OP-ED: The Objectification of Women in Japanese Media

By Reina Akamatsu

"In the beginning, woman was truly the sun. An authentic person. Now she is the moon ... dependent on another, reflecting another's brilliance,” Raicho Hiratsuka wrote in the first Japanese journal for women.

Raicho Hiratsuka is the first modern feminist in Japan. Raicho helped to start the women’s movement in 1911. Even so, as I was being raised in Japan, feminism was not actively discussed. Even when I was studying in college, I did not encounter any classmates that openly declared that they supported feminism. I started to be more exposed to the idea of feminism when I came to the United States. Coming to the United States led me to start recognizing the objectification of women in Japanese media.

The first time I acknowledged the gender inequality in Japanese media was two years ago. A popular Japanese entertainer named Becky experienced unfair treatment. She had been one of the most popular television talents for roughly 15 years and had recurring appearances on 10 different commercials and 6 variety shows. Then the press found out she was having an affair with a married Japanese musician. After this incident she disappeared from all media. Justin McCurry wrote in his article titled Downfall of Japanese TV’s girl next door highlights wider industry sexism, “her alleged lover, a pop singer, carried on his career apparently unaffected”. This example reveals how Japanese media portrays women unfairly and it highlights the importance of maintaining an image for Japanese female entertainers.

This sheds light on another aspect of Japanese media, the unfair standards set for female entertainers. Many female talents are banned from having romantic relationships so that they do not ostracize their male fans. In his article for the Guardian, McCurry also mentioned a talent agency that had taken a female talent to court “seeking almost 10 years in damages for breaking a no-dating clause in her contract” (McCurry). The expectation that in order to be a successful female entertainer in media you cannot have a partner extends the objectification of women. It influences women’s self-esteem and self-image. This especially impacts the self-esteem and self-image of those of the younger generation who possess limited media literacy. Female objectification is prevalent not only for public figures but also in daily life. To be more specific, pornographic magazines are placed in any convenience store magazine rack without any covers. They are not separated from tamer magazines. It is even common to see adults reading pornographic magazines on public transportation that are highly used by all types of people, from chief executive officers to young children.

The significant objectification of women in Japanese media reflect the severe gender inequality in Japanese society. According to The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, the literacy rate and enrollment in secondary education is about 100 percent for both men and women in Japan. However, only 9 percent of those who hold parliamentary seats are women and only 12 percent of “legislators, senior officials and manager” level workers are women. There exists barely any educational and skill gaps between women and men, and yet there are significantly less opportunities for women to take leadership roles in political and economic fields. In addition, the report reveals the glass ceiling Japanese society has in place for women. It indicates 74.1 percent of working age women are discouraged job-seekers, women who could work but did not look for employment. The Global Gender Gap Report 2017 stated that discouraged job seekers often do not look for work because they believe “there are no jobs for which they would qualify, or having given up hope of finding employment”.

Many academic scholars in Japan seem to think gender equality in the media industry is not considered a problem. They frequently fail to call out the female objectification in media. There are little to no statistics or research findings relating to gender inequality in Japan’s media industry. These portrayals of women in media reflect current Japanese society, and media is extending this imparity without criticism from scholars.

I hope people would try to see a fuller picture before considering Japan as a unreasonable country towards women, and I do not intend to simply blame Japan as the issue deserves more discussion. While there is a need for improvements to gender equality in Japan, the situation is not so one sided. In Japanese society, the majority of its citizens are middle-class. The majority of people share similar lifestyles, basic needs, and struggles. This unity means that women of any class, along with everyone else, have access to basic health care and some protections from poverty.

I believe if more people and scholars start to discuss the portrayal of women and the objectification of women in Japanese media, the media will start to make a change. While media can reflect and extend the gender imparity, media also has the potential to promote gender equality and feminism. There is cultural context that makes the gender inequality in Japan incomparable to that of the United States, but media has the power to influence people’s thoughts about gender equality. I believe more people in Japanese media and in other countries can positively influence Japanese society, so that it can be a place where women can speak up for themselves and receive the treatment and opportunity they deserve. As an aspiring filmmaker, I would like to keep producing media that enhances gender equality.