Preserving the Office Wa: What I Learned About Gender Roles As a Foreigner in Japan

This was the Japanese way: instead of filing a sexual harassment complaint, you trusted that members of the group would protect each other from potential discord.
Publish date:
November 14, 2012

After I moved to Japan to teach English for the JET Program, one of the most frequently asked questions from friends back home was, “Have you found one of those vending machines that sells schoolgirls’ panties yet?”

Americans’ notions of the country, when they weren’t limited to sushi and samurai, seemed focused on Japan’s supposed perversity: lots of tentacle porn and guys dating body pillows. In a land with rigid codes of conduct, went the thinking, sexuality and gender relations would be explosive and bizarre.

This isn’t exactly the case, but I was, for the three years I lived there, continually surprised by Japanese notions of the roles of men and women.

Confucianism, which had an enormous impact on Japan, views male-headed households as the foundation of society; Japan has been called one of the least equal industrialized nations in the world. Women were not given the right to vote until 1945, and birth control was only legalized in 1999. It was easy, as an American, to feel comparatively enlightened.

And while I did end up feeling that, for the sake of preserving the staffroom wa -- harmony -- I should tone down my feminist views at work, I also found an appreciation for the way Japanese people, unlike Westerners, give such consideration to the well-being of the group as a whole.

I lived in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, considered particularly traditional. Girls at the high school where I worked often asked me, “How do I marry a foreigner?” When I asked what was wrong with Kyushu danshi -- the local guys -- one said, “This is how a Kyushu man proposes: ‘Will you make miso soup for me every morning?’”

Marisa, a teacher who lived in the south of the prefecture, once went to a barbecue with her co-workers where she was surprised at having to serve the men -- “Even though I was new to Japan and didn't know what I was doing,” she said.

Kyushu men, apparently, expected women to be fully ensconced in domestic work. And it did seem that women bore the brunt of household chores, even when they had jobs themselves. (Marriage often means the end of working -- 74% of Japanese women with degrees “voluntarily” quit their jobs, which may have to do with lack of opportunities for advancement.

I knew a female Japanese teacher, married to another Japanese teacher who worked in a different school. Their responsibilities were identical, their working hours the same. But it was the woman who prepared bento for her husband and children every day. In public, husbands take the lead: when Marisa introduced a Japanese friend to her parents, he offered his business card and her mother accepted. “He looked surprised that the woman of the household reached out to take it!” Marisa said.

I found that my notions of romance, in addition to gender roles, were not universal. A teacher said to me of her marriage, “We don’t have passion, but we do have respect.” Therefore, she said, she wasn’t obliged to spend much free time with her husband, and was, in fact, planning a trip to Singapore alone. It sounded to me more like a business arrangement than a relationship, but her ability to travel solo was admirable.

Another teacher was amused to hear about the American custom of hiring babysitters so that parents could have occasional date nights.

“Once you marry,” she said, “there’s no more dating.” (The childcare, it went without saying, fell mostly to the women.)

It wasn’t surprising, then, that it was common to see a foreign guy with a Japanese girl on his arm. Maybe it’s a win-win situation, I thought: the girls can be with someone more egalitarian and free-spirited, the guys with someone less demanding.

It was unusual, though, to see foreign women with Japanese men. The accepted wisdom was that the guys were afraid of our assertiveness, preferring girls they could easily dominate. But the one time a Japanese guy actually asked me to dance at a club, he kept saying in my ear, “You have no interest in Japanese men, right?”

“No! I have interest!” I insisted in broken Japanese, but he remained skeptical.

My friend Rachel, a rare Western woman dating a Japanese guy, said men in Japan are bombarded with images of dashing Americans -- celebrities like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio frequently appear in ads for Japanese products -- and find it hard to believe that a foreign woman would choose to date them, instead of a strapping fellow foreigner. Rachel said her boyfriend’s friends often interrogate him as to how he “did it,” as though American women are some kind of Holy Grail.

There was one place, I found, where Japanese men cast aside their insecurities: at enkai, drinking parties, the ordinary rules for behavior are suspended. What’s more, all ensuing sloppiness will go unmentioned the following Monday -- and forever. At one of her office’s enkai, Rachel got up to go to the bathroom, only to have a male co-worker slap her ass. When she complained to her supervisor, he suggested that she skip the next few parties.

“So I’m the one being punished?” she said. Better not to make a fuss, which would hurt the entire office’s morale, was the message -- an efficient way to transfer the blame to her.

I had a more positive experience with enkai naughtiness. At an end-of-year party, a male teacher sat beside me and began stroking my arm.

“Why are you so attractive?” he asked.

“Um,” I said. “I’m just regular.”

We were seated at a table full of teachers, all of whose eyes were on us, and I’d been in Japan long enough to know that snatching my arm away would be the equivalent of making a scene. When he got up to use the bathroom, female teachers rushed in to barricade me -- to “protect me from the danger,” they said, giggling. This was the Japanese way: instead of filing a sexual harassment complaint, you trusted that members of the group would protect each other from potential discord.

I got used to male attention at enkai, and I have to admit that I almost enjoyed the ordinarily sober, non-communicative older guys telling me, “If I were 20 years younger.”

It wouldn’t fly in America, but it felt harmless, and I could bond with teachers in a way that was impossible during the workday, when we were bound by the rigid formality that defines Japanese schools. Drinking and joking with my co-workers, my Japanese flowed more easily than it did at work, where I felt a constant low-level anxiety about being the only foreigner.

At enkai, I was a more authentic version of myself, and though the teachers and I didn’t acknowledge any flirtations the next Monday, the goodwill and familiarity carried over. I know such situations can escalate, but I was fortunate that enkai weirdness for me never extended beyond the one instance of touching. And after that, I knew I was surrounded by friends who had my back.

Now that I’m back in the States, I have a greater appreciation for things I previously took for granted, like how I don’t have to worry about being pigeonholed into a secretarial role at work despite my education. But I miss the thoughtfulness that sometimes came along with chauvinism in Japan -- like the P.E. teacher who walked me to my train late one night, which I later found out caused him to miss his own train, or the physics teacher who threw a party for his wife and me when he learned we shared the same birthday.

Japan is not any one thing -- wacky, deviant, oppressive -- and strangely enough, where it lags in gender equality, it may lead in consideration for others.