Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
I saw this post today on RocketNews24, entitled ““Breaching the laws of equality” – Has Japan’s preferential treatment of women gone too far?”, and wanted to share it.*
Really, this whole post is just by way of sharing a bunch of different gender-related links (and webcomics) that I’ve come across in the last couple weeks. My friend Leah, over at The Lobster Dance, and I had spoken briefly about how there doesn’t seem to be any good Japan-centered gender blog, doing for Japan what The Grand Narrative does for Korea, and what Sociological Images does for, well, a much broader range of topics and geographical/cultural locations. I’m not sure if my ramblings, in this post, are really the best place to start for my part in this “project”, as it’s more just my own personal thoughts, rather than any proper academic-style analysis, but it is a start. Even if my own words may be a bit too rambling, or even misguided, I hope you will find the links valuable and interesting.
Returning to the subject of the RocketNews post, many of the busiest train lines in Japan have for years already had “women-only” train cars (beginning in 2001), where women can escape the threat of chikan (groping), and apparently, there are now beginning to be established, here and there across Japan, women-only cafés, women-only spaces in co-ed university libraries, and the like. Plus, the ladies’ day discounts at the movie theatres. And some people, such as a lawyer quoted in the RocketNews post, are beginning to question whether this is not in violation of legal (and, indeed, constitutional) requirements for equality. Personally, I’m not so interested in the legal aspect, as I am the cultural impact, the homosocial spaces and homosocial experiences that these spaces represent. What kind of space is a women-only space? How is it arranged or decorated or managed? How does it feel to be there? What kinds of activities and interactions occur there? What kind of experience, or atmosphere (fun’iki), is enjoyed in these spaces? I have to admit, I do not know, as I am not permitted access to such spaces. But, I think I can pretty safely assume that at least some of these spaces to be much more pleasant places than male-dominated spaces; less aggressive, less combative, less confrontational, less rough, more classy, cleaner, prettier, more comfortable/luxurious in certain ways. Sounds pretty nice.
In discussing such spaces, though, first, of course, we have to be clear that these spaces are not created purely to give women some kind of advantage, purely to give them nice things and thereby create an inequality. Women-only spaces are, generally, created in the name of protecting women from men, who are, as a group, as a whole, seen as a threat. Whether it’s the groping on the trains, or simply being made uncomfortable and distracted from one’s work because of men leering in the library, there is a feeling of a need to escape. And I certainly won’t argue that there is no such threat, because, unfortunately, this is the society we live in – whether in Japan or in the US – where far too many men think it’s perfectly okay to leer, verbally harass, grope, or worse. And that leads to a society full of women who are wary of any and all men, at least to some extent. And, while it’s an unfortunate state of affairs in general, and terribly frustrating for myself, I don’t blame the women for feeling this way.
I’m not a woman, and there may be all kinds of social pressures or social frictions that women experience from one another, which I don’t know about, but, I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have female spaces to, presumably, feel comfortable in. Places with an atmosphere more attuned to your tastes, comfort, whatever. This of course doesn’t go for all such women-only spaces, but at least some are explicitly described as “far more luxurious” than the corresponding co-ed spaces.1 And, for my female readers, in case you were unaware, accurate or not, most men romanticize female homosocial interactions, and imagine all female-only spaces to be quite clean, fancy, comfortable/relaxing, compared to male or co-ed spaces. I lived for years under the apparently misguided impression that women’s bathrooms typically had nice comfy couches, and were generally much cleaner and more well-appointed than men’s.
I wish I could spend time in luxurious spaces. Well, of course, I can. In fact, I went out with some guys to two really fantastic bars in Shibuya just the other day. But, those are not male-only spaces, and outside of the fact that we were drinking beers, I’m not sure there was much of anything we were doing that was really particularly macho or “masculine.” And if they were more truly “manly” spaces, I can’t imagine I’d want to spend time there. Not because of anything having to do with a desire to pick up girls, and the resulting need for there to be women there; this whole idea of the “sausage fest,” with the implication that one wishes there were women there so that one could hit on them, is disgusting. But, rather, because just like women need a space free of masculine energy and the male gaze, so do men, crazy as that might sound.
I have for a very long time found standard expressions of masculinity unappealing, and lately, have begun to find them especially repulsive. Anything and everything about machismo, or “dude-bro” culture, is just… disgusting, and I want to have nothing to do with it. But, then, what does that leave? If there is to be an alternative American masculinity, one that rejects machismo and dude-bro culture, what are its defining characteristics? Who am I to be? What am I to strive for?
I recently came upon the above quote, and felt it describes better than almost anything else I’ve ever come across before, how I feel – how I have felt for a very long time. (If you’re interested, please take a look at the Kickstarter for the documentary from which the quote & image is taken.) Not to make light of the very serious harassment, and worse, that far too many women suffer every day – not to say that what I experience is comparable at all, but, simply to put that aside and talk about this interconnected but other phenomenon, I absolutely feel this anxiety almost every day. I have very few friends with whom I feel I can truly be myself, without having to worry about what to suppress, how to behave differently, in order to behave masculinely enough for those around me. Which is crazy, because I am sure that quite often, they are simultaneously worried about me thinking them manly enough. We are each of us, constantly, worrying about whether we are living up to the standards of the men around us – are we being manly enough? Do the other men (or, women, for that matter) around us think we’re failing or lacking in some respect? It’s crazy, and it’s stupid, because while there may be those meatheads who genuinely believe in and aspire to normative modes of masculinity, a great many of us are simply performing masculinity for the benefit of fitting in with those around us – whereas, if we all just dropped the act, and were more honest and genuine with one another, that anxiety might lessen, and our relationships with other guys might become that much closer and more meaningful. Yet, all too often, we can’t.
A Hawaii-themed pancake café in Narita City. I wish I had gotten a picture of the three young ladies enjoying fluffy pancakes covered in mountains of sweet whipped cream and fruits, lightly chatting and enjoying themselves, so as to better illustrate the Hawaii-themed café as a particular flavor, or atmosphere, of young women’s homosocial space, for which I’m not sure there’s a male equivalent.
The equivalent, the turn-around, to women-only spaces is not men-only spaces. I don’t want the sports bar, or watching the game and drinking brewskies in the “mancave.” And I don’t want the pretentious “old boys club” or businessman’s bar. And I certainly don’t want the frat house. Actually, I’m not really sure I want a men-only space at all. Because it’s not about escaping from women; it’s about escaping from expectations of manliness. … I’m not sure what I want, I guess. Except that I think I want whatever it is the women have. I think about the stereotypical “ladies who lunch,” or the girls going out together to a parfait place or a Hawaii-themed café2, or a cat cafe, or any number of other types of establishments clearly aimed at girls going out with their girlfriends… I look at these interactions, and I feel like there is a freedom there, to be yourself, to do what you want, to be a woman with other women, to put aside your everyday life, and your everyday mask, and to experience something just a bit elegant, just a bit cosmopolitan, in a kind of fantasy space, as if you’ve been transported to Waikiki, or to an elegant little teashop in Victorian England. Of course, now that I spell it out that way, of course, there are plenty of men-and-women-both-welcome places in all kinds of styles and atmospheres, where one can enjoy such an experience, whether it’s a fancy brunch place or a theme restaurant, to a classy Japanese restaurant with all the furnishings. But, even so, thinking about these women’s homosocial interactions, I cannot help but feel that we men are failing, or lacking, somehow, somewhere. That the women know how to have proper social relationships, proper friendships, and further that they know how to enjoy themselves, how to live the good life as it were, in whatever small ways, with their luxurious cafés and luxurious recreational activities in general, that seem classy, and cosmopolitan, and cultured, while somehow avoiding the obnoxious pretension all too often inherent in more male-dominated spaces, such as the businessmen’s bar. Maybe the solution is simply that I need a group of female friends to adopt me into their group and invite me along with them to the cafés, to brunch, whatever. Because as much as I have enjoyed some very good times with other men, at nice cafés or theme bars, having wonderful academic conversations, and whatever, it’s not the same. Is it?
This is not a proper way to end a blog post, I know, but, frankly, I just really don’t know what else to say. There is no conclusion. I barely even know what it is I’m looking for, or whether I’m even looking for it. I don’t know what the conclusion to this topic is, or if there even is one. The above are just some thoughts I had, and I’m still trying to work them out, what I think, what I feel, about all of this. It remains unfinished.
Comics from Sinfest.net, by Tatsuya Ishida.
*Before we go any further, perhaps a definition for “homosocial” is in order. Merriam-Webster gives the definition, in part, as “of, relating to, or involving social relationships between persons of the same sex.” The key thing is, if you’re coming across this term for the first time, it’s about friendly, social interactions, and is not talking about romantic or sexual relationships, or sexual orientation or preferences.
(1) Quoted from the RocketNews article, describing a women-only space in a university library in Saitama.
(2) One could write volumes on the appropriation and discursive imagination of Hawaii in Japan, and in particular, on vacationing in Hawaii (or just going to Hawaii-themed cafés) as a young women’s homosocial activity. I wonder if anyone has. I came here that day hoping it might be a proper Hawaii-style restaurant, as I was hungry, and in the mood for a mahi mahi sandwich, or miso butterfish or something, but all I found was dessert pancakes. Is that even a Hawaii thing? At all? I guess maybe in Waikiki…