by Shoko Plambeck The day my birth records were sent to a Shinto shrine my father skinned a badger and hung its coat above my crib. The tale of my birth supposedly unfolds like this: The day I was born the stars were restless and the earth was tossing a blizzard thick as cream through the Nebraskan plains. My father was on his way to work in his red Chevy when he came across a dash of brown, obscured by the snow like a fainting spell. He shot it, thinking it was a soft furred marten, but what he killed instead was a badger. The badger of the plains. Symbol of earth, grounding and consistency; finding her in such weather conditions was like the moon waxing when it should wane.
Still, he put the creature in the back of his truck. When he got to work, there was a call from my mother: It’s two months early, but I’m going into labour. My grandparents got the same call and flew in from Japan. When my obaachan first saw me she announced, This girl will be named Shoko, spirit in flight, and years later when I moved from place to place, hobby to hobby, man to man, she’d lament naming me so irresponsibly. In a shoebox, I went home.
The badger skin was nailed above my crib and my birth records were sent to the monk at the family Shinto shrine. The results came weeks later. My mother read as I drank eagerly from her; she herself was a dark star but at twenty-four she could not even imagine what that would mean. Only years later would she say that the badger had to be a mother and the unimaginable must have happened to make her split into the fatal snow.
My mother read: The child will need to seek grounding. In the moment she was born the stars were restless and they will reverberate through her blood forever. Before she could read any further, my grandmother snatched the fortune out of her hand and read: bright as Sirius, inconstant as Mercury.
This poem was originally posted in Matador Review but was reposted with permission of the author.
Shoko Plambeck is a writer, traveler, and poet. She studied English literature at Temple University in Tokyo and the University of Vermont. She currently lives in Japan but can’t wait to move back to the US to be with her cockatiel and poetry books again.
It’s been several months since we announced the publication of the Japanese angsty poetry collection, Molasses and Shochu, but we wanted to share this new addition by Phoebe Amoroso also know as ume’SHHU.
For those of you who are not familiar with long-standing Japanese tradition, Valentine’s Day here is celebrated by women giving chocolate to men, sometimes out of obligation aka 義理チョコ (giri-choco), and sometimes, containing trace amounts of menstrual blood. On March 14th, men reciprocate by giving white chocolate to the women they fancy or who bestowed chocolate upon them.
Although, as you will see, the complexity of this poem, written by Ms. Amoroso, briefly touches upon these cultural traditions. They are important confectionary artifacts that have existed many decades after being created by Japan’s male-dominated cocoa industry and society at large. Please see the annotated version in the hardback edition of the book to deepen your understanding.
This chocolate isn’t black Nor as large as I had hoped. Every March 14th Is my Friday 13th. I have no lover To sweeten the occasion. Ever hoping for a Melty Kiss But forever doomed To Crunky Balls from the conbini– I had, after all, merely been convenient. There is no sugar coating that fact. Even though, Japan Has resigned me to smaller portions I was not expecting this starvation. I stared at the wrapper on my desk And wondered how obligation could be so bitter. Unwrapping the white KitKat I held every total loss, My palm sticky.
Four seconds, after the counting of the ballots. That’s how long.
Four seconds in, and Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike knew she had won the Tokyo gubernatorial election for the second term. Her aides said later that it was more like two and a half seconds; a historical, landslide victory with nearly 60% of the vote in her name. The other candidates were dead in the water before they realized what hit them. Koike’s contender candidate Taro Yamamoto, an actor turned politician whose ideas for government reform made significant waves in the Lower House elections last year but who lost to Koike by over 3 million votes, told the press: “Mt. Yuriko was higher than I thought. I just couldn’t climb over it.”
If Yamamoto’s statement sounds rude or vaguely sexual, don’t worry – he probably intended it that way. Yuriko Koike was and continues to be, the first woman governor of Tokyo and her term in office has been defined by a lot of ruffled feathers in the male-dominated world of Nippon politics. Not just because she’s a woman, a fact which many older Japanese men still have trouble wrapping their minds around, but because Yuriko Koike has never ceased to remind everyone of her femininity.
It all seems a bit Marie Antoinette-ish. Let them refrain from everything. Let them stay home and Zoom their lives away while wearing face masks in the clammy Tokyo heat.
At age 67, Koike is well-preserved, perfectly coiffed and shod in a way that would earn applause from Carrie Bradshaw. She never loses her cool, raises her voice or looks harried. Her thirst for designer hand-bags is legendary, and rumor has it she keeps a room designated solely for the purpose of storing her darlings. Other rumors swirling inside the corridors of the Tocho building, says that she’s an old-fashioned gal who got to where she is today, by sleeping around with the right men yesterday. Or that she often treats her male staff as if they were hosts working in her own private host bar.
Ouch. That’s not nice, Yuriko-san, considering you’ve been waging war on host bars since day one of the pandemic. Most of these bars are located on YOUR turf in Shinjuku ward and yet you refer to them as “places of the night” that must be “refrained (your favorite word)” from visiting more than a few times a year. It all seems a bit Marie Antoinette-ish. Let them refrain from everything. Let them stay home and Zoom their lives away while wearing face masks in the clammy Tokyo heat.
Excuse the tone – I’ve just read through Jotei (Queen) – Yuriko Koike, the unauthorized biography by Taeko Ishii that came out on May 29. As of July 6th, the day after Yuriko Koike won her second term, the book had sold over 200,000 copies. “It’s not a flattering portrait of Koike-san,” said Ishii in an online interview. “It’s frightening to think that ultimately, this woman won’t rest until she becomes the next Prime Minister. Who put her in this position? We all did. Japan put her in this seat of power. It’s the culture of old Japanese men, who will empower women only if they’re attractive and will bend to their will. It’s the culture of Japanese women who believe that women politicians are clean and selfless and will battle old men politicians on their behalf. The whole of Japanese society created Yuriko Koike, Tokyo governor.” Ishii’s book is densely researched, especially in regards to Koike’s past. The governor has an impressive CV – for a long time, she had told the press that she had graduated from the University of Cairo in Egypt, at the top of her class and was fluent in Arabic. Based on an interview with Koike’s old roommate in Cairo, Ishii writes that Koike quit the university after two years and only pretended to have graduated. Her knowledge of Arabic is sketchy at best, and that she had told this friend, “I’m going to write an autobiography but I won’t include you because then people will know I lied.”
There are other examples of Koike’s brazenness. When victims of the Hanshin Earthquake back in 1995 came to her for help at her office, Koike started painting her nails, and then told them to leave. When the late Shigeru Yokota, father of Megumi Yokota who had gone missing when she was 13 years old, suspected of being kidnapped by the North Korean government, held a meeting with her present, Koike shed tears as she listened to his story. After it ended, she left and then came back for her precious handbag. Her words were, “Oh good, there it is. I thought my bag had been kidnapped!”
Ishii calls Koike “a monster” but from Koike’s point of view, that title may have just as well have gotten her re-elected. Koike has thrived on negativity, in particular the sexist, ageist jibes aimed at her by fellow politicians and the public. Four years ago when she was running for governor, Shintaro Ishihara – himself Tokyo’s ex-governor, called her “an old woman with too much make-up. Who would vote for her?” In that instant Ishihara dug himself into a hopelessly deep grave, and Yuriko Koike won the election.
This time around, it was former Livedoor CEO Takafumi Horie, who did the honors. Horie is he head of his own political party, and had called for a complete reopening of the metropolis plus an acknowledgment from the Tokyo metropolitan government that they had been mistaken in installing “severe” shutdown measures during April and May. To this end, Takafumi Horie sent three contenders into the gubernatorial race, but in total vain. His public image went down the tubes too, after he publicly called Koike “a piece of shit” when she called out for limited entry to Tokyo supermarkets, to avoid congestion at the cash registers.
Ishii points out that Koike will be in power for as long as Japanese male politicians refuse to hold any meaningful political discussions with women in politics without resorting to gender issues, ageist issues and just plain mud-slinging. Koike may have showed these old men who’s in charge, hah! But after that personal triumph, she has left Tokyo staring into an abyss. She seems to have no real plans for the bad stuff: rising infections, the scaled-down but still expensive Olympics slated 12 months away, joblessness and bankruptcies and a floundering economy. What now, Yuriko-san? The answer surely, is not in your handbag.
*Editor’s Note: This was originally published at “The Empress of Tokyo Reigns Forever” but Kaori Shoji, the author, had some misgivings. ‘As a Japanese, I’d prefer not to refer to anyone as Empress unless they’re a part of the Imperial Family. Which is why I used the word Queen instead.’ However, queen is not quite a proper translation for 女帝 (jotei) so we used the term Imperatrix instead which has a closer meaning to the title of the book about Ms. Koike, and sounds a little like Dominatrix, which is also a nice fit for Madame Koike.
From July 1, Narnia, Mordor, and Covidia will be among the 144 nations and regions affected by Japan’s entry ban*
DOMEIDO NewsFlash: The Covid-19 problem continues as the world enters into a hot and humid summer. Even though Tokyo has completely reopened—albeit with a small spread of coronavirus due to the deplorables working in the night-trade— and residents are now able to travel between prefectures, Japan is not yet ready to open its doors to international visitors. Japan will also not let back in permanent residents who lived here and left, or admit anyone who might possibly be harboring the coronavirus, unless they are Japanese citizens.
Starting Tuesday, Japan will ban entry to non-citizens arriving from an additional 19 nations, including Narnia, Syriana, and Trumpistan. This brings the total of number of nations and regions in Japan’s no-entry list to 144. Covidia, the renegade province of China, is also under consideration for the ban. The Deep State was scheduled to be banned but no one is sure exactly where it’s located.
Some of Japan’s choices have resulted in intense criticism from outside of this island country, which was created by the Gods.
Foreign media pointed out that while Narnia is a temperate forested land, with talking animals that live in quaint houses and behave like people, and the land is populated by wicked witches, magic users, it also has had no reported cases of coronavirus since May 1st. This representational monarchy is also a fictional place. Syriana, is also a fictional nation modeled after Saudi Arabia and the subject of a suspense thriller starring a slovenly George Clooney, who put on weight for his role as a burnt-out CIA agent in the critically acclaimed film. Trumpistan is a satellite of Russia, ostensibly independent, carved out of what used to the United States of America.
At a press conference today, acting Foreign Minister, television comedian, Hitoshi Matsumoto, shushed complaints that Japan was closing itself off from the world. He also responded to criticism that Japan should not be naming fictional nations for the entry ban.
“I have heard the grumblings coming from Mordor, but we are not swayed in our decision. Of course, we have refused to let in anyone from the south of Mirkwood, so obviously the Mordorians are not happy either but Japan stays resolute,” Matsumoto said.
Matsumoto suggested that if other nations would falsify their data, like Japan, deliberately keep PCR testing low, and find the right scapegoats within their own nations, they could produce statistics that would allow Japan to reopen its borders to them—while saving face, but not necessarily saving lives.
Acting Prime Minister Aso (pronounced like asshole without the ‘L’) Taro, corrected earlier statements that citizens from Okinawa would also be banned from Japan. “It appears that Okinawa, while not part of the mainland, is also part of Japan. Therefore, we will allow people from the islands into Japan, provided they have their Ryukyu passport and a bank statement.”
While it appears that Japan is closing its borders tighter than ever, there were also signs that the nation is showing flexibility. Starting July 4th, anyone from Disneyland may enter Japan after agreeing to a two-week quarantine and showing they possess a Duffy Disney Bear as proof of citizenship in that country.
Prime Minister Aso also denied rumors that hosts in Kabukicho were being rounded and exiled to Sadogashima along with hostesses, sex workers and other denizens of “the night village”.
“If we exiled all the scapegoats, then who are we going to blame for our very low but still unacceptable coronovirus case count,” he pointed out. He added, “By the way, in about another week we are expecting a huge outbreak from the Black Lives Matter march and from everyone who tweeted mean things about Abe on twitter.”
Japan is warning citizens that social media, when used to criticise the government, breaks down social distancing and spreads coronavirus.
Japan is expected to relax the restrictions for entry after having exhausted all possible scapegoats for continued infections within Japan.
“We are going to need a fresh group of people to blame eventually. Then we’ll let you uncivilized barbarians who have a low mindo (民度) back into our land.”
Aso assured the foreign press, “I expect before the 2021 Olympics, that all entry bans and the coronavirus will vanish.”
*This article is printed with permission of Domeido News Agency (同盟童通信）, a fictional news agency that brings you the latest in news parodying Japanese news but really not that much of a parody.
Is there really no discrimination or racism in Japan?
This is a question that the creators of Japan’s beloved feminist podcast, SuperSmashHoes Podcast, and writer Yukari Peerless decided it was high time to ask. In a time when racism and police brutality in the United States have drawn global interest in the Black Lives Matter movement and the problems of intolerance all over the world, it’s certainly a question worth asking. Join Reflection on Racism, Diversity & Inclusion in Japan to find out more. Much of the discussion will be in Japanese but hopefully accessible.
Super Smash Hoes Podcast, hosted by Erika X and Fahreen Budhwani, and Yukari Peerless working with other NGOs have invited a group of experts and Japan hands to discuss issues of discrimination and racism in the shadows of the rising sun. Panelists include award-winning documentary film maker Miki Dezaki, Japan’s first black idol and sex worker rights advocate Amina du Jean, and Aerica Shimizu Banks,an engaging public speaker on the topic of diversity and an advocate for women of color who has accomplished much in her career. The speakers will talk about their own personal experiences with racism, ignorance, and prejudice and how to combat it.
If you wish to join the livestream, you are requested to contribute ¥1,000 yen which will be donated to two anti-racism charities. One is the Anti-Racism Information Center. The Center is an NGO that combats hate speech and raises awareness of the problems with xenophobia and misconceptions about race in a civil society.The other group is Save Immigrants Osaka which supports foreign immigrants detained in Osaka immigration center. https://www.facebook.com/saveimmigrantsOsaka/
Date: Wednesday, June 24 Time: 10am – 12pm Japan time (6pm – 8pm PST Tuesday June 23)
The Format: Round table discussion. It will be a “Webinar” on Zoom. The audience can watch but will be muted during the webinar. After the panel discussion, they will open up the floor and the audience can ask questions.
Admission: 1000 yen to a Paypal account. 100% to be donated to a charity.
They say it takes more than a death to change the world but perhaps that’s not true in the case of 22-year old Hana Kimura (木村花). She was a professional wrestler and one of the cast members of Terrace House, the now defunct reality TV franchise that first launched in 2012 and went on for eight seasons. For the uninitiated, Terrace House follows the relationship dynamics of three boys and three girls as they live as housemates in a posh seaside house with a terrace. Hana-chan as she was called, starred as herself – an up and coming wrestling star with pink hair who was eager to get ahead in the entertainment industry. In an episode aired on March 31st, Hana-chan unleashed her anger over a laundry mishap committed by a fellow (male) housemate. The two made up, but the whole thing exploded right in Hana-chan’s face.
Hordes of Terrace House fans posted Hana-chan hating comments – upwards of 300 a day – and many demanded that she either leave the show or die, immediately. It’s said that the Covid-19 induced isolation further drove Kimura over the edge. Alone in her home, she couldn’t help but read and obsess over the hellish comments on social media, directed straight at her.
On May 23rd, Hana Kimura was rushed to the hospital after friends found her lying on the floor in her apartment, but it was too late. The details of her death have not been disclosed, but she left a note, apologizing to her friends and thanking her mom for “bringing me into this world.” Astonishingly, the anonymous cyber bullies who were at least partly responsible for her death resumed their bashing, accusing her of being ‘weak and needy’ and ‘not cut out to endure the hardships of working in the entertainment industry.”
All that hate though, faded away after Fuji Television Network, the creator of the Terrace House franchise pulled the plug on the show five days after Hana-chan’s suicide. Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi is now pushing for a law to hunt down those who post hate comments, and slap them with fines or worse. Even Prime Minister Abe has moved on the issue, remarking that “hateful comments on the Internet have the power to do irreparable damage, and they should be stopped, if possible.” Since then, things have been pretty quiet. Hana Kimura’s critics have seemingly disappeared off the face of the Net at least for now, and news commentators are continuing to express their ‘profound regret’ over her death.
That said, a certain apprehension hangs in the air; it seems that the Abe Administration is milking the Terrace House tragedy to its own advantage. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, PM Abe’s popularity has hit an all-time low and the belated delivery of two “Abenomasks” per household that he promised back in March, has become a running joke. It seems that most things he does these days is being ridiculed. The death of Hana Kimura may have been a welcome respite from having to deal with the social ills spawned by the lingering coronavirus, and the pile of political embarrassments racked up during the nation’s 49-day shut-down. Moritomo scandal, anyone?
it seems that the Abe Administration is milking the Terrace House tragedy to its own advantage.
In the meantime, media pundits are pointing out that both the Abe Administration and the Japanese populace should have their minds on other, more relevant issues, like the racial protests tearing the US apart, and now raging in Europe as well.
Political columnist Takashi Odajima observed in Nikkei Shimbun that the pandemic has afforded the US an opportunity to take a hard look at social injustice, while in Japan that same pandemic has given the government an excuse to cover things up. “In Japan, the government hides its scandals and inconvenient truths under the masks they insist on wearing,” he wrote.
You don’t have to be a pundit like Odajima, to get that sinking feeling: once again, Japan lags way behind the west when it comes to grappling with stuff that truly matters, in spite of, or maybe because of, an ongoing pandemic. While we’re still wrapping our faces and panicking about the number of new infections cropping up in Tokyo (more than 10! How horrifying!), protesters across the Pacific are risking their lives for racial justice. The comparison is scathingly humbling. Gosh, we’re small. And scared shitless of direct conflict.
Odajima pointed out that the Japanese are hopelessly bad at arguing a point, or any form of adverse social interaction unless it’s done among family members. He’s right. The bad stuff happens mostly at home and behind closed doors. In some cases they continue for years before anyone finds out. There’s anonymous groping on trains, and faceless bullying on the net but public protests in broad daylight rarely occur unless the protesters are hiding their faces behind masks. This explains why Hana-chan got so much flack – she dared to express rage over public airwaves, in her own name. And though it’s been pointed out that the show’s producers obliquely coerced her to do so, many Terrace House viewers were too naive to see the difference between the ‘reality’ of reality shows, and real life.
Maybe that’s just the way the Abe Administration wants it. Passive silence behind masks is vastly preferable to outright self-expression, in whatever situation. Imagine if the Japanese took to the streets to protest income inequality, the plight of temp workers, foreign laborers, and single mothers, domestic violence and rampant child abuse–just a few items off the top of an endless list?
The truth is that at this point, the nation needs many more Hana Kimuras–brave enough to express anger and negative feelings without fear of being punished for it. Hopefully, we can do that better, once the masks come off.
People have different ways of dealing stress and fear, especially during a protracted battle with a worldwide pandemic. Some Japanese are claiming that superstition saved us (as opposed to the two cloth masks per person promised by Prime Minister Abe), along with praying at Shinto shrines and guzzling detoxifying green tea.
As fears over a Covid-19 ‘infection explosion’ very gradually recede in the rearview mirror, more people are in a mood to agree with these theories.
After all, rural and traditional Japan remained largely unscathed by Covid-19, and these are the areas where people routinely visit local shrines, carry omamori (お守り・talismans), ask for ‘oharai’ (お祓い) –which is the practice of having a Shinto priest chase out bad spirits and demons lurking in one’s immediate vicinity, and down a lot of tea after the ceremony. If you get a Buddhist priest to do it, it’s yakubarai (厄払い). Add to that list, the drawing of an Amabie and posting it on social media. You may have just the armor needed for pandemic warfare.
A what? An Amabie (pronounced ama-bi-eh) is a yokai (妖怪）which can be translated as apparition, phantom creature or monster. She has the appearance of a three-legged mermaid with a beak in lieu of a mouth and she’s been around since the mid-19th century, according to Edo-Period documents. Though the typical Japanese yokai is often grotesque and loves to play pranks on humans, the Amabie is a beach chick that emerges from the sea to foretell epidemics. If you carry around her picture, she can ward off mass contagion and the effect is doubled if you draw it yourself. A lot of people in Japan and elsewhere have tried their hand at drawing Amabie, and she now has a definite presence on social media, on #Amabiechallenge and others.
Strangely enough, the Amabie has become a thing that may actually work. As of May 20th, the Japanese government has lifted the State of Emergency order for most of the nation, excluding the Tokyo metropolitan area. But the capitol city has been reporting less than 20 new infection cases for a week. Day care centers are talking about reopening as early as the 25th. Some local bars are welcoming customers again, even if masks are mandatory and draft beer is a thing of the past. Yes, the economy is in shambles and there’s nothing on TV but at least we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
This isn’t the first time modern Japan has turned to superstition and yokai for solace and guidance. The late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, creator of the mega hit yokai manga series Ge ge ge no Kitaro (Spooky Kitaro) had always held that the yokai was what kept Japan from teetering over the edge into the abyss of disaster. Without their presence and powers, he said, the archipelago would just be a dreary sinkhole of greed and corruption. The yokai is a familiar figure in Japanese folklore, and some date back a thousand years. Some function as avatars for Shinto gods. Others do mischief and love to disrupt people as they go about their lives. The yokai can be friendly too, and will make good companions, as long as you respect tradition, revere nature and refrain from harming others.
Mizuki hails from Tottori prefecture, a very traditional region that has racked up a total of three– count ’em three!–Covid 19 infection cases and zero deaths so maybe his take on the yokai was right. Mizuki’s own illustration of the Amabie has been posted on social media since mid-March, courtesy of Mizuki Production, and apparently this has been printed out and carried inside wallets or folded into omamori sachets. A friend of mine in Tottori reports that local reverence for Mizuki has soared, and the 800 meter long “Mizuki Shigeru Road” in his hometown of Sakaiminato, which is marked with yokaistatues and merchandise shops, has seen a lot of (masked) tourist action. These people hang out bv the various yokai figuresto take photos, and leave little notes of prayer for the pandemic to end.
Shigeru Mizuki died in 2017 at the age of 93 but if he were around today, he would no doubt have had plenty to say about the government’s handling of the pandemic. Mizuki was a WWII veteran who lost an arm in combat in Papua New Guinea, and the harrowing experience shaped his views on authority and Japanese society. After the war Mizuki struggled to survive before settling down to write manga, which he continued doing right up until his death. For many years, he could barely make ends meet but his career took off when the Kitaro series hit prime time TV in the late 1960s. However, success didn’t turn his head or soften his judgement on what he saw as crimes committed by the Japanese government, be it throwing the nation into war, or going whole hog on nuclear energy. His manga was never cute or very accessible – they depicted the Japanese as desperate and conniving, with caricatured features like bad teeth, squinty eyes and terrible posture. His portraits of the typical Japanese male were so unflattering they resembled the Yellow Peril posters propagated by the US military during WWII. According to Mizuki, the only way these unattractive Japanese could achieve a slightly higher level of humanity, was to befriend a yokai.
Mizuki’s drawing of the Amabie though, is soft and friendly-looking. She really does seem concerned about the welfare of this archipelago. It’s not a bad picture to carry around, especially in a time when everyone is masked and avoiding eye contact as if the very act of acknowledging another person is a risky undertaking. If a picture of a three-legged mermaid is going to make people feel better about each other, it should probably be framed and put up inside the Diet building.
The COVID-19 outbreak has hit Japan hard as of late. Classrooms remain empty after spring break, restaurants begin to provide take-out, and factories stall upcoming projects. The number of workers who are predicted to lose their jobs due to the novel Coronavirus was projected in the upwards of 1,021 people last month, according to the Ministry of Labor. Prime Minister Abe did declare a State of Emergency on April 7th, and the Ministry of Finance announced that ¥100,000 would be given to residents (and eventually confirmed that foreign residents were included) but some experts argue that this declaration occurred too late.
While April would normally be the start of new jobs for many in Japan, this April seems to have an opposite turnout for most job-seekers. Lines outside of Hello Work* buildings all over the country would be twice as long as lines for masks outside of drugstores. Certain locations have also reduced the amount of staff members on-duty, causing longer waiting times at local Hello Work branches.
(Hello Work is an employment service center operated by the Japanese government, under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Its main role is to help connect job seekers to companies in need of skilled labor.)
In early April, I became a part of this statistic. My 6-month contract at a city hall in Osaka was not granted for renewal, and the job openings for tourism and English education in the area seemed to have vanished as the governor also declared a state of emergency. I decided to reach out to Hello Work to see if I was eligible for any benefits and to search for jobs through their system.
I arrived on a Thursday morning around 11AM. The line encircled the entire building and moved slowly. There was little distance between us and we stood outside of the building for about two hours. Bottles of hand sanitizer were available to use before entering the building. It reminded me of Disneyland for a brief moment.
Once I entered the Hello Work office, I was greeted by an energetic staff member. Everyone in the office, including the job-seekers, were wearing masks. We were told to sit two to three seats apart from each other, and the seats for the computer lab were 1 seat apart. There appeared to be no multilingual support at this Osaka branch. Many of the people in the room appeared to be elderly or recently graduated from university. Some of the job-seekers previously worked in factories or in retail.
After about an hour, it was my turn. Since my previous contract was only for six months, I was unable to receive any benefits. But the staff member who assisted me thoroughly searched and found about fifteen jobs that I could apply for. The process itself took about 10 minutes. I turned around and saw the computer lab filled to the brim with anxious job-seekers. Most of them has 0 search results, and the staff would try their best to experiment with different search entries to find a match.
Hello Work branches all over the country seem to be facing the same dilemma. For many newly unemployed residents in the Chubu region, they faced the most difficulty with their former employer. “I did not know much about the paperwork I needed to file for unemployment”, said Guillerme Okada. “At the factories, we were suddenly told that we couldn’t work anymore. I had to ask several of my friends first.” Okada had brought someone with him as an interpreter to explain to his Japanese supervisor that he needed to give documents for Okada to receive unemployment benefits. “It is a common issue with factory workers in this area. If I struggle to get legal documentation, I struggle to trust this system. I came with my interpreter to Hello Work, but there were two already available to help me. I had a lot of support from my community and from them during this time.”
Other employers would also push back start dates and avoid paying the contracted salary despite the legal 60% minimum requirement. Maria M., a Tokyo resident, would get last-minute notices and conflicting information about her start date and paycheck.
“I had already given my previous job a month’s notice and quit to start this new one. I was supposed to start during the first week of April but they changed it. It’s at a store so telework is impossible.”
About four or five days later, she was asked to Skype with the human relations chair. Her hiring date was moved to May 15th with no pay in advance. She contacted the labor bureau about her situation. “They confirmed that my company was responsible for me. My friends [who also worked at the company] said that they were receiving part of their salary in April. When I told my employer that I contacted the labor bureau, they quickly agreed to offer me part of my contracted pay.”
During these uncertain times, it may be difficult to navigate unemployment and economic stability on top of acquiring the basic necessities for surviving the pandemic. As the numbers of infected individuals steadily increase, the ratio of available job positions drop to its lowest level in three years. However, with the national and local government bringing out new sources of financial aid for individuals and businesses alike, there is room for growth in the economy and policy change.
Just published our preprint, “Association of BCG vaccination policy with prevalence and mortality of COVID-19”. We critically evaluated the hypothesis that BCG vaccination has protective effect against #COVID19, and our analyses support the idea (so far).https://t.co/3XRZWBZrPj
The whole world is somewhat baffled by how Japan is handling the coronavirus aka COVID19 aka Sars-CoV-2. The Diamond Princess debacle in which inept Japanese officials turned a cruise ship into a floating incubator for the virus did not bode well. Early on in the crisis, several politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expressed what was close to delight about the coronavirus disaster, stating that it would finally justify changing Japan’s constitution to a new one that gave the Prime Minister sweeping powers.
Japan has infamously under-tested, turning away most people who were not displaying already full-blown symptoms of coronavirus induced illness-–a fever over 37.5 degrees for four days, loss of sense of taste and smell, had been in contact someone diagnosed with the virus etc.– and has been extremely stingy in releasing information. Some suspect that Japan is hiding coronavirus cases and deaths in pneumonia statistics. Possible. Let’s assume that’s not true for the time being.
The Ministry of Health, which managed to get their own workers and medical staff infected on the Diamond Princess and then refused to test them, sending them back to work, where they infected others–doesn’t inspire confidence. The best they have done seems to be to warn people about the Three Cs (in Japanese 3の密. 密閉・密集・密接): closed spaces, crowds and close contact. Miraculously, avoiding an overlap of these three should keep you safe—until it doesn’t.
Despite having the first cases of coronavirus in January, the number of deaths in Japan remains very low, 108 today (April 12th) out of a nation of 126 million people
This week I wrote a piece for the Asia Times–TB vaccines offers hope in Covid-19 war –about studies that show a correlation between low numbers of deaths in countries that had a universal tuberculosis vaccination program for decades–and coronavirus. The vaccine is called BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guerin). Infection rates also appear to be strongly impacted positively by the vaccine. The vaccine is nearly a hundred years old. It was developed by French physicians and biologists Léon Charles Albert Calmette and Jean-Marie Camille Guérin in the 1900s and first successfully tested in 1921. Some theorize that when the vaccine is given to very young children and/or infants, that it creates ‘attained immunity’ which helps the older generation (those most vulnerable) battle the virus. Personally, I sort of hope that it’s true, that BCG is the BFG (Big Fucking Gun) in the war against this pathogen, kind of like the iconic weapon in the first-person shooter DOOM. (It’s a video game). It has been suggested that the vaccine only works if given to very young children and that the strain of the vaccine matters as well. Could be.
NOTE: BCG vaccine has many strains (types). The BCG-Japan strain seems to be the one that actually works against the coronavirus. France uses the BCG-Denmark strain. If anyone reading this has access to materials about the BCG-Japan strain, please share them with me. I would like to know.
There are problems with the theory that BCG vaccine is a silver bullet (or a BFG). Correlation is not causation. France and England had a vaccination program but they have a high number of deaths. They also appeared to have inoculated their citizens when they were in their teens rather than as infant, and both countries use a different strain of the vaccine then the predominant one used in Asia. However, even if the BCG vaccination works/worked to prevent fatalities, is there any reason to believe it will work on adults? In the Netherlands and Australia clinical tests are underway. We shall see.
One of the joys of running this blog, with the help of others, since 2007, is that sometimes we are leaked good information that can be used to generate a solid news story. That is usually rare. The nature of the internet is that you tend to get lots of criticism, threats, accusations or wild conspiracy theories that can’t be verified. Comments are all read and edited before being posted. Many on-line sites have gotten rid of comments altogether. When I looked at the comments and letters today, I thought of doing the same….once again.
But then I read this letter below. It’s intriguing. The anonymous source asserts that they are a member of the medical community in Japan. I have edited it slightly for clarity and removed some possibly identifying details. Below the letter, I have added some notes and observations.
As the headline tells you, it is a conspiracy theory, of sorts. A “conspiracy” is usually defined as a secret plan by a group of people to do something harmful or illegal. If the writer of this letter is correct, the steps Japan has taken so far are not completely harmful. Indeed, it could be argued that testing everyone is not a great idea and that it overloads the health care system. Japan’s approach to the coronavirus has had its merits.
“The Japanese Society for Infection Prevention and Control (JSIPC) updated their coronavirus manual on March 10.
The tone is calm. “Japan is moving from containment measures to a period of spreading infection and we must adjust accordingly,” it says. Since March 6, Covid-19 testing won coverage under national health insurance – ergo, “as public money is being used for the coronavirus testing, it is necessary to carefully screen who gets tested.”
It gently chides anyone who seeks “needless” testing and urges medical professionals to prevent overcrowding at hospitals by instructing patients with light symptoms to stay home and avoid others.
Critically, it points out that since there is no specific treatment for Covid-19, the priority must be treating the illness via its pathogen causes.
“The foundation of treatment is symptomatic therapy,” the manual reads. When signs of pneumonia are found, it suggests using all possible methods of treatment, such as giving oxygen and vasopressors as necessary. Above all, it reminds medical staff of the top priority: “Protect the lives of seriously-ill patients, especially in cases of pneumonia.”“
This makes sense on some levels. However, if you don’t know who has the coronavirus, how can you possibly contain it? The manual does note that Japan has moved beyond containment measures (水際対策) and must conduct a sort of triage.
I don’t know if it’s true nor can I say it’s untrue. Don’t believe it. I have limited resources, so I’ve decided to crowdsource this. I would like to know what you, the readers, think. And if anyone has supporting data, I’d love to have it–links and documents appreciated. If you can refute it, please do. Sometimes, many minds are better than one.
Send all mail, thoughts, comments, evidence and refutations to japansubcultureresearchcenter @ gmail.com with the heading, BCG and Japan.
Some short notes and observations on the letter are at the end of the document.
Dear Mr. Adelstein,
I’m ●●●● and I’ve just been reading your report into BCG.
You’ve got the half the story, and while there are clinical issues with the variables and the science, you’re on the right track.
The other half is on the Japan side.
Have you noticed why Japanese aren’t talking about their immunity through BCG? There’s reasons for this.
Japan has invested a lot of capital into developing and selling Avigan as a coronavirus treatment. They’ve put the weight of Japan Inc behind this, and [Prime Minister] Shinzo Abe is their pitch man.
Did you notice the abrupt change in Abe’s policy around the end of February? That’s because Japanese researchers and doctors, including my colleagues, became aware at that time that BCG vaccines were possibly also working with the immune systems of most Japanese under age 70. NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and MHLW [Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare] policies prohibit researchers and doctors from speaking publicly about this. But this is well-known in the medical community here.
What’s not understood is whether BCG is protecting children in the same way. We don’t have enough scientific or anecdotal evidence to rule out tuberculosis vaccine in Japan with confidence, especially because of the large number of foreign workers and tourists from at-risk countries, or whether BCG is working properly in tandem with other vaccinations in Japan. In layman’s terms, the younger generation of children in Japan don’t have the same immune system as the older generation. While we have decades of data about the health of the older generation, we still have insufficient clinical data about kids who haven’t been alive long enough to build up a reliable data base.
In the field of medicine, you can’t make a diagnosis or prescribe treatment based on anecdotes or hunches. We have to follow regulations and existing practices based on years worth of data and peer-reviewed studies. We simply can’t assume that BCG is protecting children from the novel coronavirus. Thus the medical community instructed Abe to protect these children as a preventive measure owing to the lack of available data on how their immune system would respond to Sars-CoV-2.
This also gave Abe and the MHLW political cover. Instead of doing nothing, they had to do something (1) . Abe couldn’t publicly announce that BCG was protecting the innoculated population of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. As you know, Abe is beholden to Keidanren (経団連・Japan Business Federation) and companies such as Fujifilm Holdings and their subsidiary Toyama Chemical, which manufactures Avigan (3). Who is going to buy Avigan if all they have to do is buy BCG? Why should Japan promote Avigan if most Japanese don’t need it? That is their reasoning. This is all about the sale of Avigan. (5)
This also explains why Japan was resisting international pressure to postpone the Summer Olympics. Abe and his panel of experts were assuming that BCG was protecting most of the population from the novel coronavirus. They had to cancel the games because of foreign pressure and the International Olympic Commission (IOC) (4), not because of any concerns about an overshoot of cases here in Japan.
There’s another issue that the media are overlooking. Japan now has millions of foreign residents and foreign tourists who didn’t get BCG shots. They are the most likely groups to acquire the novel coronavirus and spread it through the population in Japan. But Abe couldn’t say that due to policies of boosting tourist arrivals and preparing for the Olympics. Even if you think he’s a racist xenophobe, you have to credit him for respecting the rights of foreign COVID patients. Look at what China is doing with Africans, and you’ll understand Japan’s official thinking on this.
This also explains the Ministry of Health policy of keeping people away from hospitals (2). We don’t want people with colds, H1N1, ordinary coughs or sniffles to show up at hospitals demanding swabs, which also put health care workers at risk. They should stay home and rest anyway. MHLW set up a hotline for this purpose. If they didn’t, half of Japan would demand a test claiming to be sick. In most cases, patients with real COVID19 symptoms aren’t going to die anyways if they had their mandatory BCG vaccinations. Japan only wants to treat the most severe cases while protecting medical workers from infection. This is a reasonable policy. Most doctors support this, though some feel that we should be more proactive with outreach programs and advocacy on behalf of patients.
Try to see things from our perspective. We are watching more than a hundred doctors and nurses die in Italy. We saw the same thing in Wuhan. This scenario is Japan would serve nobody. It’s not selfish for us to protect ourselves. It’s good public health policy, and Japan is doing the right thing.
Please understand that the science isn’t black and white on this. Just because Japan made BCG shots mandatory doesn’t mean that every doctor gave them out, or that every parent took their kid to the doctor for the shot. Millions of people fell through the cracks and didn’t get vaccinated for TB, especially in the 1950s and 60s when Japan’s health care system was evolving. That’s why you are seeing numbers rise now, though on a much smaller level than in the U.S. or Italy. Most of the new cases now are people who didn’t get BCG shots. This is the common view of medical practitioners here.
This is especially true of patients in areas such as Taito-ku, which is the closest thing in Tokyo to Skid Row in LA. Many of these new patients are homeless, or they were born into impoverished families who didn’t vaccinate their children. You will see similar stories in impoverished areas of Osaka and other cities. Look at the data and you will find it.
(4) It would appear that after the Olympic Games were postponed that suddenly the number of Covid-19 cases jumped considerably. Correlation perhaps. Governor Yuriko Koike, who had been remarkably silent about the dangers of coronavirus, suddenly began talking about ‘a lockdown’ and the need for hyper vigilance with the pathogen only after March 23rd.
5) The Japanese government, including our friends at the Ministry Of Health, have conspired in the past to keep important medical data away from the public. The result was many innocent people being infected with AIDS and dying. Green Cross was the beneficiary and some of their executives were convicted of criminal negligence resulting in death. Government officials basically walked. See below and research more if you’re interested. Green Cross Executives receive prison terms in Yakugai (薬害エイズ) case.
While noting that there is a possibility that German citizens might be entirely banned from entering Japan, the letter urges German citizens to exercise caution in coming to the country or staying. It notes that “For Germans and other EU citizens, visa-free travel to Japan is suspended until the end of April . New applications are possible, but the granting of visas is restricted.”
The most interesting passage is below. The brevity and beauty of the German language makes it a wonderfully chilling dense read.
“Das Infektionsrisiko in Japan ist nicht seriös einzuschätzen. Von einer hohen Dunkelziffer von Infektionen, bedingt durch die geringe Zahl durchgeführter Tests, ist auszugehen. COVID-19 Testmöglichkeiten gibt es weiterhin nur für bereits schwer erkrankte Personen (Symptome und 4 Tage hohes Fieber) und für Personen mit anderweitigem Anfangsverdacht (Kontakt zu Infizierten, Aufenthalte in Risikogebieten)”
It could be translated several ways. Please feel free to submit your own translation!
Here is one interpretation/translation by a German scholar.
“The [stated] risk of infection [from coronavirus] in Japan cannot be believed. A high number of non-reported cases can be expected, due to the low rate of testing. The possibility of being tested for the coronavirus continue only to be available for those who are very sick (four days of high fever) and for persons with other risk factors (contact to others infected, [those who have stayed] stay in high-risk areas.”
The first sentences strictly translated reads as follows:
“The risk of infection in Japan cannot be assessed seriously. It can be assumed that there are high number of unreported infections due to the small number of tests carried out.”
In the first line, “Nicht serious” can be translated as “not serious”–as in untruthful, mendacious.
Let us further translate the full two paragraphs above from diplomatic understatement to colloquial English.
“Japan is lying. No one can fucking believe what they’re saying, because how can they know if they don’t test? They are barely testing. They only test you if you meet super-stringent criteria. We’re going to see a surge in the numbers if they ever get off their asses and actually test people for the disease. Assume (auszugehen) there a lot of coronavirus carriers out there in Japan.”
My Social Studies teachers used to say, “You should never ‘assume’ because it makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me'”, but in this case we are all assuming the German Embassy in Tokyo is correct. As of March 2nd, Japan averaged 72 tests for coronavirus per million. Korea averaged 4099.
Things have slightly improved, as of March 20th, Japan had moved up to 117.8 corona virus tests per million people. Have a look at the chart—it’s an abysmal figure. You might mistake it for a visual representation of Japan’s gender equality ranking, which ranks at an all-time low of 121 out of 153 companies. In a positive sense, if sexual discrimination was something to be proud of, Japan would be in the top tier.
Everybody knows in Japan there’s no visible coronavirus epidemic because Japan generally doesn’t test people for it. It’s an obstacle course designed to prevent you from reaching the goal line of getting tested and possibly embarrassing the nation by making infection rates higher.
On March 18th, the Japan Medical Association announced that there were 290 cases of doctors deciding that a patient needed to be tested for coronavirus, and even then the patients were not tested. The term used by JMA “不適切事例” literally translated means “inappropriate/unsuitable cases”.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed intent on keeping the official numbers of infected down and that means not only making the standards for getting a test very high (for example, you must have a fever of over 37.5 degrees Celsius for four days) but it also seems to be actively discouraging tests.
Why was Japan so gung-ho on not testing people? Mostly because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his work-spouse, the incredibly opportunistic Governor Yuriko Koike, had feverish Olympic dreams, and wanted Japan to appear safe in the hopes of keeping the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on track. As soon as the Olympics were postponed (within 24 hours) Koike made a huge show of appearing decisive, warned of a spike in coronavirus cases, and asked citizens to stay home on the weekend. She warned of a possible lockdown.
What an amazing coincidence! Everything was fine until the Olympics were postponed and suddenly Japan woke up to a hidden coronavirus epidemic. Imagine that!
Another reason that testing has lagged behind is that some in the the medical profession in Japan believe that testing for the virus is a waste of taxpayer money. The rationale is that since you can’t cure the virus itself, you’re better off treating the symptoms–aka 対症療法. Have a read of the Manual For Responding To Coronavirus Infections at Medical Institutions (医療機関における新型コロナウイルス感染症への対応ガイド) (March 10th Edition) from the Japanese Society for Infection Prevention and Control, for further insight.
The Japanese approach so far is not completely without merit. Japan has avoided a total lockdown and hospitals are not yet over capacity. The manual notes that Japan has essentially moved past the point where containment is possible and now is in a period of widespread infection. If you give up on the idea of containing the virus, then it does make sense to put priority on saving the lives of the small percentage of people who become seriously ill after being infected. Up to 80% of those infected barely become ill.
The German Embassy isn’t saying anything outrageous; it’s just the facts, Fraulein. More than likely once people notice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will shake their heads, possibly complain and the wording will change.
You can change the wording but you can’t change the truth.
Japan, under the catastrophic leadership of Prime Minister Abe, has been keeping the numbers of the infected down by not testing widely for the disease. NHK, which has in part, become a channel of state propaganda, duly reports on new cases of infection by first mentioning cases in which the infected caught the virus overseas, playing into a mythos of the problem coming from outside Japan. Meanwhile, the majority of new infections come from within Japan.
The Japanese government bears a huge responsibility for the spread of the virus within the country. The February 19 decision to let infected Japanese passengers leave the Diamond Princess cruise ship and go home by public transport, effectively distributed the virus nationwide. Was anyone surprised that later those who went home, supposedly cleared of infection, later started getting ill?
The poor quarantine protocols on the ship also resulted in over ten Ministry Of Health, Labor and Welfare worker becoming infected with the coronavirus. They were all sent straight back to work. The Ministry of Health refused at first to even test the workers. Then grudgingly tested 41. Then all of them.
We can probably assume that the Ministry of Health itself, in charge of dealing with the coronavirus, is full of infected employees. We can assume but we can’t know because just like The US Embassy in Tokyo, the Ministry basically refuses (or refused to) test workers who had been exposed to the coronavirus. In fact, as a microcosm of the problem, this article published on March 4th, A U.S. Embassy Refused to Test Exposed Staff for Coronavirus (more or less) correctly predicted the chaos to come in the United States.
Many politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, including Prime Minister Abe, early on in the crisis, actually welcomed the coronavirus. They felt it would give them the impetus to change the constitution. Maybe they really do have a master plan to fuck things up so badly that the only way out is to give them what they want.
The virus has just jumped from one ship, the Diamond Princess, to another larger ship, as it were, the island nation of Japan.
As you read this, we are on the verge of an epidemic here and headed toward disaster; figuratively speaking, the captain is asleep at the wheel. The sailors are inexperienced. The passengers are getting sick, and some have already died.
And the answer given by those running the show? They say what they need is more command and control, a better ability to lock things down, stronger laws to make people keep quiet.
They’ve already fixing their “great experiment” to show no matter how much they do wrong, they are always right.
On March 18th, the Japan Medical Association announced that there were 290 cases of doctors deciding that a patient needed to be tested for coronavirus, and even then the patients were not tested. The term used by JMA “不適切事例” literally translated means “inappropriate/unsuitable cases”.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems intent on keeping the official numbers of infected down and that means not only making the standards for getting a test very high (for example, you must have a fever of over 37.5 degrees Celsius for four days) but it also seems to be actively discouraging tests.
Nathalie Kyoko-Stucky interviewed one woman who was denied testing in Tokyo. This is her story.
Patient Zero, age 31 is a project manager in Japan working for an IT firm. She asked for her name to be omitted and some details of her story obscured for fear of being stigmatized socially. She lives in Tokyo.
“I started to feel very tired March 7th and had a low fever of 37.2. Thought i was just tired from work. On Monday, I felt really tired at work and on Tuesday, I struggled to go to the office and only stayed 2 hours and came home. Tuesday night, I started to get a cough and by 10pm I felt i was getting sick and my fever was 37.5 degrees.
Wednesday morning I woke up feeling sick and extremely tired and had a fever of 38 degrees.
Over the next few days, I stayed in bed sick. I started feeling a pain in my chest and it was getting painful to breathe. On Saturday, I called the Coronavirus hotline because by that point I had fever over 37.5 for 4 days.
I called them because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to go to a normal hospital and accidentally spread it so I called for advice.
The lady told me that the Shinagawa Healthcare Center (品川保健所）is closed on the weekend, and I should call them on Monday when they opened. But, she said if I became sicker, I should just go to the hospital.
On Sunday there was still no improvement. I had pneumonia when I was in high school and my body felt similar to that time so I was a bit worried. So I called the hospital and told them my story and that at the minimum I wanted an x-ray. They told me, “Okay please come in.”
At the hospital they asked if I went to an onsen, had overseas travel, or if was in direct contact with a COVID-19 patient. I said no.
Luckily my x-ray came back clear for pneumonia, but the doctor diagnosed me with pleurisy.
Note:(Pleurisy (PLOOR-ih-see) is a condition in which the pleura — two large, thin layers of tissue that separate the lungs from the chest wall — becomes inflamed. Also called pleuritis, pleurisy causes sharp chest pain (pleuritic pain) that worsens during breathing.It can be caused by viral infections, pneumonia and other conditions
I felt the doctor was kind but his hands were tied.
On Monday, my fever was will going between 37.5-38, and my boyfriend called the health care center. It took hours to get through because the phone line was always busy.
After getting through to someone and explaining the situation, the women answering the phone said she can’t authorize a test because I have not traveled abroad and I have no direct contact with a COVID19 patient.
Her advice was, ” If it is still bad or gets worse in a few days, go back to the hospital and beg the doctor himself to call the healthcare center and request a test for me.
At that point I realized it’s impossible to get a test. I didn’t want to risk going outside and accidentally infecting someone.
Unfortunately, the part which is most frustrating for me now is that I don’t know if I actually have it or not.I was considering trying to go back to the US to help my mother who is in her seventies, but I cannot risk going back and spreading it to her.
Luckily today, on March 21, it was the first day that I haven’t had a fever since March 7. I lost my voice and talking still irritates my lungs but most of the chest pain is gone.
So I had fever for 14 days. It’s very surreal.
I was so surprised why they set up the hotline to call, but advice from both numbers was “just to go the hospital”.
I expected they would tell me where to go for example or perhaps advise me to stay home in quarantine.
What’s the point of a hotline if the advice is “just go to the hospital”?
Personally that made me feel like there is not much fear about it spreading in the medical establishment. This worries me.
Also as a side note, I had been extra careful , carrying hand sanitizer everywhere I went and also never was outside without a mask. I even was using taxis the majority of the time to avoid the train.
This is just one example of a person who most likely should have been tested for the virus and was not. If you have experienced something similar, please write us with the heading CVTESTS at firstname.lastname@example.org
A priority item on the agenda of the first Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Iyeyasu when he seized power in 1603, was to limit foreign travel to Japan. He issued several orders like the ones we’re seeing around the world at this moment: urging the Japanese to stay put in their own communities and urging all foreigners to get the hell out. By foreigners, Iyeyasu specifically meant the European missionaries who were spreading ideas – like a virus! – about an omnipotent God that transcended traditional Japanese values. They also extolled the virtues of non-violence and giving to the poor; two factors that the new Shogun viewed as particularly harmful to his authority. The ‘aliens’ had to go, and those who didn’t, were eventually executed or banished to Dejima Island, off the coast of Nagasaki. Iyeyasu’s son and grandson tightened the screws on the lockdown as they in turn, became the Shogun. Japan effectively bolted its doors to the outside world and Sakoku*・鎖国(shutting down the country)’ went into effect.
Initially, other clan lords were skeptical about this sakoku thing. Before Iyeyasu came along, Japan had a fairly robust import/export system, supported by a prosperous merchant class in Osaka. Without inbound travelers and foreign business, these merchants were sunk, as was the burgeoning currency economy. But Iyeyasu shrugged off their complaints and worries. He chose reclusive isolation over commerce and progress, and for the next 265 years, Japan became a ‘hikikomori (shut-in)’ in the global community. Everything passed us by: the Industrial Revolution and the locomotive, colonialism and corsets, Mozart and coffee, the printing press and chocolate. Everything.
*Writer’s Note – Contrary to the belief that the Tokugawa Shogunate coined the term ‘sakoku’ which literally means a ‘country in chains,’ it was actually invented by German explorer Engelbert Kaempfer in the late 17th century and later translated into Japanese.
In the meantime, the Japanese got a lot of practice on keeping calm and carrying on behind closed doors, in spite of or because of everything happening in the larger world. Sure, sakoku sucked in a hundred ways but it also created a uniquely weird culture that continues to enthrall or amuse people all over the world. Iyeyasu’s capital city of Edo – now called Tokyo, was a haven of stability and prosperity with an unparalleled ecological and recycling system.
The sakoku mind-set made all this possible – a willful and deliberate closing of the shutters to the outside world while making sure that plenty went on inside. Call it aloofness, coldness or a thick-skinned pragmatism. In times like this, such traits can come in pretty handy.
You may have heard that the Japanese aren’t very expressive – well that’s just not true. The Japanese are THE LEAST expressive people in Asia which probably makes us the most rigid people on the planet. Long before this virus thing the Japanese have been wearing masks – as a prevention against all ills including a bad skin day and questionable breath. The mask was also fashionable among teenage girls, as hiding their mouths made them feel more attractive. (Kissing with masks was a real thing in the early aughts too, because many young couples deemed it erotic.) We were also adamant about washing hands, gargling and refusing to eat off communal plates.
Smiling and laughing in public, talking to strangers, physical displays of affection – these things are normal in western cultures but they’ve never taken off here unless it became a fad. Like being friendly to foreigners and embracing diversity was a fad that many Japanese felt pressured into doing because hey, globalism and the Olympics 2020. But now COVID-19 has given the Japanese a very good reason to go back to the way we were. Unrelenting, inexpressive, rigid and distanced. It’s all cool. Show me a person with a secret stash of face masks and 30 rolls of toilet paper and I’ll show you a model Japanese citizen.
As for touching one another, it’s a whole other issue unto itself. The Japanese just don’t do this, and never had. Though many of us love the idea of casual cheek kisses a la Francaise, we just couldn’t muster the courage to try it on a Tokyo street. Now, we don’t have to pretend anymore. Social distancing may be a new and scary concept for the west but to us, it’s very familiar, like our parents to whom we pay the obligatory visit over New Year’s.
Speaking of which, I don’t ever remember being hugged by my late father, who devoted much of his life to wedging a good, 1.7 meter distance between himself and the rest of the world. It wasn’t just him of course, many Japanese males can’t bring themselves to get close to anyone they know, which paradoxically explains why there’s so much groping on the trains. But the virus has resolved that snag–what with schools closed and people ordered to work remotely, the morning trains are far less crowded and consist mostly of masked salarymen clutching phones with one hand and briefcases in the other, studiously avoiding all eye and physical contact.
You might say the Japanese are good at this. There is little of the sense of deprivation and loneliness that say, an American person might feel about the loss of casual physical contact. We’re not touching, we’re not smiling, but who’s to say we’re not having fun underneath our face masks?
Editor’s Note: And judging by the hanami crowds this weekend and in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s “Let’s go outside!” admonitions, it seems like Japan’s 鎖国（sakoku ) period may end very soon.
Just for the record, while big concerts and public events are not happening, there’s still plenty going on in Tokyo and most restaurants and department stores have stayed open. Other venues include:
1) Shinjuku Gyoen Park Located in Sendagaya, this place is heavenly for a stroll among the greenery and themed gardens.
Unanswerable questions of the year: Is Japan really going to war? Is Japan’s peacetime constitution going to be trashed by the ruling party and returned back to the Imperial Constitution, which did not give suffrage or equal rights to women?
This question will be on the mind and haunt your waking hours after reading “The Only Woman in the Room” by Beate Sirota Gordon. In this memoir, she takes us through the various events in her life made remarkable by the fact that in late 1945, she became a member on the US Occupation team that drew up Japan’s National Constitution. Not only was she the only woman in the room, she was just 22 years old.
Her passport said she was an American citizen, but Beate Sirota had lived for 10 years in Akasaka, Tokyo with her Russian Jewish parents (her father Leo Sirota was a celebrated musician from Vienna and a close friend of Kosaku Yamada). For the past five years, she had been in the US while her parents had been in detention in Karuizawa. The only way to catch a plane out of America and into a ravaged, defeated Japan to see them again, was to get a job in the army. Beate’s Japan experience and the fact that she could speak, write, and read with fluency got her that position.
“The Only Woman in the Room” is honest, plain and straightforward – written not by a professional author but an extremely well-bred, cultured woman who had forged a career for herself in a time when women – even in America – were expected to marry, have babies and sink themselves in domestic bliss. Or just sink. Across the Pacific, American women her age were sizing up future husbands at cocktail parties. Beate was commuting from Kanda Kaikan to Occupation headquarters and working on the constitution 10 to 12 hours a day. She often skipped meals, since food was scarce and the work was so pressing. Her male colleagues pushed themselves harder and put in more hours – and Beate mentions that she admired and respected them for that. Her tone is never feminist, probably because she comes from a generation told to revere males and elders. Besides, she grew up in Japan where women shut their mouths and looked down when a male spoke to them, and that was exactly what she did when she first landed in Atsugi and an official asked to see her passport.
On the other hand, though her tone is consistently soft and modest, her voice is clearly her own – and when it’s time to stand up for the Japanese and their rights, she apparently didn’t give an inch. What an ally the Japanese had in Beate, especially Japanese women whom she describes in the book and in interviews she gave later on: “Japanese women are treated like chattels, bought and sold on a whim.”
Rather than change the whole world, Beate wanted to contribute to the building of a modernized Japanese society. Rather than yell out for women’s’ rights and organizing feminist rallies, she sought to raise awareness about the historical plight of Japanese women and children. And just as earnestly, she wished to help her parents, in particular her mother, who was suffering from severe malnutrition. Beate wasn’t a saint nor interested in being one. Without meaning to, she came pretty close. Her prose is never condescending, nor does it brim with self-congratulations as in the case of many memoirs. She had a story to tell and she told it and as far as she was concerned, when the story was over there was no reason for fuss or lingering.
After the army stint, Beate Sirota Gordon returned with her parents to the US in 1948, married a former colleague in the Army and later worked as the director of the Asia Society and Japan Society in New York. She continued to give interviews about her work on the Constitution but only because she felt that the peace clause (the controversial Article 9) had to be defended repeatedly. She venerated her parents and remained very close to her mother until her death, while raising a family of her own, because family and love were precious and she knew first-hand the tragedy of losing them.
What culminates from her memoirs is her selflessness. Helping others, being fair, and maintaining a striking modesty in spite of her many accomplishments were the defining factors of Beate’s life. She died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer, four months after the death of her husband Joseph Gordon. The Asahi Shimbun printed an extensive obituary on the front page, lauding her work and reminding the readers how the Constitution had protected Japan all these decades, for better or worse. Mostly for the better.
We in Japan tend to take the Constitution for granted. Many people remember and harp on the deprivation of the war years but few bother to recall the dismal details of everyday life before that. Women couldn’t go to school; they were expected to serve their parents and male siblings before marrying into households where she continued to serve and slave her husband and his clan. These women brought up their sons in the traditional way – which resulted in an unending circle of entitlement and arrogance for men, and toil and servitude for females. In poor families, parents sold off their children. Soldiers and military policemen detained ordinary citizens on the slightest suspicion and beat them during interrogation. They were responsible for committing unspeakable atrocities in China and Korea.
There was happiness, peace, equality, and respect in the Sirota household when Beate was growing up, but she knew too well how the average Japanese in Japan fared; how women and children were cut off from beauty, culture, or anything out of the familial box. She wanted a magic wand that would somehow change all that, and her idealistic, 22-year old mind told her that if she couldn’t get a wand, the Constitution was bound to be the next best thing. The task was daunting – she was working for peace and gender equality in a country steeped in tradition and ‘bushido’ feudalism. At this point in 1945, not even American women had gender equality and there she was, giving her all to ensuring that Japanese women would get that right. And just for the reason, there wasn’t nor has there ever been, anything in the American Constitution that resembles Japan’s Article 9.
At the end of the book is an elegy by Beate’s son and part of it goes like this: “Your legacy is the art of living in beauty and truth, of speaking up and out for what is right, and of finding our best selves and sharing them.”
The Japanese have never been known for being warm, affectionate or touchy-feely but now it seems like everyone has wedged a hefty distance between themselves and other human beings. On TV, commentators are comparing COVID-19 to the AIDS scare of 30 years ago in the way it discourages people from physical contact, much less the exchange of body fluids. What a bummer. From casual hugs to love hotel trysts, direct contact just isn’t happening anymore and it’s taking a toll on our emotional well-being. Which is why you need to get to the theater this weekend to see Hatsukoi (First Love), if only as a reminder that even in this time of virus infestation, love can thrive – in a manner of speaking.
Hatsukoi is filmmaker Takashii Miike’s latest, and the cute title is a foil for the utterly sinister events that unfold on screen. This stands to reason – Takashi Miike has built his own cinematic kingdom on the foundations on gore and violence for the last 35 years. Why would he stop now? At the press conference given at the FCCJ earlier this week, Miike joked that he came up with the title in the hopes that people will be lured to theaters, thinking Hatsukoi is a “genuine love story.” If so, they are in for a rude awakening. Hatsukoi is less about the 59-year old Miike mellowing in his advancing years than Miike confirming he still has what it takes to go full throttle on his triple fortes of murder, mayhem and decapitation.
Having said that, Hatsukoi shows Miike in an uncharacteristically romantic mood, even occasionally favoring the love story factor over the blood-spewing brutality thing. As a result, Hatsukoi is much more palatable than Ichi the Killer: Miike’s 2001 landmark project that put his name on the Hollywood map. Both works share significant similarities – they’s set in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, where a yakuza turf war is raging. Both feature double crossing yakuza going at each other’s throats. And in both movies, the lead role is a sad underdog who never had a break in his life. In Hatsukoi, this is Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota), a boxer whose day job is a busboy at a Chinese diner. Leo had been abandoned by his parents at birth and since then, he’s been licking the bottom of a very rotten barrel. That’s about to change however, when he meets a girl on the streets of Kabukicho – hence, the titular first love.
Interestingly, Hatsukoi’s present day Kabukicho is a different town from when Ichi had stomped its streets. The yakuza have gone corporate and their street cred is way down, which means they must look for ways to co-exist with the Chinese gangster groups that have infiltrated Shinjuku. But old-school clan boss Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) would rather just go to war and kill them all. This doesn’t sit well with Gondo’s young underling Kase (Shota Sometani), who is weary of the clan’s outdated notions of yakuzahood. He’s looking for a fast exit, but not before he lines his pockets with the clan’s meth supply. Crooked cop Otomo (Nao Otomo) is looking for a cut in Kase’s profits, plus a free sex session with the clan’s whore Monica (Sakurako Konishi), forced to turn tricks to pay back her father’s debt. Monica is the focal point of the story as well as the eye of the clan wars shit storm, and in the process she inspires Leo to dream of a future with at least a semblance of personal happiness. They fall for each other, and you can see they’re very careful not to muck it up with anything sexual just yet – it’s the first time either of them have ever been in love. The big surprise, coming from Miike, is that Hatsukoi is also about female empowerment. Leo and the other males in the cast may be compelling but they never get off the rails of Japanese machismo and as such, very predictable. The women characters on the other hand, are definitely not the familiar cut-out victims from a typical yakuza movie (take your pick between willing sex kitten or giving mother martyr). First, there’s Becky as Juli, a hard as nails yakuza moll who supervises Monica. When her boyfriend Yasu (Takahiro Miura) – the clan’s accountant – turns up dead, Juli morphs into a raging, screaming avenger with a tremendous blood thirst. She won’t stop until she hunts down Yasu’s murderer, even if that precludes her own, violent death. And Monica, who starts out as the stereotypical victim – sexually abused by her father, then sold into slavery to repay his debts – matures into a person with her own agenda under Leo’s tutelage. In the end, she even gives the ole patriarchy a good, hard kick in the teeth.
The flesh tearing, head-rolling bloodscapades of Takashi Miike is alive and well. But dig a little under the surface and you’ll see that maybe the filmmaker has changed, just as his beloved Kabukicho has altered beyond recognition. Far from the nonsensical blood-drenched antics of Ichi, it’s now a town where two young people can meet, fall in love and hold hands even as the world bleeds and falls apart around them. Under the current circumstances of virus angst, this particular love story is probably as good as it gets.
Are you looking for something to do that might help you meet people, create art, and perhaps get to know your date a little better? Then come Lime this Sunday.
“Lime”- A Caribbean word meaning “Hang out” or “a relaxed gathering”.
Add painting and you have “Lime and Paint.
Come join (Lee-Ann), hang out in a artsy colorful environment, learn a little about some amazing artists, and create your own art piece while enjoying drink of your choice
You’ll create your individual painting with a partner. Perfect for date/ friend/ family night.
If you wish to fly solo also doable. Come make a new friend or bring one. A drink of choice as usual is included and after you may purchase others throughout the evening, mingle with people, paint, laugh and enjoy the artistic lime. Appetizers should be ordered at the start so they will be ready for the break. Thank you.
For those who don’t know Lee-Ann’s background, she’s been an artist at large for over a decade, specialized in glass art for nine years now, and has taught art for over 14 years in Japan. She’s warm and witty and a wonderful guide for would be artists and those who need to brush up.
Doors Open: 16:00 – Come in, Relax and meet new friends
16:30 START- We will have a brief introduction on glass art and then get right into our creation.
There will be a break in which you can get more drinks.
Finish our masterpiece. 19:00/ 19:30 clean up and END but please feel free to stay and Lime a.k.a socialize
No experience necessary!
Come Join The Fun! All the details for booking are below.
. Once confirmed I will prepare the materials for you. We can’t confirm a spot until payment is made.
Japan Post Bank Branch number 17730 Account number 9942301 ハスラム リーアン
SHINSEI BANK Branch 柏 (Kashiwa) Account number 0321491 Account Type 普通 Lee-Ann Haslam
【料金】大人 3 options. All include one drink ticket. A. ￥5000 per Adult- includes a paint board/ canvas (your choice), paint, brushes etc. Just come as is everything will be provided.
B. ￥4000 per Adult- for those fellow artists who have their own brushes, paints and paint board/ canvas.
*kid friendly but please let me know so I can prepare.
Discount available for parent and child and couples, please ask.
Everyone is unique and each painting will reflect that. Let’s embrace it. Have fun, talk, laugh, Drink, create.
・絵画レッスン ・ワイン（白、赤 etc…） The painting lesson with a glass of Red or White wine (or other alcohol of your choice from a list provided) OR ・(コーヒー、お茶、ジュース etc… ）For those drinking Non-alcoholic Beverages coffee, tea, juice etc…
・絵のお持ち帰り . Take home your own art piece
Any questions please feel free to message me.
*Strict no refund policy. You may attend the next event.
Johnna Slaby is an abstract painter, from Osaka, Japan who’s work is gaining attention nationwide. Her paintings are evocative of some of the best artists of the genre, with a Nippon twist. She is also the twin sister of photographer, Reylia Slaby,
Join her at Look Close Look Far, an exhibit of works on paper and canvas that incorporate text, gestural marks and imagery from a day in the life.
Johnna works to mirror her own experiences and the elements she finds in her surroundings through the current series. Through the work there is an emphasis on how stories can be unfolded by both stepping back and taking a closer look; whether that be observing how morning light that enters the room, glancing up at the commuters on the train, or examining serendipitous moments in an everyday setting.
The Japanese government’s lip service towards gender equality is just that, a falsity. In 2015 Abe revised his goal of raising women’s participation from 30% to just 7% in government and 5% in the private sector (Kano, 2018, pg. 8). His own cabinet saw the reduction of 5 female ministers to only 1 after a 2018 cabinet reshuffle (The Asahi Shimbun, 2018). Furthermore, four years on from Prime Minister Abe’s famous Davos speech and Japan’s current ranking has slipped to 117th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index (World Economic Forum, 2018, pg. 11)
A note from Japan Subculture Research Center–The following is an academic essay contributed to the website. As much as possible, we have kept to the original form and structure of the essay, although this may make for stiff reading, it is nonetheless illuminating and we felt it was worthy of being shared.
Gender inequality is amongst the most significant issues facing Japanese society. The stunted participation of Japanese women in the economy is one manifestation of this inequality. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to correct this deficiency through his womenomics policy which seeks to encourage Japanese women’s economic participation. This dissertation asserts that ultimately womenomics will not succeed. The failure of Abe’s policy is a result of three interrelated social and historical factors. Firstly, the discursive construction of motherhood as hegemonic feminity emphasises women’s familial responsibilities and limits their options outside of the home. Secondly, based on the notion that women are naturalized as mothers and by extension caretakers, the role of welfare is integral to determining their engagement in the economy. Historically speaking, Japanese welfare practices have not served to encourage women’s participation, rather they have sought to maintain traditional gender divides which relegate women to the home. Finally, Japanese employment patterns which dictate that employees must prioritize the company over the family impedes upon women’s ability to engage in work. The interaction of these three factors renders women’s participation in the Japanese economy highly gendered and unequal. In order for womenomics to succeed it must address and seek to dismantle the structures which inhibit Japanese women’s equal economic participation.
Introduction: 3 0.1 Structure 3 0.2 Methodology 4 Chapter 1: Theorizing Women in the Home and at Work 4 1.1 Gendered Division of Labour 5 1.2 Feminism and the State 7 Chapter 2: The Construction of Motherhood 7 2.1 The Protection of Motherhood Debate 9 Chapter 3: Welfare Politics 12 Chapter 5: Womenomics & Neoliberal Feminism 25 5.1 The Origins of Womenomics 26
2 Lip Service 28
5.3 Neoliberal Feminism 31
Gender inequality remains deeply entrenched in Japan. Despite being one of the most economically developed countries in the world with the 3rd largest GDP, women are continually marginalized in society. Inequality in Japan is manifested in various spheres of life, and in particular is evident in women’s economic participation. In 2014, the Japanese government adopted its womenomics policy which encourages the economic participation of women. This dissertation argues that womenomics will ultimately fail to empower Japanese women because it is a purely economic solution to a cultural, historical, and social problem which is manifesting itself in the economic sphere. This will be demonstrated by analysing 3 factors: firstly, the construction of motherhood, secondly, welfare politics, and finally, employment patterns. The structure of the dissertation is presented below.
The first chapter focuses on the theories of feminism in order to place the Japanese case study within the wider literature of gender inequality. The focus is on theorizing the gendered division of labour and its effects on women’s economic participation. This chapter will also explore the role of the state in producing, sustaining, and reinforcing gender inequality. Overall this section will provide a basis for understanding the broad forces which affect women’s equal economic participation in Japan.
The second chapter explores how the formation of identity in Japan is linked to the gendered division of labour. This section will be engaging with the construction of motherhood as hegemonic feminity. Furthermore, it will demonstrate how motherhood has been discursively constructed as the ideal form of “womanhood” and how this in effect obstructs women’s economic participation.
The third chapter builds upon the construction of motherhood by analysing welfare politics. This chapter will demonstrate how Japanese welfare politics limit women’s access to social services which inhibits their ability to engage more equally in the workforce.
The fourth chapter explores employment patterns in Japan. In particular, it analyses how women’s employment has been deeply affected by their identity as mothers and their ability to access welfare. The chapter will demonstrate that gender inequality in Japan persists despite the economic participation of women.
The final chapter will focus on examining the origins of womenomics and its intended outcomes. This section will demonstrate the failure of womenomics to adapt to the outlined barriers and address the basis of true inequality, ultimately rendering it a failure.
This dissertation presents a unique application of feminist scholarship to a non-western country, as such, there are limitations regarding the accessibility of primary sources in English. In order to overcome this barrier, the research focuses heavily on qualitative research and secondary sources conducted by contemporary Japanese scholars writing in English. By focusing on Japanese scholars the dissertation limits western bias while also presenting culturally relevant information. Furthermore, this dissertation uses quantitative data, obtained from global indexes and Japanese government bodies such as the Gender Equality Bureau, to articulate with measurable accuracy the historical experience of Japanese women. In addition to focusing on Japanese scholars writing about the Japanese case, the dissertation also employs broader feminist literature and applies it, where relevant, to demonstrate the universality of gender inequality.
Chapter 1: Theorizing Women in the Home and at Work
In order to understand the roots of Japanese women’s inequality in the labour force, it is vital to examine feminist scholarship which theorizes gender inequality more broadly. The following chapter theorizes the role of women within the family and in the private sphere by engaging with feminist scholars and their perspectives. Firstly, this chapter will begin by engaging with literature on the gendered division of labour to demonstrate how inequalities between men and women are reproduced. Following, it will assess the different characterizations of the state based on feminist international relations theory to determine the role of states in marginalizing women. Overall, this chapter will set the tone for assessing the construction of motherhood, welfare practices, and employment in Japan.
Inequality amongst the sexes can be regarded by assessing the distribution of political power, material goods, economic opportunities, educational advantages, in addition to countless other variables (Chafetz, 1991, pg. 3). Simply put, the degree of stratification based on the aforementioned variables reflects the extent to which women are disadvantaged within society. This is evidenced in Japan where women’s access to economic opportunity is particularly low.
1.1 Gendered Division of Labour
Amongst the structures which contribute to gender stratification, Claudia Geist argues that the gendered division of labour is the primary producer of inequality (2005, pg. 23). Furthermore, the division of labour can be regarded as the principal feature which restricts women’s active participation in the labour force. The gendered division of labour refers to the unequal distribution of paid and unpaid labour conducted by men and women. In particular, it notes the relegation of women to the private sphere to conduct household labour, while men are consigned to the corporate sphere to conduct paid labour (ibid, pg. 24).
Household labour can be understood as the variety of processes associated with maintaining the home (Bianchi et al. 2000, pg. 192). This includes everything from cooking and cleaning, to childcare and eldercare. Household labour is a necessary component of social reproduction which in turn is necessary for capitalism (Elias & Roberts, 2018, pg. 37-39). The term social reproduction refers to child-rearing processes which contribute to the production of healthy and valuable citizens. Social reproduction literature shifts the focus from the production of goods for capitalism to the production of labour for capitalist exploitation (ibid). Furthermore, social reproduction has been naturalized as women’s work (ibid). Feminist scholars are critical of the term “natural” because it is used to dismiss subordination as something that is beyond change (Mies and Federici, 2012, pg. 45).
Across all socially, culturally, and historically different societies men have never been the primary caregivers (Chafetz, 1991, pg. 4). Cross-societal research has indicated a variable degree of male involvement in domestic duties; however, across the board, women have always constituted the primary caregiver in society (ibid). This gendered division of labour is particularly evident in Japan where men are mainly active in the workforce and women are mainly present in the household (Nagase & Brinton, 2017, pg. 445).
Three main approaches have been utilized to understand the determinants of the division of labour: the rational process approach, the relative resource approach, and the gender ideology approach. The rational process approach is founded on the notion that the division of labour is not gendered (Geist, 2005, pg. 25). Actors are motivated by economic maximization (ibid). As such, men and women negotiate a rational division of labour based on which partner earns more and is, therefore, more valuable in the labour market (Kamo, 1994, pg. 350). The second approach is based on the relative resources of partners. The partner with greater resource accessibility is able to negotiate for less involvement in domestic affairs by exchanging resources for reduced responsibility in the domestic realm (ibid). The final approach for understanding the origins of the division of labour focuses on the importance of gender ideology. Feminist scholars contend that the division of labour is not a rational arrangement, rather it is a performance of deeply ingrained gender norms (Geist, 2005, pg. 25). The feminist approach focuses on how gender roles are socialized from a young age and serve to inform men and women about their respective societal roles (Bianchi et al. 2000, pg. 194). Feminists critique the rational process and relative resource approaches for failing to recognize the role gendered ideologies play in inhibiting women’s access to both labour market equality and resource accumulation. This dissertation and the focus on Japanese women’s economic emancipation will demonstrate the validity of the feminist argument. More specifically, the dissertation will highlight the significance of gender norms, specifically motherhood, for attaining both labour market equality and resources.
1.2 Feminism and the State
In order to understand more deeply the role that gender ideology plays in perpetuating the division of household labour it is necessary to examine the role of the state in feminist theory. Feminist international relations (IR) scholars have theorized that the nature of the state has implications for women’s liberation. Liberal feminists characterize the state as a neutral entity which believes strongly in the principles of equality. Under a liberal regime, states which display gender inequality can combat these grievances by incorporating women into the existing institutions and structures of government and economy (Tickner & Sjoberg, 2010, pg. 199). In a critique to liberal feminists, the critical school of feminism finds that the institutions and structures of states are inherently patriarchal. Therefore, separating “male” power from “state” power is impossible (ibid). As such, critical feminist scholars find that the state is unable to liberate women by increasing their visibility because the state itself is the oppressor. An extension of the critical feminist perspective is promoted by the socialist feminist school. Socialist feminist’s regards the state as a patriarchal and capitalist structure predicated on exploiting women’s social reproduction labour to bolster capitalist productivity (Elias and Roberts, 2018, pg. 73). Thus, for socialist feminists, the emancipation of women comes from challenging the structures of both male dominance and market capitalism.
This dissertation demonstrates that Japan is a capitalist patriarchal state. Japanese welfare practices illustrate the inherently male-dominated institutions which reinforce women’s marginalization while the Japanese employment system is predicated on exploiting women’s part-time work. Based on this characterization of the Japanese state this dissertation will demonstrate that womenomics as a policy, which is fueled by liberal feminist principles, is ultimately doomed for failure because the Japanese state is not neutral. In fact, the state can be regarded as reinforcing the gendered division of labour.
Chapter 2: The Construction of Motherhood
This chapter will focus on the construction of motherhood as the dominant identity for Japanese women. The discursive use of motherhood as hegemonic feminity constricts women’s participation in the labour force by placing them in the realm of the home. Hegemonic feminity is based on Gramsci’s definition of hegemony which regards the ideological subordination of one category in light of a different, hegemonic, category (Bates, 1975, pg. 351). This definition is used to describe how variants of gender are constructed and hierarchized (Howson, 2005, pg. 57). In Japan motherhood is the privileged feminity, and therefore the hegemonic feminity. This chapter demonstrates how hegemonic feminity, i.e. motherhood in Japanese society presents one of the largest hurdles for the success of womenomics.
Since the 1900’s women in Japan have been visible in the public sphere primarily as a result of their reproductive capabilities. Factory reforms from the 20th century illustrate the significance of characterizing women through the lens of motherhood. In 1911 the Japanese government ushered in its first-ever labour protection law entitled the “Factory Act of 1911”; the Act was aimed at protecting working women and children (Vera, 1998, pg. 72). These laws provided basic safeguards against overnight work and protection from hazardous industries in addition to maternity leave and nursing breaks for mothers (ibid. pg. 91). Despite resistance from the industry, the Factory Act was passed because it was believed to be serving the national interest (ibid. pg. 76). The government’s justification was that by protecting working women, the state was ensuring the health of mothers and by extension children, or in capitalist terms, the future productive labour force. This characterization is reinforced by the description of working women as the ‘women who are the mothers of the nation’ (kokumin no haha) (ibid). In reality, however, working women tended to be young, unmarried, and childless (Uno, 1999, pg. 14). This distinction was unimportant to the Japanese state. The actuality of motherhood was not as imperative as the potentiality.
In a paradoxical sense, it is worth noting that it is only through the construction of motherhood that Japanese women are afforded labour rights (Vera, 1998, pg. 77). These rights, however, are not granted as rights owed to workers, but, are rather constructed as forms of protection provided by the “paternalistic” state to mothers in need of protection (ibid. pg. 71). This narrative paints Japanese women as passive, dependent, and reliant on the state rather than as individuals with agency and equal dignity to that of a man. The promulgation of the Factory Act provides a glimpse into the significance of motherhood for attaining visibility in Japan’s public sphere. Furthermore, the importance placed on motherhood demonstrates what the Japanese government values. Without the state’s pre-emptive desire to safeguard future labour, working women’s rights would have been wholly dismissed. The primacy of motherhood in Japan is further exemplified by one of the country’s most significant feminist debates.
2.1 The Protection of Motherhood Debate
The Protection of Motherhood Debate (Bosei Hogo Ronsō) unfolded between 1916 and 1919 (Vera, 1998, pg.86). However, the arguments and ideas underpinning the debate transcend these dates. The Protection of Motherhood Debate is significant because it demonstrates the importance of motherhood as an identity and establishes the value of economic independence for Japanese women. The exchange was inspired by feminist trends in Europe. Fukushima Shiro, an editor at the women’s newspaper Fujo Shinbun, was analysing two key feminist developments overseas: the women’s civil rights movement and the mother’s rights movement (ibid). In Europe, these two strands often collided with individual women’s class and race backgrounds causing what Boxer (1982, pg. 552) terms a “mosaic” feminist movement rather than a homogenous movement amongst all European feminists. In Britain, the feminism of the early 20th century was characterized primarily by the growing suffragette movement (British Library Learning, 2018). To contrast, in France, the right to vote, although important, was not the primary concern of French feminists in this same period (Boxer, 1982, pg. 552). French feminists were concerned with improving the conditions related to women’s natural vocation as mothers and carers (ibid). Shiro argued in line with French feminists stating that the more pressing of the two concerns in Japan was the latter question of mother’s rights (Vera, 1998, pg. 86). Fukushima Shiro’s argument reflects the significance of motherhood as an identity in Japanese society and was heavily supported by Hiratsuka Raichō.
Hiratsuka Raichō was a key contributor to the Motherhood Protection Debate. In 1911 Raichō, inspired by the Bluestocking Society in England, founded Japan’s first all-women’s literary magazine entitled Sieto (literally translating to Bluestocking) (Tomida, 2005, pg. 50). In Seito, Hiratsuka advances her idea of ‘the new woman” when she elaborates by saying:
“Fundamentally mothers are the precious source of life. Before women produce children, they are regarded as nothing but mere individual beings, but through their worthwhile act of giving birth to children, their status as trivial individual beings is raised to the point where they are considered to be socially and nationally important beings.”
(Hiratsuka in Tomida, 2004, pg. 255).
Hiratsuka Raichō’s idea of what constitutes “the new woman” furthers the notion that women in Japan were visible only as an extension of their maternal capabilities. Raichō’s ideas were dismissed in 1916 by Yosano Akiko, the second significant contributor to the Motherhood Protection Debate. In the article entitled “I Refuse to Over-Emphasise the Significance of Motherhood” Akiko drew on her own experiences as a mother, poet, and wife to argue that women are defined by more than just their roles as mothers (Tomida, pg.252, 2004). Akiko went on to criticize the notion that child-rearing was a solely female responsibility, citing the importance of fatherly love in children’s lives (ibid). This first phase of the debate reflects the construction of motherhood as hegemonic feminity. While Raichō emphasises the importance of childbearing and rearing, Akiko explores the multitude of identities held by women which are marginalized in light of the category of mother. The debate can be read as a uniquely Japanese attempt at problematizing and dismantling gender norms which dictate care and motherhood as naturally feminine.
The Protection of Motherhood Debate reached new heights when Raichō advocated for a stronger state role in protecting motherhood. In 1918 Hiratsuka Raichō published an article outlining the significance of children to society, as future forces of labour, soldiers, and the bearers of national identity (Tomida, pg. 255, 2004). Inspired heavily by the Swedish feminist Ellen Key, Raichō argued that the state should protect mothers through financial support and award their contribution to society. The argument built upon her assumption that women’s value to society is defined in relation to their reproduction and social reproduction activities. Thus, she argues it is through the lens of motherhood, not womanhood that Japanese women should be granted state protection.
The primacy of motherhood over alternate categories, as outlined previously, was troublesome for Akiko, who wrote a counter article arguing for women’s emancipation. Yosano Akiko criticized Raichō’s calls for protection, contending that such practices encourage dependence mentality and likened women to state dependents akin to the elderly and disabled (Vera, pg. 86, 1998). Akiko further recognized that women in this situation would be presented with two equally demeaning options: women’s choice was between dependence on an individual male (father, husband), or, dependence on the patriarchal state (ibid). Both options would continue to constrict women, thus, Akiko argued that economic independence was the only form of true freedom for women. In a critique to both Akiko and Raichō, Yamada Waka, the final significant contributor, promoted the notion of a “family wage” similar to French feminists ideas (ibid, pg. 87) (Boxer, pg. 555, 1982). Waka argued that if men received a family wage the notion of “motherhood protection” would be obsolete (Vere, pg. 87, 1998). Yamada Waka’s proposal sought to maintain the integrity of women’s role in the domestic sphere and, similar to Raichō, she proposed a solution targeted at mothers financial security rather than women’s.
The Protection of Motherhood Debate is particularly significant because it marks one of the first major debates of the Japanese feminist movement, even predating calls for women’s political inclusion. The debate emphasises two significant points. Firstly, the identity of women is largely shaped by their role as mothers in the Japanese context. Secondly, the debate outlines the importance of economic independence for women. Despite varying opinions, each of the contributors is ultimately proposing a vision which seeks to protect women’s economic security. Thus, it is evident that for one to determine the effectiveness of womenomics and understand the economic emancipation of Japanese women in contemporary times it is necessary to examine the influence of motherhood and the constraints it places on realizing true economic empowerment. Motherhood is at the primacy of women’s economic independence because it represents a gender norm which naturalizes the division of labour. Consequently, it is necessary to analyse Japanese welfare practices which could alleviate the burden of motherhood to allow for greater economic participation.
Chapter 3: Welfare Politics
Based on the notion that Japanese women have been, and continue to be, constructed as mothers, this dissertation argues that welfare politics play an essential role in dictating women’s economic empowerment and will determine the overall success of womenomics. The relationship between gender norms and welfare is cyclical and reinforcing. The welfare state, through its redistribution of resources and institutionalization of ideologies is able to shape the distribution of domestic responsibilities (Geist, 2005, pg. 26). The provision of childcare in addition to the overall structure of welfare has significant influences on women’s ability to participate equally in the labour force and thus merits greater attention. I argue that two key features of Japan’s welfare system demand attention for their impact on womenomics. Firstly, this chapter examines the evolution of Japan’s welfare society and the implications this has for reinforcing motherhood. Secondly, it will examine how childcare provisions have been structured as a result of the welfare society and the impact this generates on women’s economic participation. Together, these two elements serve to highlight conditions which are actively constraining women to the domestic realm.
3.1 The Welfare Society
The welfare society is amongst the most powerful mechanisms which reproduces gender hierarchies, institutionalises traditional gender norms, and reinforces the identity of motherhood. The features of this institutionalized society contribute to the failure of womenomics. Following the end of the Second World War, Japan endeavoured on a course to establish welfare provisions. Originally, Japan moved towards welfare expansion (Miura, 2012, pg. 58). However, in the 1970s the country quickly retracted welfare policies after conservative backlash (ibid, pg. 59). Critiques of welfare expansion highlighted the British economic struggles of the period as a “disease” brought on by extensive welfare provisions (ibid). Thus, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government turned toward a different solution, one that was not regarded as impeding upon the economic success of the nation but would influence greatly the level of equality between Japanese men and women.
This new model was epitomised by the slogan of the 1970’s LDP government, which read “towards a Japanese style welfare society” (Watanuki, 1986, pg. 259). The principle of the welfare society was to transfer the responsibility of welfare from governments to families, the community, and society (ibid, pg. 263). Prime Minister Masayoshi Ōhira emphasised the family as the foundation of the welfare society and in 1980 commissioned a 204-page report on “How to Strengthen the Basis of Families (ibid, pg. 264). In practice, the importance placed on the family ensured welfare responsibilities were primarily attributed to the women in households. By conflating family values with state welfare, the Japanese government effectively institutionalized the gendered norms which kept women in the home and therefore out of the labour market (Geist, 2005, pg. 26).
The policy direction towards a welfare society over a welfare state can be read through two lenses: neoliberal, and, feminist. The neoliberal lens articulates an economic justification for the government’s pursuit of this track while the feminist lens seeks to demonstrate how Japan’s welfare society has actively constrained women’s equal participation in the workforce by reinforcing the identity of motherhood.
The welfare society plays a significant role in attributing care based tasks to women through its emphasis on family obligation. This is most evident in the importance placed on a woman’s social reproduction responsibilities. In Japan, the mother is the primary provider of welfare. This notion is reflected in the Family Charter of 1970, which highlights the role of the mother in social reproduction as follows:
“A woman should recognize herself as the best educator of her child. An excellent race is born from excellent mothers…only women can bear children and raise them. Therefore, mothers should be proud and…employment opportunities should be given to those women who have finished raising their children and who still wish to resume working outside the home.”
(Quoted in Mariko 1989, pg. 73)
The ideals presented in the Family Charter can be further evidenced in the stereotype of the ‘Education Mother’ (Kyoiku Mama), whose main responsibility is to ensure her children’s scholastic success and to secure their productive capabilities for the nation’s future exploitation (Uno, pg. 2). Uno describes the ideal Kyoiku Mama as follows:
“She studies, she packs lunches, she waits for hours in lines to register her child for exams and waits again in the hallways while he takes them. She denies herself TV so her child can study in the quiet and she stirs noodles at 11 P.M for the scholars snack”
The Kyoiku Mama is a reflection of the ideal mother in Japanese society because she facilitates the education of an “excellent race”. Furthermore, in keeping with the ideals outlined in the Family Charter, the ideal mother cannot take up employment outside the home since it would distract from her ability to ensure her child’s success. A good mother and a good citizen are conflated under the welfare society model.
Overall, it is evident that Japanese welfare practices naturalize the division of labour by transferring welfare responsibility to mothers. This contributes to the failure of womenomics by inhibiting women’s equal economic participation. On the macro level, the welfare society advocates for a greater sense of family responsibility, while on the micro level, this responsibility falls strictly on women. The welfare society norms have a direct effect on Japanese women’s relegation to the domestic realm and on their access to child care provisions which could allow them to work.
3.2 Childcare Provisions
The welfare society and the gendered norms it institutionalizes reflect the nature of childcare provisions available. In order for womenomics to succeed it must seek to alleviate the childcare burdens which constrict women to the home. Due to the emphasis placed on mothers as primary caregivers and welfare providers, the Japanese government historically limited its involvement in childcare provisions. Early provisions which did exist for childcare can be understood through a strategy of “poverty relief” (Peng, 2000, pg.100). Childcare centres under the purview of the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW) existed primarily as safety nets for lone-mothers in the early post-war period (Lambert, 2007, pg. 8). Day-care facilities held strict eligibility criteria which in effect only admitted children of single mothers or sickly fathers who were unable to work and therefore unable to support the family (ibid). These centres existed for the sole purpose of alleviating child-rearing responsibilities for single mothers so that they could pursue jobs beyond the home to maintain economic stability and refrain from falling below the poverty line. The development of day-care institutions was therefore a means of encouraging the poor to work, rather than relying on the state for security (Uno, 1999, pg. 13).
Married women were not entitled to access the early childcare provisions because it would serve to fracture the orthodox gendered division of labour and challenge the role of women in the home. Women’s access to child care services was limited as a consequence of societal norms and formalised application processes which only admitted children of single mothers (Lambert, 2007, pg. 9). Furthermore it was expected that married women gained their financial stability from their husband’s family wage (Peng, 2000, pg. 109). This expectation was codified beyond rhetoric, and the importance of the family in welfare provision was even translated to legal enforcement. Ito Peng identifies the post-war Family Law, which holds family members responsible for one another’s welfare by extending vertically three generations and horizontally amongst spouses, as a site of inequality reproduction (ibid, pg. 91). Family Law, and by extension the obligation of familial care contributes to generous company welfare packages which are calculated based on a male employees dependents such as wives, children and parents (ibid). Welfare packages for male workers are intended to support the gendered division of labour so married women can stay at home. Thus the existence of a family wage along with the lack of childcare accessibility for married women demonstrates how the welfare society’s notion of family obligation is actualized. Furthermore, the lack of childcare accessibility actively enforced women’s position as caregivers and reinforced the primacy of motherhood over all other identities, including workers in the labour market.
Child-care provisions since the early post-war period have marginally expanded as a result of women’s increasing economic participation; however, the ideals of the welfare society continue to plague the reach and accessibility of these services. The distinctions between Yōchien (kindergarten) and Hoikuen (day-care) serve to reinforce the values of the welfare society and the division of labour which relegates the “ideal” women to the private sphere. Yōchien are widely regarded as a place of learning and early socialization, as such, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education (Soma and Yamashita, 2011, pg. 136). Contrastingly, Hoikuen, which can offer education, but are primarily care facilities are managed by the MHLW (ibid). In addition, Yōchien holds classes primarily in the morning between 9:00 am and 11:00 am whereas Hoikuen hours mirror the working day (Mariko, 1989, pg. 77). As such, these institutions exist to serve two distinctly different groups. Yōchien are accessible to housewives who are not working and able to mind their children after classes’ end, while Hoikuen exists to serve working mothers. In 1982 only 29.7% of students attended Hoikuen before their elementary education while 64% had attended Yōchien (ibid). The attendance disparity can be attributed to the limited availability of Hoikuen as a result of the perceived social value of the institution. Yōchien conformed to the ideals of the welfare society model by maintaining the primacy of the mother in social reproduction and thus garnered higher prestige (Imoto, 2007 pg. 93). Over time, however, demand for childcare provisions which would permit more women to work has emerged, thus the line between Yōchien and Hoikuen has blurred slightly in recent decades (ibid, pg. 96).
Margarita Abe and Yeong-Soon Kim demonstrate that it is only during the 1990s that a change in childcare provisions, which would permit more women to engage in the labour market, can be regarded (2014, pg. 666-685). The LDP had limited incentive to change childcare provisions from “poverty relief” to “universal accessibility” before the 1990s because it would disrupt the traditional gender arrangements (Abe & Kim, 2014, pg. 676). However, labour shortages since the late 1980s contributed to the rise in female workers, which in turn has spurred a rise in demand for childcare (Lambert, 2007, pg. 2). Traditional middle-class housewives, who were previously relegated to the home, drastically increased their economic participation. In 1955 roughly 10% of married wives engaged in the labour force, yet in 1996 the proportion of middle-class married women in employment reached 50.5% (Peng, 2000, 103). As a result, the demand for childcare services has skyrocketed. In 1995 there were 28,481 children on waiting lists for childcare services (Zhou & Oishi, 2005, pg. 104). To accommodate the rising demand for childcare the LDP government initiated the Angel Plan in 1994 which was intended to expand the access of day-care services beyond just single-mothers (ibid, pg. 101). However, Ito Peng notes that the changes have been insignificant due to a lack of funding (ibid). Based on statistics from the MHLW the demand for childcare services rose to 42,800 in 2003, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the 1994 Angel Plan in providing childcare (Zhou and Oishi, 2005, pg. 104). This failure is further evidenced by the series of government policies which rolled out following the original Angel Plan.
A mere 5 years later the government introduced the “New Angel Plan” in 1999 which was followed by the “Zero Waiting List Plan” in 2001 (Abe & Kim, 2014, pg. 676) and a “New Zero Waiting List Plan” in 2008 (Kawabata, 2015, pg. 42). As an element of womenomics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his plan to eliminate waiting lists completely by 2017 (Matsui, 2014, pg. 9). Since then Abe has pushed his deadline forward to 2020 (Nikkei Asian Review, 2017). Broadly speaking the aims of each new plan has been relatively identical: to increase the availability of childcare for Japanese children. Each plan has failed to meet this goal (Abe & Kim, 2014, pg. 676).
In 2017 Yuka Ogata, a politician of Kumamoto municipality brought her 7-month old baby to a chamber debate to highlight the lack of childcare services available for working mothers (Demetriou, November 30th 2017). Ogata was met with intense backlash from her colleagues but widespread support from mothers on social media who faced the same challenges (ibid). The politician’s stunt was an effort to highlight that without childcare provisions, mothers are unable to enter the workforce and move beyond the realm of the home.
Despite nearly two decades of increased government involvement in childcare provisions the demand for day-care services is drastically surpassing the supply (Zhou & Oishi, 2005, pg. 103). Thus, while the government has seemingly made some effort to improve access to childcare, as evidenced by the continuous updating of childcare provision policies, ultimately Japan has not succeeded in alleviating the burden of care off of women, making it increasingly difficult for mothers to work. The overall failure of the expansion of Japanese childcare can be attributed to the continued influence of the welfare society in perpetuating gender norms, the nature of Japanese employment and ultimately the failure of womenomics as a policy.
Chapter 4: Employment Patterns
The structure of Japanese employment is influenced by the emphasis placed on motherhood and the ideals of the welfare society. What is critically understood about female employment is the type of work women engage in, primarily part-time work in order to balance their welfare responsibilities. Part-time employment inescapably contributes to inequality between men and women which is reflected in pay gaps along with different career progression tracks. This chapter will first address the construction of the salaryman as a form of hegemonic masculinity which bars women’s access to equal employment. Following, the chapter will analyse why women are saturated in part-time work and how this reinforces the ideals of the welfare society. Overall the chapter serves to demonstrate how the government and corporations maintain traditional family structures which restrict women’s equal participation in the labour market and must be dismantled in order for womenomics to succeed.
Labour in Japan is divided into two distinct categories: regular worker (Seiki) and non-regular worker (Hi-Seiki) (Kano, 2018. Pg.7). It is the balance of these categories that continues to reinforce the gendered division of labour and sustains the ideals of the welfare society. The difference between the two is not simply related to working hours but is greatly influenced by gendered constructs.
4.1 The Construction of Salaryman Masculinity
The conditions of a regular employee effectively disqualify women from being both good citizens, under the terms of the welfare society, and good employees. The construction of the salaryman as a form of hegemonic masculinity and the glorification of the salaryman as the ideal employee has barred women from achieving equal economic opportunity, despite female participation in the labour force, and therefore requires greater analysis to understand why womenomics will fail.
The archetypes of the salaryman (Sararriiman) and corporate warrior (Kigyô Senshi) have been regarded as the foundation of Japan’s economic growth and the success of Japanese corporations. The hyper-visible men ranging between their mid-20s to late 60s in almost uniform-like black suits, white button downs, matching “seven-three” haircuts, and leather briefcases can be spotted crammed together on Tokyo’s subways during morning rush hour and drunkenly stumbling home on the last train in the evening (fig. 1). On the surface, the term salaryman defines a white collar worker (Seiki) in the private sector (Dasgupta, 2003, pg. 120). This definition, however, is overly simplified. More accurately a salaryman represents the ideal Japanese worker, which, as the moniker indicates, is a man.
As Dasgupta identifies, the salaryman is a figure of Japanese hegemonic masculinity which stands in direct opposition to the hegemonic femininity of the mother (2003, pg. 118). Following the end of WWII, formerly revered masculinities such as the farmer and soldier were subdued in favour of the corporate warrior/ salaryman (ibid, pg. 122). That is not to say that the values which underpinned the former masculinities have been erased. In fact, the opposite is true. The attributes which underpin the core values of Japan’s Samurai (warrior) class come to also colour the character of the salaryman. Loyalty, self-sacrifice, duty, and endurance are integral features of the salaryman and they are reflected through the salaryman’s commitment to the corporation (ibid, pg. 120). Part of the contract between the salaryman and his employer stipulates the understanding that it is the employee’s duty to prioritize the needs of the corporation before his own (Miura, 2012, pg. 23).
Japanese salarymen are stereotypically known for working long egregious hours as part of their commitment to the company. The typical salaryman works well past the average 8-hour day, with over 60% reporting a minimum 10-hour working day (Nemoto, 2013, pg. 515). The burden of overwork is so deeply embedded in Japanese salaryman culture that death by overwork and suicide from overwork are common phenomena (Kyodo, 2002). The normalization of overwork has significant impacts on the gendered division of labour. Claudia Geist’s empirical study demonstrates that men’s participation in the household is highly dependent on the amount of time they spend working (Geist, 2005, pg. 26). Similarly, a case study conducted by Nobuko Nagase and Mary C. Brinton concludes that Japan’s overwork employment practices inhibits male participation in domestic duties and actualizes the role of women as primary caretakers (2017, pg. 362). These studies indicate that individual beliefs about gender equality influence the division of labour less than systemic employment conditions which prioritize loyalty to corporations over family.
Salarymen’s unwavering commitment to the company, and by extension their invisibility in the domestic realm, is not accidental as it is taught through media and therefore is a gendered construct (Dasgupta, 2003, pg. 124). Keniichi Suzuki’s “What Men Need to Do in Their 20’s” instructs incoming salarymen that economic success comes from dedication. Specifically, Suzuki states that the word “no” should not exist in the vocabulary of an entry-level salaryman (Dasgupta, 2003, pg. 124). Keniichi Suzuki’s instructional manual demonstrates how long working hours are not simply a product of the Japanese work environment, rather, they are an integral feature of the identity of the salaryman. Overwork and the sacrifice of a personal life are constructed as a heroic display of commitment to the company, akin to the sacrifices made by warriors for the nation (Nemoto, 2013, pg. 514). Since sacrifice of the personal life is a glorified aspect of the salaryman identity, working women are required to mirror this hegemonic masculinity, or, opt out of full-time employment. Women who attempt to juggle welfare society expectations with employer expectations are unable to commit to the same extent as their male counterparts and are thus characterized as “weak” (ibid).
Kumiko Nemoto highlights that promotion for women is synonymous with childlessness (2013, pg. 514). Prejudice against Japanese women in the Seiki working track is rampant. As recently as 2018, Tokyo Medical University, one of the country’s most prestigious medical institutions came under fire for altering female applicants test scores to lower the number of women entering the university from 40% to less than 30% (BBC, 2018). When questioned, the university officials claimed that their “silent understanding” for lowering women’s test scores was driven by the assumption that “female students who graduate [would] end up leaving the actual medical practice to give birth and raise children” (ibid). Tokyo Medical University argued that women’s child-rearing responsibilities led to staff shortages and added strain to an already overburdened healthcare system (Todd and Reese, 2018). A similar case of test score tampering was uncovered at Jutendo University and Kitasato University (ibid). The example of these universities illustrates how presumptions about a women’s welfare responsibilities have actively lead to a compromise in women’s economic opportunity and must therefore be addressed by womenomics. This type of prejudice against female professionals is not rare in Japan; in fact, while the Tokyo Medical University scandal received scrutiny and overseas coverage, it is a mere reflection of the society-wide problem.
The division of women as workers and mothers in Japanese corporate life is significant for understanding why womenomics will fail. Sayaka Osakabe, the founder of Matahara, an organization dedicated to opposing the rampant maternity harassment of Japanese corporations, advocates for the fair treatment of pregnant women in the workforce. Osakabe notes that maternity harassment is a widespread form of power abuse which forces women out of employment as a result of pregnancy (Hall, 2017). In 2015, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation released a report which indicated 20.9% of women experienced such harassment (ibid). This is particularly telling since, women are severely underrepresented in Japanese unions and thus it can lead us to believe that these figures are much higher when addressing not only unionized female employees but all female employees.
Maternity harassment is a widespread practice because Japanese companies believe that child-rearing will take away from an employee’s efficiency. This belief is termed “the motherhood penalty” and greatly impacts a women’s career progression; the same is obviously not true for men since men’s status as fathers has no influence on their progression as employees (Nemoto, 2013, pg. 514). This juxtaposing treatment of female and male parents in the workforce is a direct result of the ideologies reinforced by the welfare society. Due to welfare responsibilities, regular working women are often pushed out of full-time employment at the cusp of motherhood. As a result of the demands of the regular working track, Japanese women are more often relegated directly into the part-time category to ensure they can balance welfare and work responsibilities.
4.2 Part-Time Work
As a result of the impossible to emulate salaryman characteristics and the lack of accessible childcare, Japanese women are saturated in the part-time career track. The relegation of women to part-time work further solidifies the gendered division of labour, fails to encourage women’s equal economic participation, and presents a hurdle for womenomics.
Women’s part-time work can be regarded as the product of the tension between governments and corporations. The patriarchal state promotes women’s role as mothers and caretakers under its welfare society model and as such requires women to be relegated to the home, but, Japanese corporations, who look to maximize profit through additional labour exploitation, seek to encourage women’s participation in the labour force. Part-time work is regarded as the compromise between these two spheres as it allows for women’s labour to be exploited while their continued primacy remains within the home (Broadbent, 2002, pg. 60).
Pato (part-timer) is a highly gendered term used to define female part-time workers, traditionally working housewives (Miura, 2012, pg. 25). This is evidenced by the fact that 90% of pato in 2005 were women (ibid). The saturation of women in the pato category is a result of women’s restricted access to childcare. Mizuki Kawabata’s research in Tokyo demonstrates that 72% of women with children under the age of 5 want to work, but only 37% of those women are actually in employment (2014, pg. 42). Similarly, figure 2 from the MHLW demonstrates that the majority of Japanese mothers are unemployed before their children reach school age, and when they do enter employment it is primarily on a part time basis.
Percent Distribution of Mothers Occupation Status by Childs Age Group
Source: Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare
The volume of part-time workers is significant for women’s economic emancipation because pato earn marginally more than minimum-wage (Miura, 2012, pg. 25). This contributes to high levels of wage-inequality between Japanese men and women, as evidenced by figure 3.
Gender Pay Gap Comparison of OECD Countries
Wage inequality also ensures that it is increasingly difficult for Japanese women to enjoy economic security without marriage. Furthermore, as a result of the competitive nature of the salaryman, Japanese men are discouraged from taking a more active role in care giving responsibilities. Part-time employment is therefore a supplement to the pre-existing single-male breadwinner model and contributes to the failure of womenomics (Broadbent, 2002, pg. 57).
4.3 The “M” Curve
When graphed, the employment patterns of Japanese women follow an “M” curve (fig 4.).
Women’s Labour Force Participation by Age Group
Source: Gender Equality Bureau of Japan
The employment rate peaks around the age of 20 when women began graduating from university and continues to rise steadily till women reach child-bearing age, and then the level of female employment drops drastically. The valley in the “M” curve exists until children have reached school age, at which point mothers re-enter the workforce and a second peak in women’s employment is regarded and sustained until retirement. As demonstrated by figure 4, the labour force participation of women from others countries is less impacted by motherhood. The “M” curve and Japanese women’s employment pattern is therefore particularly unique. The steep valley in the “M” curve reflects the lost labour potential of Japanese women. Furthermore, the existence of this off-ramping reduces women’s skills progression and negatively influences their ability to move up the corporate ladder into managerial and senior positions. As a result of the off-ramping, the only option for women re-entering the workforce is part-time employment. Overall, the “M” curve is a consequence of the welfare responsibilities women must undertake when they become mothers and the lack of childcare provisions which would enable them to continue working and raise children.
Based on the salaryman model and the structure of part-time employment it is evident that even when Japanese women are participating in the labour market their work is not equal. The disparity between men and women’s economic participation is the result of welfare responsibilities and the construction of motherhood. Japanese women cannot access regular worker tracks without sacrificing personal aspirations. Women who choose to engage in work and family life must compromise by entering the part-time workforce which provides limited career opportunities. Thus, the fair and equal treatment of Japanese working women should be the main priority of the government’s womenomics policy.
Chapter 5: Womenomics & Neoliberal Feminism
Previous chapters have effectively sought to analyse the construction of motherhood, the ideologies of the welfare society, and employment patterns in the evolution of women’s economic participation in Japan. Together these sections have demonstrated the barriers which restrict women’s full participation in the labour market and by extension their economic emancipation. The emergence of womenomics as a policy is the culmination of this evolution and a proposed solution to bolster women’s economic participation. I argue that womenomics is ultimately doomed to fail because it is an economic solution to what is principally an economic problem caused by cultural, societal, and historical barriers. Government policy seeking to promote women’s economic participation must, therefore, fully address the barriers I have identified throughout this dissertation to enact genuine change. This chapter will illustrate that womenomics as an economic policy appropriates liberal feminist branding, while ultimately failing to drive women’s overall economic emancipation because it disregards the historical roots of women’s oppression. The chapter will first analyse the emergence of womenomics as an economic solution for declining growth. Then it will demonstrate how womenomics has transcended into the realm of policy as a tool for boosting Japan’s public image. Finally, it will demonstrate the neoliberal roots of the policy.
5.1 The Origins of Womenomics
As evidenced by its name, the emergence of womenomics as a policy is driven by economic need, rather than the principles of equality. Womenomics has been posited as the solution to Japan’s economic stagnation; this is particularly evident when tracing the emergence of the policy. Kathy Matsui, Vice Chair and Chief Japan strategist for Goldman Sachs, has been advocating a women-centric solution to Japan’s economic crisis since 1999. The Goldman Sachs report penned by Matsui et. al “Women-omics: Buy the Female Economy” proposes that by increasing female labour participation the Japanese economy can continue to grow. Matsui predicts that by closing the gender gap Japan’s GDP could increase by 13% (Matsui et al, 2014, pg. 1). The argument identifies that male employment rates in Japan are essentially at capacity (Matsui et al, 1999, pg. 1). Therefore growth, for the Japanese economy depends on an additional, novel source of labour. Three potential solutions are presented by Matsui for policy consideration: Firstly, the government should focus on increasing the birth rate, secondly, greater support for emigration to Japan should be provided to drive new labour sources, finally, the government can capitalise on women and the role they can play in the labour market. When assessing these options the report states that the government’s attempts to increase the birth rate have been met with overwhelming failure (Matsui et al, 1999, pg. 8). The second option proposed by the report is to increase immigration to Japan. However, as noted by Matsui, this remains largely taboo in society and among politicians (ibid). This leads the authors to conclude that women’s increased participation in the labour force is among the most feasible of the recommendations for a revitalized Japanese economy. The chronology and structure of the report begins by problematizing a solution for Japan’s economic situation, where women only enter the dialogue as a tool for economic growth. Thus, the emergence of womenomics is derived not from an interest to empower women, rather a desire to fuel the economy.
Four volumes of Goldman Sachs Womenomics report have been published since Matsui’s original proposal in 1999. In the 2014 edition entitled “Womenomics 4.0: It’s Time to Walk the Talk” Matsui indicates that:
“Japan has more to gain than most countries from raising female labour participation” (Matsui et al. 2014, pg. 2)
More than 15 years after the original report, and the language used by Kathy Matsui to promote womenomics has remained almost identical. It articulates what the nation has to gain from female labour participation and not what women themselves have to gain and hence illustrates the values which drive the policy of womenomics.
Furthermore, Matsui assumes participation is equivalent to empowerment. However, as noted in previous chapters, women are already actively participating in the Japanese economy and will continue to do so. However, participation itself is fundamentally unequal due to the pressures of motherhood and the structure of regular and non-regular working tracks. Matsui’s proposal to raise women’s participation rates in the labour market makes no consideration of the welfare society ideologies which constrict women to the domestic realm. In essence, the report argues an overall increase in women’s burden by promoting further labour participation with no outline for balancing welfare responsibilities. Despite the lack of depth and consideration in Matsui’s womenomics proposal, the ideas have transcended into the realm of policy. The appropriation of womenomics into the realm of policy is fundamentally the result of economic necessity and a need to improve Japan’s international standing. Womenomics first appeared in Japanese politician’s vernacular in 2014. At the annual 2014 Davos summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech which for the first time alluded to Matsui’s ideas of achieving economic success through increased female labour participation. Abe, taking note of Japan’s “super ageing population” inquired to the audience about where Japan may seek to find the human capital it desperately desired for growth (2014). His answer mimicked the now 15-year-old report by Matsui. Abe declared “the female labour force in Japan [as] the most under-utilized resource” (ibid). The immediate comment made by Prime Minister Abe upon announcing womenomics as a policy course mirrored Matsui’s notion that womenomics could serve the economy. From the onset, Abe did not frame womenomics as a policy to increase women’s equality or bolster the position of women in society. Instead, he sought to alleviate the burden on the Japanese economy by referring to women as “resources”.
In addition to the economic factors which motivated the adoption of womenomics by Abe, there is a clear desire to utilize womenomics to bolster the image of Japan in the eyes of the international community. In the 2014 Global Gender Index Japan ranked 104th out of 142 countries (World Economic Forum, 2014). The World Economic Forum’s index is calculated based on four factors: Economic Participation & Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health & Survival, and Political Empowerment (ibid). Japan’s low score overall is a result of its poor showing in economic participation & opportunity and in political empowerment (ibid). Data for the Global Gender Index is derived from the visibility of women in political positions and managerial positions in the workforce. Thus, in order for Japan to raise its overall standing the government needed to focus on improving these two factors (Kano, 2018, pg. 4). Womenomics, with its central focus on encouraging women’s participation, increases the visibility of Japanese women and consequently should lift Japan’s international standing. In 2014, Abe announced that 30% of leadership positions would be occupied by women in 2020 (Kano, 2018, pg. 2). In an effort to move towards his target, the Prime Minister appointed 5 women to his cabinet (ibid, pg. 4). One year later Japan’s place on the Global Gender Index jumped to 101 (World Economic Forum, 2015) and its ranking for political empowerment improved from 125th to 104th. Therefore as Ayako Kano notes, the Abe administration’s goal of increasing women’s representation by 30% can be viewed as a performative nod to progressive liberal ideologies without actualizing significant socio-cultural change (2018, pg. 4). The Japanese government’s lip service towards gender equality is just that, a falsity. In 2015 Abe revised his goal of raising women’s participation from 30% to just 7% in government and 5% in the private sector (Kano, 2018, pg. 8). His own cabinet saw the reduction of 5 female ministers to only 1 after a 2018 cabinet reshuffle (The Asahi Shimbun, 2018). Furthermore, four years on from Prime Minister Abe’s famous Davos speech and Japan’s current ranking has slipped to 117th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index (World Economic Forum, 2018, pg. 11). These changes are drastic and they allude to the Abe’s inability to genuinely understand how the interaction of welfare, motherhood, and employment intersect to limit women’s equal economic participation. The administration is not completely blind to the social challenges women face. The LDP, has a vested interested in maintaining the status quo and upholding traditional gender norms (Kano, 2018, pg. 2). However, the government is aware that a degree of social change is necessary for propelling women into the workforce. Without a shift in domestic responsibilities, the womenomics project which aims to contribute to the growth of Japan’s economy will remain idle. Thus, a few nods, as a part of womenomics, have been made in the direction of altering societal norms. Firstly, Abe has acknowledged that access to childcare is a significant hurdle for women’s employment (Abe, 2014). Therefore, the Prime Minister declared his governments support for childcare expansion by building upon existing actions like the Angel Plan and Zero Waitlist Plan with a new promise to eliminate waitlists by 2017 (Matsui et al, 2014, pg. 9). As previously established, the government has failed to attain this goal with over 55,333 children reportedly on waitlists as of 2018 (Jiji, 2018). Abe was not merely unsuccessful in eliminating the childcare burden, but the argument stands that the government was hardly invested in the issue to start with. Rather than increasing government spending to support the provision of childcare, Abe has sought a solution based on outsourcing Japan’s care needs.
In his Davos speech, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that “support from foreign workers will also be needed for help with housework, care for the elderly and the like” (Abe, 2014). The statement indicates that the Japanese government is aware of the welfare barriers currently weighing on Japanese women and impacting their economic participation. Abe’s response to these hurdles is the mere transferal of domestic responsibilities to foreign workers. In the 1970s the government transferred welfare to women, and in 2014 it seems the next transfer will be to migrant workers. Japan will thus become incorporated into the transnational care economy which is predicated on the basis of creating a care deficit in one country (almost always a developing one) in order to absorb the care demands of another (Lutz, 2011, pg. 22). Although Abe’s use of “workers” is gender neutral, the reality is that transnational care economies are highly gendered. Domestic work has become the largest sector fuelling women’s migration and is characterized by unfair pay, restrictions on freedom, and poor social security (ibid. pg. 19). Womenomics, therefore, encourages the exploitation of foreign women. The ease with which the Prime Minister encourages migration to alleviate Japanese women’s welfare responsibilities reflects his government’s willingness to exploit both migrant women and Japanese women. Thus, it is evident that womenomics is motivated by economic principles rather than egalitarian ones. Helma Lutz inquires:
“Why despite the waning significance of the housewife marriage … has there been no redistribution of family or care work between gender groups? Why is it preferable to pass on this work to another woman from another country?”
Abe privileges migrant women over domestic men as caretakers because transnational care economies fundamentally maintain the gendered hierarchies of society. The invisibility of Japanese men in Abe’s Davos speech is stark and their place in womenomics is, if anything, purely ceremonial.
In an effort to pander at the most basic level to international critiques and domestic opponents, the Abe government has targeted male participation in domestic duties as a way of promoting women’s employment. A new government-backed trend ikumen (handsome men who partake in domestic duties) has been advertised as the changing force in Japan’s domestic division of labour (The Japan Times, 2016). The government has even launched awards for companies which encourage their male employees to take paternity leave (Fleming, 2018). The glossy media coverage ikumen has received is far from the reality it is attempting to portray. Kumiko Nemoto’s research at two major Japanese companies found that male attitudes towards child leave, despite employer encouragement, remained negative. Only one man, from both companies took child care leave (2013, pg. 522). Furthermore, the same employee revealed his decision to take leave was not based on a desire to conform to the ikumen standard but rather was, in the ideal salaryman way, an act of loyalty to his company. The employee stated that:
“If one man takes childcare leave in a firm, the Japanese government approves the firm as being family-friendly and adds it to the list of family-friendly companies. The company needed one man. I had to sacrifice myself. It was just for the image of the firm. It might be better for the profits of the firm…. Nobody wants to take such leave. When you take childcare leave, you get a 3.3 per cent reduction in your salary.”
(Nemoto, 2013, 522).
The salaryman’s reservations about child leave are not completely unfounded. Stefanie Anne Aronsson argues that it is actually “economically rational” for Japanese women to take child care over men, because from the onset the perception of women as mothers has limited their ability to earn as highly as their male counterparts (2016, pg.35). Thus, the ikumen project, more than anything, is simply a discursive marketing strategy being employed by the government to improve the image of Japanese gender divisions without addressing the true employment inequality women face.
5.3 Neoliberal Feminism
Abe’s womenomics represents a new wave of feminism: neoliberal feminism. Hester Eisenstein explains that Neoliberal feminism, also labelled “transnational business feminism”, is based on the notion that women are untapped resources who represent the solution to capitalisms downfalls (2017, pg. 38). This is evidenced by the way both Kathy Matsui and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have spoken about women as the solution to Japan’s economic stagnation. The main focus of neoliberal feminism is to incorporate women into the structures of capitalism (ibid, pg. 45). McRobbie has dubbed neoliberal feminism a “faux-feminism” (2009, pg. 119) because the “revolutionary demands of feminism have been reduced by capitalism” to reflect that paid work and political visibility are equal to liberation (Eisenstein, 2017, pg. 37). The emerging notion that economic participation can be equated to women’s liberation focuses primarily on the individual with little concern for the wider political and social systems which have historically been responsible for women’s oppression (ibid, pg. 42). Eisenstein’s point is clearly reflected in the reality of Abe’s womenomics policy, which has failed to challenge the existing social structures of welfare, employment, and motherhood to empower women. Thus, when characterising Abe’s womenomics as a new neoliberal form of feminism it is necessary to inquire about who wins and who loses as a result of this pseudo-feminist policy (Kano, 2018, pg. 8).
It is undeniable that womenomics will produce “winners”, most obviously the Japanese economy and corporations, but also some women’s economic independence will be improved as a result of the policy. Part of the womenomics agenda has been to encourage the promotion of women to managerial positions. The International Labour Organization released a report to commemorate International Women’s Day this year, which details that only 12% of management positions in Japan are occupied by women (2019, pg. 30). This is only a 3.6% increase in representation of women in management since 1991 (Tanaka, 2019).
In 2015 the administration passed legislation that requires businesses with over 300 employees to set quotas and targets for women to achieve leadership positions (Business and Human Rights Resource Centre). However, there is no enforcement to ensure companies comply with their self-set targets, as well as no penalties for failing to advance women (BBC News, 2018). Furthermore, as previously indicated corporations and the government have made marginal progress with regards to childcare accessibility this in effect disqualifies mothers from attaining management positions. Evidently, womenomics is not succeeding in bolstering women’s rise to leadership. Women who are advancing to management are those who are willing and able to mirror the salaryman lifestyle, i.e. do not have welfare and childcare responsibilities (Nemoto, 2013, pg.513) (Aronsson, 2012, pg. 47). Ultimately no changes have been made by the administration to challenge the status-quo employment practices which privilege total commitment to the employer over a work-life balance, which could drastically improve the prospects of women who seek to enter senior positions. Women who seek to pursue a family life and career will be faced with a “struggle and juggle” dilemma as a result of the welfare responsibilities and unfair employment practices which will continue to persist under womenomics (Kano, 2018, pg. 7). With regards to certain women’s progression as a result of womenomics, Ayako Kano poses an important question:
“Rather than all women being treated as second-class citizens because of their gender, if some women would be treated as first class… would this be a step forward or back?”
(2018, pg. 10)
In response to Ayako’s question, I argue that this division of elite and non-elite women is, in fact, a step back for the women’s liberation project because it fails to dismantle the social structures which are constricting Japanese women. The creation of “elite” women would distract from addressing the lived inequality faced by most women in society. Furthermore, while Aronsson (2012, pg. 9) argues that elite women may act as role models, the fact remains that until socio-cultural inequalities are address by womenomics there will be little improvement.
Thus it can be understood that womenomics will privilege a certain type of women but will fail to emancipate women as a whole. In the words of Ayako Kano womenomics presents “an uncomfortable marriage between feminism and neoliberalism” (2018, pg. 1). It isn’t genuine concern for women’s empowerment which is driving Japan’s turn to womenomics but rather a desire to grow the economy at the expense of women. As such, feminists should be dubious about womenomics and the promises it seeks to make.
“The roots of gender inequality are not found in women’s exclusion from production per se, but rather in the material and ideological separation of production from social reproduction”
(Roberts, 2015, pg. 219).
Adrienne Robert’s remarks are particularly valuable for understanding the failure of womenomics as a policy. Women’s marginalization in Japan will not be reversed as a result of their increased visibility in the labour force. In fact, for most women, inequality will only be furthered as they are forced into a double work-shift to try and manage welfare and workfare responsibilities. Womenomics will undoubtedly increase the number of working women. However, these workers will largely be relegated to part-time employment because womenomics does not challenge the ideological foundations which continue to construct women as primary caretakers and welfare providers. In order to genuinely challenge gender inequality a serious attempt at dismantling gender norms such as motherhood and reformulating welfare and employment practices is necessary.
This dissertation has demonstrated how identity formation, and the primacy of motherhood, has influenced the accessibility of welfare for Japanese women and further characterized their role as employees. Without fully addressing the social, cultural and historical roots of women’s oppression, Japan’s search for growing women’s participation is doomed for failure.
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Fahreen Budhwani is currently completing her Masters in Gender, Policies and Inequalities at the London School of Economics. Her passion for gender intersects with her love of Japan and fasciation with Japanese politics and institutions. Alongside her studies, Fahreen is the co-host of a Feminist Podcast titled “Super Smash Hoes”. Along with her co-host Erika, the two girls explore society, gender and culture in Japan.
Julie Yukiko (雪子) Buisson aka Ukico has much in common with Snow-White, other than just her name, which literally means “child of the snow”—she is charming, peaceful, a beautiful woman with alabaster skin and blessed with an ethereal singing voice that calms the spirits of men and animals; she is enchanting. Her first song, Denial, and the surreal mystical music video for it were released on September 11.
She was born to a Japanese mother and French father and grew up in Paris. You could say she has made the best of her bicultural heritage, touching upon her roots to become a successful model and now a songwriter and singer. Her French-Japanese visage and sense of style helped her have a successful international modeling career.However, she has much more depth than her surface appearances, and that is part of her appeal.
Ukico (pronounced You-Key-Koh) was studying at the University La Sorbonne while pursuing her modeling career after high school. What sparked her interest in singing and songwriting was the death of her grandmother.
When she passed away, Ukico, wrote a poem as a eulogy, which she showed to her father—and to her surprise, he wept.
“It moved my father to cry and it showed me how to paint a picture with words. He still reads the poem, sometimes.” She felt the power of words come to life.
She had often thought about becoming a singer/songwriter but lacked confidence in her ability to compose or to voice her emotions musically. But seeing her father’s response stirred something inside of her.
“It was a wake-up call. I had always dreamed of studying and living in New York and pursuing music. I love so many different genres and singers. Everything from Massive Attack, to Little Dragon, to Lana Del Rey.”
The song writing of Fiona Apple was particularly inspirational to her.
To pursue her musical career more seriously she entered a music engineering school in NYC, The Institute of Audio Research. After graduating salutatorian, she interned at the recording studio Strange Weather based in Brooklyn.
She was given an opportunity to work on the production of 36 Seasons by Ghosface Killah. She also put in time at the world famous jazz club Birdland, live mixing for the Grammy Award winning band The Afro Latin Jazz orchestra, and other jazz acts.
While in New York, she experienced the loneliness, alienation and emotional struggles that come with life in the Big Apple.
She sought refuge in spiritual disciplines, yoga and meditation, eventually becoming adept enough to guide others.. Meditation and yoga are still a huge part of her life, and perhaps what gives her an aura of warm serenity—not the chilly vibe you’d expect from a snow woman.
During her time in New York, she was also taken under the wing of Justyn Pilbrow, a respected music producer who has handled major acts such as Halsey and The Neighbourhood.
After leaving New York and coming back to Japan she also became more interested in her own Japanese background and traditional music. It provided her with some solace as
She continued to work with Justyn Pilbrow and was also able to collaborate on musical pieces with Japanese virtuosos of Koto (Japanese lute), Shamisen, Shakuhachi (windpipes) and the Taiko (Japanese drum).
Her first single, Denial, has instrumentation featuring the shakuhachi and taiko. “The shakuhachi is such a beautiful instrument—it can express so much pain and tension.”
The video of the song is based on the story of Japan’s creation, as told in the Kojiki, a classic of ancient Japanese literature. The creation of the world starts with the first two existing Gods Izanagi (male God) and Izanami (female God). After forming Japan’s islands they gave birth to other gods—the god of the wind, seas, and more. But Izanami, after giving birth to the God of Fire dies from the trauma and fatal wounds. Her spirit goes down to the underworld. Izanagi who misses her terribly, decides to descend to the underworld to bring her back—like Japan’s own Orpheus.
The video, using Butoh dancers, brings to life the myth of creation, death and renewal. But what is the song about on a personal level? Fasting? Living without material goods? Denial of French culture, or Japanese culture?
Ukico answers, “It is a song about breaking up and the end of love. But it is a bit more than that. I was protecting my heart, not to fall in love again. I was in denial of closing my heart when I started to write it. But also there was underlying denial that I am mad at somebody.
But the real denial in the song is that I am angry at myself. It is because of myself, because of how I am choosing how to deal with things that the suffering comes. And there is some wisdom and transmutative power in understanding that.”
Japan Subculture Research Center asked Elizaveta to explain why she wrote the song and for the lyrics to the song. Here is what she had to say.
I wrote “Meet Again” not long after finding out about the tragic fire at Kyoto Animation. I had met some people from KyoAni, although just very casually, through a network of animators and visual artists I am occasionally part of, when in Tokyo.…
I was hoping to be able to tour the studio and visit their shop, when visiting Kyoto next. I was also aware of their positive reputation, as they were known for being an employee-friendly company in an industry, which often overworks and underpays animators. They had a lot of women working for them, too, which was unusual, and a breath of fresh air.
In the hours and days following the tragedy, I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened, and following the news, which just got more and more grim.
The contrast between the beautiful, hopeful art produced by KyoAni and what happened to them, was very hard to reconcile with. I am not a starry-eyed optimist,
but I do prefer to believe that good things happen to those who put out good things into the world. While I know it’s a naive worldview, it’s better than the alternative. This event, though, was not an accident, but an act of deliberate evil. All circumstances aligned for it to be as awful as could be. It was incredibly hard for me to accept it as reality. There had been no magic hero to save the day, and nothing to soften the blow. Kyoto is a peaceful, mystical city of a few thousand temples. But no deity stepped in to offer protection.
Once you accept that something terrible like this happened and there’s no way to explain it, you must allow for healing to start, or at least attempt to get on the path towards it. I can’t even start to imagine the pain and trauma of those who had gone through this experience and survived are now having to deal, and probably for years to come. My heart also goes out to those who got the call that day to find out their loved ones were no longer with them. Furthermore, the trauma to KyoAni fans around the world may not have been as direct, but it’s real nonetheless. When you make art, those who love and consume it, become believers of the things your art brings into the world. For KyoAni fans, it would have been beauty, hope and harmony. A tragedy such as this one kills faith that the world is in any way fair and a worthwhile place to be part of.
I wrote “Meet Again” the day I went to the recording studio, and the song practically wrote itself. I heard it in my head, and the lyrics came to be just minutes before I walked out to catch the train. This recording is the first take, which we recorded and filmed. It wasn’t quite perfect in a couple of places, and so I did another take, but I had a hard time singing then, because I was too close to tears. And so I made the decision to keep the first take, as it was, and record no more.
I wrote this song as a way to heal myself, even though I was just a bystander of this tragedy. I hope it may serve as a source of healing to others affected by it. I still have hope and faith. There are so many things we do not know, and so much happens every day, which makes it hard to take heart and carry on. But carry on we must, and help those around us do so, too.
I don’t remember when I got the call that day They said you were no more And then the ground gave way
I sat and cried all night Still hoping they’d been wrong A part of me had died How could I carry on
As sunrise painted red Inside my sleepless eyes Still lying on my bed I thought I heard a voice
It sounded like my love A distant precious sound But there was not a soul That I could see around
I know you’re still with me In other shape or form Our union has survived A deadly firestorm
And when I look above I can transcend the pain Soar high with me, my love I know we’ll meet again.
何時のことか 覚えてない もういないと 立ち尽くした
泣き明かした まちがいだと 身を裂かれて 歩みようも
夜明けの赤 腫れ目を染め 伏せたままで 聞こえたのは
君のような 遠くの音 影ひとつも 見えないのに
今も そばに 形を変え つながりだけ 焼け残った
仰ぎ見ては 痛みを超え 君を連れて また会うまで あの高みへ また会うまで
Born in USA, Russian-raised Elizaveta made her debut on Universal Records (US) in 2012. Since then she became the voice of the Tavern Bard in Dragon Age, has toured USA, Russia and Europe, was a repeat guest performer at the main TED stage, and released a number of multi-lingual recordings, heard in multiple films and TV series. She produced and released an all-Japanese language duet album Mezameru Riyuu earlier this year, followed by a 16-city tour of Japan.
Shinbun Kisha (The Journalist) is getting great box office and rave reviews, belying the myth that a Japanese movie about newsrooms and politics just won’t cut it. Based on the bestselling autobiography by audacious Tokyo Shinbun (東京新聞) reporter Isoko Mochizuki, The Journalist is a suspense thriller about how the titular woman journalist dared go after the government to unveil conspiracies and cover-ups. Infuriatingly, most of her male colleagues are intent on adhering to the status quo. Alone and isolated, the journalist teams up with a young bureaucrat from ‘Naicho’ – the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office – to expose a government scandal that’s almost an exact reenactment of Prime Minister Abe’s ‘Morikake’ incident.
“All Japan needs is a mere facade of democracy,” goes a line in this movie, implying that the nation neither needs or wants the real deal.
But now, with the House of Councillors election happening on Sunday, politics is on many peoples’ minds, including millennials that had shown zero interest in the past. Tickets in 42 theaters have sold out and the movie’s distributors announced that they will be printing 10,000 new copies of The Journalist pamphlet, as they’ve been selling off the shelves in theaters across Japan. Next week, the two main cast members will appear on stage at a theater in Shinjuku, to take their bows and answer questions from the audience. It looks like politics and newsrooms are a winning combination!
The Journalist is gripping, wrenching and ultimately cathartic, even if the plucky heroine doesn’t oust the evil government agents or get an enormous raise for her efforts. No, what happens is that news hound Erica Yoshioka (played by South Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung), after a series of grueling assignments that require round-the-clock investigating, not to mention the actual writing –gets to keep her job so she can start the cycle all over again in the name of quality journalism. Yoshioka also keeps her dignity and integrity intact, which is much more than one can say for Japanese movies about professional women, or let’s face it, women protagonists in general.
The role of Erica Yoshioka is gutsy and intriguing and you can’t help but wonder why a Japanese actress didn’t snap it up. Rumors are going around that all the possible candidates had turned it down because they didn’t want to get involved in anything anti-government and were afraid of the backlash. Shim can return to South Korea, but Japanese actresses have to live and work here.
Personally, I’ll take what I can get, and bask in the fact that The Journalist got made at all. Usually, such projects never get off the ground. Not only does The Journalist dig at some old scars the current Administration would rather forget, it bears the hallmarks of a well-meaning dud. There is no love story. There are no sex scenes or girl idols to alleviate the complete seriousness of the proceedings. And the director, Michihito Fujii, is only 32 years old with no blockbusters on his resume. Initially, Fujii turned down the offer of director since, as he professed in an online interview, “I didn’t know anything about politics or the news.” Still, once he signed on, Fujii did the research, hit the books and lined up interviews with government officials. The story benefits from his efforts but the directing seems just a tad stiff and two-dimensional. Perhaps Fujii was too caught up in the material to do more than connect the dots, albeit with meticulous expertise.
As it is, The Journalists belong to Shim and Tohri Matsuzaka who plays Sugihara, the elite bureaucrat working for ‘Naicho’. They give their all to film and Matsuzaka has been commended on social media for taking on a “dangerous” role that could potentially give him a bad name (the anti-government name).
Compared to Shim’s Yoshioka, Sugihara is more nuanced and inwardly tortured. His job is to protect the current administration and make sure the press don’t get their hands on any problematic information, but he has his misgivings. When his boss commits suicide to cover up another cover-up, Sugihara is shaken.
(Editor’s note–this is based on the suicide of a Finance Ministry official who killed himself rather than take part in deleting or altering government documents that implicated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a scandal relating to a government land-sale to a right-wing elementary school, run by his crony. None of the other officials who participated in forging public documents, which is a criminal offense, were charged; the female prosecutor who dropped the case was promoted)
The boss’s last words to Sugihara had been “don’t end up like me,” and Sugihara can’t fathom whether that meant “don’t die” or “don’t get involved in anything bad.” For a Naicho bureaucrat, the two most likely mean the same thing. Matsuzaka is a revelation – he has always been good but The Journalist shows his range. Last year, he was doing sex scenes ad nauseum in Call Boy and here, he never even takes off his jacket.
A word about Shim as Yoshioka: in the movie, her character has a Japanese father and a Korean mother, hence her accent when she speaks Japanese. Yoshioka completely lives for her job, to the point of excluding everything else from her life. It turns out that her father (also a journalist) had killed himself over an incident involving fake news. As his daughter, she had vowed to pursue the truth, whatever the cost. Shim’s performance is excellent, and one can only hope there will be a future where Japanese actresses will go for roles like this – far, far away from the planet of ‘Kawaii’.
In real life, there aren’t a whole lot of women journalists working for Japanese newspapers. Many don’t make it past the first five years; what with the long hours combined with frequent transfers to regional branches, incidents of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and of course, that thick glass ceiling – the job doesn’t exactly encourage them to stay on.
Isoko Mochizuki, the author of the book on which the film is based, however, is changing the scenery. As mentioned above, she’s a veteran reporter for Tokyo Shinbun which is famed for its hard-hitting investigative journalism and for being the Abe Administration’s most vocal critic. Her frequent cross questioning of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has ripped a big hole in Japan’s infamous ‘kisha club’ system (where only the reporters of major newspapers are allowed to attend closed press conferences). And now, with the unexpected success of The Journalist, perhaps we can start discussing hard-hitting issues like democracy and freedom of the press. Who’s to say the Japanese don’t need it ? They seem to love films that bring up these issues.
On April 30th, Emperor Akihito became the first sitting Japanese Emperor to abdicate the throne in over 200 years. Then, the following day on May 1st, his son Naruhito ascended the throne, becoming the 125th emperor thus marking the official start of the Reiwa (令和) Era.
In recognition of this momentous occasion, that PM Abe described to Trump as being “100 times bigger [than the Super Bowl],” many stores and companies released new products. Such as Reiwa branded sake and beer, a ¥100,000 truffle wagyu burger, foie gras and gold dust toped 3kg wagyu burger, gold dust seasoned potato chips and cans of Heisei Era air from Heinari in Gifu Prefecture, heisei branded bottles of water costing ¥2000. While many other stores simply opted to hold special time-limited sales.
At the same time, many Japanese consumers enjoyed an extremely long holiday (by Japanese standards) of 10 days and many went on spending sprees with some economists estimating there to be a nationwide spike in spending by tens of billions of Yen.
Meanwhile, many in China reportedly were baffled and disappointed that the new era name wasn’t based off of Chinese classics like many past era names and instead was instead allegedly derived from a collection of classical Japanese poetry from the late 7th to 8th centuries known as The Manyoshu.
One of the most odd effects of the new Reiwa era name, however, is the celebration of many Tibetans living in Japan due to the new era’s name sounding similar to the Tibetan word for “hope”. There are many people who hope and believe that the new era’s name is an auspicious sign for the Tibetan people; May 10th marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.
Text & video by Phoebe Amoroso, cover image courtesy of Kanamara Shrine
Our roving reporter, Pheebz, visited the annual Kanamara Festival on April 7th, which involves a lot of phalluses. The Kanamara Shrine (literally, “Metal Penis Shrine”) is where people pray for sexual health and fertility.
What’s the story behind this upstanding event? Watch the video below to peel back the mythological foreskin and get to the root of the matter.
The festival has its roots in local sex workers praying
for protection against sexually-transmitted infections, but in recent years, it
has come to represent LGBTQ and diversity with profits going towards HIV
Quite rightly, however, many have pointed out the hypocrisy inherent
in a country, which made international headlines for condemning vagina art by Megumi
Igarashi, better known as Rokudenashiko. Who was arrested on obscenity charges
for distributing 3D data of her vagina that she used to 3D print a vagina canoe
as part of her work.
Yet the obscenity of the flagrant double standards
provokes discussion, and an event that promotes inclusivity is worth
celebrating in a notoriously conservative society.
Many festival attendees are likely satisfied with pure spectatorship and sucking on phallic-shaped candy, and that’s fine too. But for maximum enjoyment, it’s worth digging a little deeper into the legend of a SAVAGE VAGINA DEMON (you read that right).
One legend has it that a beautiful woman was plagued by a jealous demon, who hid in her vagina and killed Husband Number 1 by biting off his penis. Husband Number 2 met a similar fate. Dismayed, she enlisted the help of a local blacksmith who seems to have been really chill about dealing with vagina demons. He made her a metal phallus, which she inserted. The demon, of course, bit it, but he broke his teeth and fled. Presumably she lived happily ever after, especially since she had her own personal metal phallus.
Coauthored by Brian Ashcraft, a senior contributing editor for the website Kotaku, and Osaka based tattoo artist Hori Benny, this book Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design was written with the goal with the intention of helping those that are thinking of getting a Japanese style tattoo (perhaps most commonly known outside of Japanese as irezumi・刺青). Both authors use extensive knowledge of Japanese style tattooing and personal interviews to guide the novice away from committing any cultural faux pas in a work that spans 158 glossy pages.
“Over the course of researching, interviewing, and writing this book, we
consulted numerous friends, colleagues, experts, and total strangers with the
goal of introducing and decoding the most prevalent motifs so that English
speakers can have a better understanding of their meaning and hopefully get
Japanese tattoos that can be worn with pride – as they should be”
The book begins with an introduction to
the history of irezumi in Japan, from punitive tattoos, to prohibition, and all
the way back to modern times. This first section also covers briefly some
reasons why Japanese tattoos have changed over time. The book is then divided
into six additional chapters based on the different styles and motifs found in
irezumi, with numerous sections in each chapter that clearly divide different
motifs in that style. A tattooist and client profile are also included at the
end of every chapter, giving life to the theme of that particular chapter. There
are also information boxes that provide additional information to support the
content within the main body of the work. All of this is supported with high
quality, full colour images of tattoos and virtually every single page of the
What I found extremely impressive about
this book was the sheer quantity and quality of the accompanying images. Not
only are specific motifs and their meanings clearly explained, but the authors
have also provided imagery and explanations of the images themselves. The
reader is able to enjoy each and every motif – usually in more than one style.
Both Ashcraft and Hori Benny did an exceptional job collecting the various
photographs of irezumi for the book.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book
though, was the addition of the Tattooist Profile and Tattoo Client Profile at
the end of every single chapter. While the majority of the book reads, to an
extent, like an irezumi dictionary of sorts, these sections brought extra life
into the vast amount of information being provided. We, as readers, are given
the opportunity to hear the voices of individuals that are not the authors.
These sections are personal and provide a real solid look into the minds of the
tattoo artists and their clients. We are able to see their views on irezumi and
what they mean to them personally. The extra insight brought in by these
sections is a crucial component in what makes Japanese Tattoos work – it makes the “foreign” content relatable.
That being said, the large amount of
information that the book contains is also a weakness. There were certain
sections that I found difficult to read. There are extra text bubbles of
information throughout the book, but in some places their existence takes away
from the overall flow of the work. The reader is obligated to both stop
midsentence to go read the “extras” or move on and hope they don’t forget to go
back and read them again. Such as,
“The fox (kitsune in Japanese) is associated with the formless Shinto deity Inari, who is sometimes depicted as male, other times as female and sometimes as gender-less. Inari is not only the god of rice, sake wine, and fertility, but also the god of metal workers and commerce. Stone fox statues often appear at the more than ten thousand officially recognized Inari shrines in Japan, and because the fox guards these shrines, the animal is often confused with the god. The pure white foxes, however, aren’t simply the god’s messengers, but also guard and protect the shrines. These foxes also carry connotations of wealth and fertility, due to Inari’s rice associations.” (pg. 57)
I found sections like this rather
disjointing and it did affect my reading experience. Definitely not a problem
for many readers, but something that I wish would have been laid out a little
better, especially considering the high quality of the content on every single
Overall, Japanese Tattoos was a fascinating read and I would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in tattoos or keen to learn more about specifically about irezumi. While perhaps the academic might find the content a bit shallow in terms of the historical content, it is important to remember that that is NOT the goal that Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny set for this book. They wanted to create a resource for English speakers who wanted to get Japanese tattoos. A goal that I would say they accomplished with flourishing colours.
Taylor Drew is a new contributor to JSRC she is a Canadian living in Tokyo since 2015. (Almost) fluent in Japanese. Loves Iwate and cats.
Anything and other than expected. A journey to some parts of Sadogashima
*This articles is reposted with permission from https://www.louiseclairewagner.com
When years ago, I first took notice of Sadogashima’s existence, I was instantly intrigued by the idea to visit there one day on my own. Though, I could not really tell why. For sure, pictures of the landscapes and the curiosity to discover the local culture played a part, howbeit Japan counts numerous astonishing places, and ultimately, I have to admit that it was above all the idea to break away which allured me as much. Indeed, I associated physical and mental distance with Sadogashima; disconnection, not with Japan, but somehow with the world. Before undertaking my journey, I had only briefly read some background information and not made any particular travel plan, as I wished to leave freedom to my own perceptions. However, and despite the aim to head out without any expectations, I quickly got confronted with fact that I had unconsciously and unwillingly pictured this place as well as my stay.
Seemingly small, Sadogashima, located off Niigata, is the largest island in the Sea of Japan. Its area is approximately 855 square kilometres and its coastline stretches around 280 kilometres. The population was at about 56,000 in the end of March 2018. Although I knew about this, I still couldn’t get rid of the idea that Sadogashima had to be compact and it was only through several walking and bicycle tours, and the distances together with the (hilly) relief put my physical capacities to the proof, that I finally started to agnise the island’s vastness.
Excavations from ruins indicate that Sadogashima has been inhabited for about 10,000 years. It was one of Japan’s independent provinces in the Nara Period, and early designated an island of exile. Beginning in AD 722 with Hozumi Asomioyu, further exiles included figures such as the former Emperor Juntoku in 1221, the Buddhist monk Nichiren in 1271, and Zeami Motokiyo in 1434, a Noh actor and writer, all of whom expressed critical opinions about the respective then-ruler. Today, many people ascribe the miscellaneous population and the cultural richness of the island to the prior exiles. Sadogashima is also known for its gold production, and back in the days, it was notably the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu who promoted the development of gold and silver mines by placing them under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. The prosperity attracted diverse workers and resulted in a rapid rise of the island’s population, which reached a peak of 125,597 in 1950. The mines were operated from 1601 until 1974 and definitely closed in 1989. With a remarkably rich, diverse and well-preserved environment, Sadogashima was the last natural habitat of the internationally protected wild Japanese Crested Ibis (Toki) which became endangered and went extinct in 2003.
However, artificial insemination started in 1999 and after 2000, baby birds were raised with increasing success and released back into nature.
Today, the main industries on the island are agriculture and fishing, and although for me everywhere on the archipelago fish and seafood has so far been delicious, the incredible freshness and quality of Sadogashima’s catch (combined with a glass of local sake) was so tasty that I had to enjoy it for every single dinner.
When some weeks ago, I boarded the ferry that brings one within two and a half hours from Niigata Terminal to Sadogashima Ryōtsu Port, I immediately was captivated by the particular atmosphere and intrigued by some other passengers. There were few people; a group carrying music instruments, some families, a young couple with camping equipment; a couple with numerous stuffed manga characters (that got carefully installed along one of the ferry’s windows), as well as several dispatched individuals whose actions did occur rather incomprehensible to me… But this was only the beginning of my reflection upon the island’s curious population.
The accommodation I stayed at disposed a very small number of rooms, some shared facilities including a charming and neat salon and kitchen, and (just as I had pictured !) a large terrace with ocean view. There I was, the sea in front of my eyes, fairly disconnected, and incredibly happy.
At my arrival, most of the other rooms were occupied by a Japanese three-generation family who enjoyed dinner at the first floor-situated gourmet restaurant. Besides some words and friendly gestures, we did not further communicate though.
The following day, after returning from a long trip to the very south of the island, I met two young women who had planned to eat downstairs the accommodation and stay overnight. When they told me that they both lived on Sadogashima, and one of them only few minutes away from the accommodation, I was rather surprised and wondered why they would book a room although they could practically walk home. Anyway, I didn’t want to be unpolite or intrusive and therefore just imagined possible reasons. As they proposed, I joined them later for some delicious fish, seafood and sake at a nearby izakaya. We shared very pleasant moments, and I ended up being kindly invited to have lunch with them the next day.
No sooner said than done, we were headed to a local restaurant. When in the end of the lunch, one of the staff pulled down her mask, smiled, and asked me if I remembered her. I was rather perplexed : it was the middle-generation mother who stayed at the same accommodation as me two nights before. The girls explained that her family owned the restaurant we had eaten lunch at and that she lived nearby.
The same evening, I crossed paths with three older women, who were calmly sharing some citrus fruits in the common living room. Although already tired, I could not decline their invitation to join them for a little talk. When they told me that they just finished dinner at the restaurant downstairs, that they would stay for a night at the accommodation, yet that they all lived on the island, I started to really wonder about Sadogashima’s curious inhabitants, their tendency to eat out during the week and their way to treat themselves by combining gastronomic pleasure with an overnight stay.
The last day before heading back to Tōkyō, I had a pleasant conversation with the proprietor of the accommodation, who generously gave me a voucher for a future stay. When I told him about my amazing yet peculiar experience with all the locals, he mentioned that this may not happen a next time and finally unveiled the secret: because of COVID-19, Sadogashima had launched a campaign for its inhabitants, in order to stimulate the tourist industry and local economy.
As mysterious it seemed, as simple it was. I had to smile. About the situation and about myself. About how we imagine things if we don’t know and don’t ask. About the curiosity of life, and the beauty of the unpredictable… Had I maybe imagined myself alone on a deserted island or amidst some stranded tourists, but hardly surrounded by these nice new acquaintances.
I would be lying if I said that it was love at first sight, and Sadogashima probably counts amongst the places which require not only time but also an open mindset in order to be enjoyed. Nevertheless, its particular atmosphere, the pureness of nature and honesty of people caught me, and it was with a nostalgic feeling that I left the island behind. When on the way back I found myself all alone on the large deck of the ferry towards Niigata, I had surprising sensations, feelings of energy and enthusiasm, and finally understood why I had been intrigued by Sadogashima for so long. Very differently than expected, it seemed that I precisely found what I had hoped for.
Certainly, there are many more aspects of the island that I could and should discover, but this shall remain for the future. Now I know some locals I sincerely wish to meet one day again, and not to forget, I still have my voucher.