exist in Taiwan too, on Linsen North Road and vicinity, which may well be the most notorious area in the city. Many of them cater to Japanese customers, but Taiwanese men go as well. Anyway, these places employ women for the purpose of entertaining men, usually after work and into the late hours. From what I understand, most of the girls are young and all dolled up in scantily-clad ensembles. They’re kind of like on-site escorts.

Although they don’t usually have actual sex with customers, they conduct themselves as the epitome of servility; pouring drinks, laughing at bad jokes, putting up with creepy/lecherous bullshit. Trying to make them feel like they are the bees knees. In Taipei, hostess bars almost always have a concierge-type guy, who stands on the sidewalk behind a little kiosk that’s pretty discreet and looks like a parking valet stand with a Hennessy or Johnny Walker ad on it. That guy lets customers into the building, another guy leads them to a room, and after that the girls will be brought in, dressed to the 9’s, and told to stand in a row for the customers to assess. The guys choose their companions for the evening from the selection and the others are sent away.

I can’t imagine how depressing it would be to have to endure the shame of trying to make yourself look as alluring and provocative as possible, only to be sent away by (often) haggard, lecherous, way-too-old-for-you businessmen and/or gangsters. Not that it would be much better to be chosen to hang out with them. I feel bad for all of the girls who work there, and for good reason as there is a high suicide rate among girls in that line of work. Another fun fact: this job allows them to earn more than they would working in a white collar office job (who needs hopes and dreams when you can objectify yourself for a greater reward?) The benefits only go so far, though. Eventually you’ll sink into hopelessness and despair.

So yeah, IMHO, hostess bars are quite simply a female-objectifying hell. And I think many Japanese and Taiwanese people would agree. Regardless of the higher wages hostesses earn as opposed to office workers, it’s not acceptable to work as one and you will face social ostracization. Still, visiting such venues is a major part of business for (I think it’s safe to say most) Japanese salarymen, both married and unmarried. I think their wives know, too. It’s just something those poor women tolerate as par for the course. In addition to Taiwan, there are hostess bars in China and HK, as well. Probably all over Asia. But Japan is the stronghold of the hostess bar culture. My Japanese students have told me that their bosses and senior managers expect them to go these places, something they’re not always willing to do yet can’t refuse. It is considered a responsibility. Often times, such outings can be charged to the company expense account.

As a woman, learning about how so much important biz in Asia is done in hostess bars has made me uneasy for a multitude of reasons. (A) It’s one of the obvious reasons why women are so marginalized professionally in Japanese culture; nobody is going to invite a female colleague to join the group of guys going to the hostess place; thus, they’re excluded from important business deals and forming important relationships with colleagues and clients. Hostess bars facilitate male bonding. (B) Men who visit these places will inevitably wind up viewing women as servile beings; from what I can see already one of the unfortunate facts about Japanese culture. Once again, I don’t mean to talk shit. A lot of American guys like strippers, but as far as I know only gangsters do biz at the strip joint, not white collar company employees. As far as I know.

My Taiwanese husband has heard me out time and again as I’ve cursed a blue streak about how the aforementioned cultural setup makes it impossible for women to progress in Japanese culture. Even though hostess bars exist in Taiwan and are frequented by certain Tw businessmen, it’s not mainstream like it is in Japan. It’s borderline scandalous here. In Japan it seems like people just think of hostess bars as a normal, acceptable part of professional culture.

I was really on the rampage one day after a Japanese student (salaryman who visits hostess bars on the reg) innocently asked (if you can buy the idea that someone who does such things could maintain a grain of innocence) if women in America work after marriage. I told him that they almost always do. I restrained myself from shouting about how this is 2016 and he and his country need to snap the eff out of it and liberate their poor women from the tireless, misogynistic mindset that keeps them down. But that would have just made me look crazy. He proceeded to tell me that he found it a surprise that American wives would work – “Isn’t America a country with high salaries?” He asked.

He was implying that he thought men made enough money so that women wouldn’t have to work indicating that he was mentally way past any attempt I could make to ground him in reason. The concept of women having career goals and aspirations was simply beyond him. Undoubtedly someone will stumble across my blog eventually  and wonder why in the heck would I continue to teach such people English, and perhaps also, why wouldn’t you try to talk some sense into him? Well, first of all, I’ve tried to talk sense into various Asian males over the years since I’ve lived in Taiwan, and with the exception of my husband those efforts were pretty useless. I’m not giving up, I just try to choose my battles carefully because it takes a lot of energy. If they’re old they don’t want to listen. If they’re young, they might listen, but they don’t change. So what I’m choosing to do right now is just hope that misogynistic norms in Asian culture start to fade out. Japan is the worst when it comes to that stuff. Still, there’s still a lot of work to do right here in Taiwan.