How Getting Catcalled in Japan Brought Back Some Childhood Body Issues

Suddenly, the summer before my 12th birthday, I felt men's eyes on me. Then the catcalls came.
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Louise Hung
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Suddenly, the summer before my 12th birthday, I felt men's eyes on me. Then the catcalls came.

So I just got back from a walk to my neighborhood convenience store or konbini

Our neighborhood is going through a lot of construction right now, so the fronts of apartments are littered with ladders and tools, ashtrays (they bring their own), and workers on break. I've seen setups like this before around here, and never think much of it — just people doing their job. 

But as I neared the crosswalk for my konbini, I felt my senses perk up, go on guard, in a way they haven't for nearly a year. I figured it was just a knee-jerk cautious response to the group of construction workers lounging out front of an apartment building while smoking cigarettes. I made the conscious decision to just ignore it, and carry on. I nodded politely to the workers, like I always do, as I passed them. 

Normally, construction workers, crossing guards, government workers politely nod back and go back to ignoring me. But this group of three workers nodded, smiled, and continued to keep their eyes trained on me as I walked by. 

Lou on street catcall

The now-quiet street where the construction workers were. 

When I was about halfway past them, one of them, a long haired man in a white t-shirt and ripped jeans piped up, "How are you? How are you? Helloooo!" loudly and rapidly in Japanese. The volume, and intensity of the question surprised me, but keeping my "polite Japanese person" persona intact, I just nodded a, "Fine, thank you," smiled and did not stop walking. 

As an American woman who hates catcalling my mind immediately went to, "UGH. Eff this."

But even in those few seconds, I felt a little bit in conflict with myself. I'm in Japan! Catcalling is all but non-existent! Men are too polite! RIGHT? I've always been told that catcalling rarely, if ever, happens in Japan. 

Whatever you think about catcalling, and however you choose to respond to it, I personally have some deep-seated anxiety about catcalling. 

I got my first catcalls when I was around 11 years-old. Though I'm rather youthful-looking now, my body developed much faster than my "still pretending to be a unicorn" brain, and suddenly one summer, men were noticing. 

Whereas the previous summer I'd playfully traipsed around my Seattle neighborhood in a swimsuit and shorts — just a kid hungry for convenience store nachos — suddenly the summer before my 12th birthday I felt men's eyes on me. Then they started whistling or calling out to me. 

At first I didn't get it, but then my older cousin started teasing me, "They totally think you're a grown-up!" Then my parents noticed, and they thought it was HILARIOUS. 

Nobody's parents are perfect, and I don't want to throw too much shade their way, but I've always wondered how my parents could find humor in their immature daughter's bright, red face and new found self-consciousness. Maybe it's the big extended family unit I came from, maybe it was just a difference of cultures, but "men staring at Louise" became a favorite topic that summer. 

I was mortified, felt guilty and responsible for the stares. I was not ready to be seen as a "woman," being a girl was still all I knew and wanted. I literally tried to shrink myself away. 

I stopped ALL STRETCHING that summer, in the hopes I'd get shorter — at the time I was very tall for my age, thus contributing to my older look. "Uglifying" myself became an obsession. I'd walk around with my jaw set at a crooked angle, and my shoulders hunched forward. My hope was that men would see me as "funny looking," not attractive. 

Looking back on it, it was such a sad armor to resort to. 

When "uglifying" proved too difficult (try walking around for an hour with your jaw offset), I started making my "private make-believe" public. 

There's a favorite family story about the time some dude on a ladder was ogling me as my cousins and I walked down the street. So to freak him out I started "prancing" like a horse and making whinnying noises. Horrified, the man looked away. I felt victorious. 

It took me a long time to own what I look like, what my body looks like. To first and foremost feel good about what I present to the world, regardless of how other people decide to approve of, or mutate that impression. In all fairness, I actually had to grow up, as opposed to what the world judged of my body. 

And while leering and catcalling still stirs some residual, childhood shame deep, deep down inside me, I now usually have the presence of mind to stay in control of how I feel about the situation. 

But the catcalls on the way to the konbini threw me. 

As I passed the group of men, I saw out of the corner of my eye the long-haired man stand up and take a step forward. He continued to call after me, in a mixture of Japanese I didn't understand, as well as words I recognized as "pretty," "cutie," and "baby." The tone was unmistakable. 

"Heeeeey! How are you?" he called after me. 

Unsmiling, I glared back at the long-haired man, a "screw you" that I hoped transcend language, and they erupted into laughter. I kept walking at a steady pace. 

As I stood about 20 feet from them, waiting for the light to change at the crosswalk, I found myself wrestling with more conflicting thoughts. 

"Are they really catcalling me? But men don't do that here. Do they? Am I being rude? Are they just trying to ask me a legitimate question I don't understand? If I'm ignoring them they should get the picture! F**K THEM! Wait, is this a cultural thing? Do Japanese women respond in a certain way? Should I be doing something? How do I tell them off in Japanese? What is the word for...what is the word for...?"

The light changed, I crossed the street, and did not look back. 

There was no doubt that they were catcalling. And just as I usually do with catcallers, I mostly ignored them. But here I am, still thinking about a two-minute incident. An incident that in the grand scheme of smarmy things to said to me, was rather mild. 

In some way, the "package" the catcalls were wrapped in, the way they were delivered to me, messed with my head. 

While the mens' voices were louder than usual for Japanese exchanges between strangers, there was still a hint of propriety or even softness. While even my drunken baby-level Japanese could figure out their intent, there was none of the roughness I often heard from catcalls in America. It was almost childish.

Like I said, my first thoughts were along the lines of "EFF THIS," but an overlapping second thought was, "Am I doing something wrong? That's not what catcallers sound like."

It pains me to admit that, but in the mix of deep down 11 year-old Louise still hunching her shoulders and setting her jaw, and still being a novice at Japan-interactions, I couldn't help but be gobsmacked with confusion. 

I was surprised, annoyed, offended, but in the moment I also doubted myself. 

I doubted my understanding. I doubted the validity of my feelings. I doubted my reaction to objectification. I vacillated between feeling guilty for not being "nice," and being angry at myself for such thoughts. I had a difficult time dealing with the reality of the situation versus my prior knowledge of the culture. Isn't this a culture of polite?

Somewhere in me, my 11 year-old self felt all too visible and tried to shrink away. 

It was clear what happened, but I allowed ideas of guilt, "being nice", and feeling responsible for their actions infiltrate my brain. How often as women — in the US, Japan, ANYWHERE — are we encouraged to feel this way? In situations like this, or worse?

Thinking about this incident now, the doubts are gone. Those men decided to intrude upon my space with unwelcome advances that did not cease when I moved on. Could I have been more forceful? Maybe. Did I do anything wrong? No. 

I am not pointing a finger at Japan, saying "Japanese culture is at fault" for how I behave in certain circumstances. Polite, nice, or other, I make my own choices. 

But what I do think is interesting is how dealing with a situation at once foreign and familiar, in a culture not my own, forced me to examine my own thinking, my gut reactions. I had no default today. 

The truth I didn't realize is that 11 year-old Louise, with all her second-guessing and embarrassment, is more present than I'd care to admit. There's still some anxiety related to male attention creeping around the edges of my brain.

It's an upsetting aspect of my personality I've unearthed, but one I'm eager to heal.

Do you have early memories of being ogled or catcalled? Did it effect you? Have you ever dealt with catcallers in a foreign country? How did you deal with it?