Women Grab Spotlight in Japan’s Fall 2020 Drama Season

Women Grab Spotlight in Japan’s Fall 2020 Drama Season

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Women in Japanese Drama Fall 2020
A truckload of female characters and an increased focused on women's issues show how Japanese drama reflects a changing Japan.

I’ve long argued that Japanese drama is a useful way to gauge the temperature and shifting direction of Japanese society. I think that’s especially true of the latest (Fall 2020) drama season. Many dramas are featuring an increased number of female characters in strong positions that challenge traditional gender roles. And the stories themselves occasionally touch on hot button issues that are top of mind for many women in Japan lately.

The Pace of Change

There’s been a lot of talk about how the #MeToo movement “didn’t make it to Japan.” I don’t know that that’s accurate. I think it was more that Japan needed its own examples to rally behind.

In the past several years, many women have worked relentlessly to raise awareness of women’s issues in the country. Perhaps the most visible is Ito Shiori (伊藤詩織), whose fight for justice over her sexual assault has served as a rallying cry for other women. And activists such as Ishikawa Yumi have raised awareness of the issues that women in Japan face, not to within Japan, but worldwide.

Social media has also helped issues that might otherwise have been ignored into the national spotlight. Takeshita Ikuko’s article for Business Insider on the sexist rules that some workplaces imposed on wearing glasses blew up on Twitter. This led to intense coverage in both the domestic and international press.

As a result of this newfound attention, I’m seeing issues for women crop up more and more in Japanese drama. I’m also seeing female characters written with more substantive parts than I’ve seen to date. It reminds me somewhat of when LGBT issues began to make more of an appearance in US television shows in the late 90s and early 2000s.

To see what I mean, let’s take a look at a few shows from the current drama season.

24 Japan

Yes, you read that correctly – Japan has its own version of the Kiefer Sutherland vehicle from America’s early 2000s. This isn’t that rare, actually. Another American drama, Suits, has already received a similar remake. (We’ll talk about Suits a little more below.) And Japanese stations have also taken to adapting popular South Korean dramas, such as The Good Doctor, Signal, and Midnight Runners.

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In the original first season of 24, Sutherland’s Jack Bauer has to protect Senator David Palmer from an assassination attempt. It was a fitting story for the time. Palmer was headed towards grabbing the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. The plot line foreshadowed reality: 7 years later, Senator Barack Obama would become the first Black President of the United States.

So it seems fitting that 24 Japan keeps this story, but with a Japan-specific twist. The target of assassination is Asakura Urara (Nakama Yukie), who’s set to become Japan’s first female Prime Minister. (Yes, Japan has never had a woman elected head of state. One of the sad things it shares in common with the US.)

The series also earns points for featuring a lesbian couple in the first few episodes. (Don’t, ahh, ask me why I said “the first few”…)

The rest of the series is a fairly male-centric game of cat & mouse with the occasional firefight. It’s not out to make any overtly political points. Honestly, that leaves me more impressed that they would choose the storyline they did. Now if only Japan can elect a female PM within the next seven years…

Aibou (相棒; Partners)

I’ve written about Aibou before as a Patron-only essay. The show centers on a detective, Sugishita Ukiyo (Mizutani Yutaka), who’s been permanently sidelined to the “Specially Designated Unit” (特命係; tokumei gakari). He typically has a partner, or aibou (a different character who changes every few seasons as actors rotate out of the role). Despite being shunted off to a back room, the two end up solving crimes that otherwise might have gone overlooked.

Aibou is a rarity in Japanese drama. While most drama only get a single season to strut their stuff, Aibou has been running for 19 years. And it shows no sign of letting up: the recent season opener scored over 18% viewership. (Most Japanese drama are lucky to break into the double digits these days.)

The “partner” in the series has always been a man. And lead actor Mizutani has been outspoken that it shall remain forever so. However, the series has taken in recent series to growing its male-dominated cast. The changes started in Season 13 with the introduction of Section Chief Yashiro Miyako, played by Nakama Yukie. (Yes, she’s in two dramas this season! She must have a vacation vista in Guam to pay off or something.)

Police senior superintendant by day, Prime Minister by night.

Season 19 adds another member to the cast. Shinohara Yukiko (Good Doctor, Eiru) joins as Izumo Reon, a motorcycle cop who’s transferred to Section 1 – Major Crimes, the group from which Sugishita and partner are constantly stealing cases – after she’s shot by an unknown assailant.

To its credit, the show immediately tackles the obvious theme of Izumo’s struggle for fair treatment in a male-dominated profession. The higher-ups are clear they want to get rid of her as quickly as possible. However, when Detective Serizawa tries to drive her out by making her do shit errands like grab him a canned coffee, it backfires. It’s an acknowledgment, in dramatic form, that times are changing – and that the discriminatory attitudes and actions of yesteryear won’t fly any longer.

TALIO – Fukushuu Daikou no Futari (タリオ復讐代行の二人; The 2 Revenge Agents)

タリオ 復讐(ふくしゅう)代行の2人 - NHK

TALIO is not, by any means, a serious show. It’s a fairly crazy comedy about a young lawyer who teams up with a con artist to bust criminals who use their wealth, power, and persuasion to evade the law.

The series is worth watching for the good acting and comic timing of its stars, Hamabe Minami (who starred in last year’s charming Aribai o Kuzushi-uketamawarimasu) and Okada Masaki (Legal High 2). But it’s also notable for its first episode, in which a wealthy young brat uses his connections in the police force to get a sexual assault case dismissed. (I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the final scene at the dude’s wedding is a very cathartic moment.)

The parallels to the Ito Shiroi case – and to that of many, many other women in Japan who see their sexual assault cases dismissed – is pretty clear.

Suits 2

Okay, so I’m cheating a bit here. Suits 2 had a looooong airtime that began way back in the spring season in April. But of course, the pandemic hit, and everything got all…timey wimey. In addition, Suits 2 decided to wrap up its much-deserved second season with a three-part finale that stretched it out to a rare 15 episodes.

But Suits 2 is a great example of many of the points I’m making in this article. Like the American series, the show focuses on two male main characters: top-class lawyer Kai Shogo (Oda Yuuji) and Suzuki Daiki (Nakajima Yuuto), who’s not a lawyer but who’s blessed with a fake-it-til-you-make-it photographic memory.

Despite the male leads, the cast isn’t a pure men’s club. Indeed, the head of the law firm where Kai and Suzuki work is a woman – Yukimura Chika (played by Suzuki Honami, who’s also starring in this season’s 35sai no Shoujo). The second season focuses entirely on Yukimura’s slimeball partner Uesugi Hitoshi’s attempts to either boot her out of the firm or destroy it entirely.

Suits 2 - Uesugi Hitoshi
You can’t be a villain in a Japanese drama and not have an “evil laugh” scene. Them’s the rules.

More topically, the entire three-part finale of Suits 2 hinges on a large sexual discrimination case. A woman is suing her employer for denying her a promotion on the basis of her gender. There are multiple other victims – but few are willing to testify for fear of putting their jobs at risk. The finale does a good job of exploring the culture of unwritten rules and intimidation that conspire to keep sexual discrimination alive in the Japanese workplace.

Honorable Mentions

Gokushufudou (極主婦道; Way of the House-Husband) – I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Tatsu in passing. Based on the popular manga and soon to become a Netflix animated series, Gokushufudou follows a former yakuza (gangster) who falls in love and dedicates his life to supporting his wife and her daughter. In a nation where cis heterosexual men do only a fraction of the housework and child-rearing that their wives do, it’s great to have Tatsu’s example. (And it doesn’t hurt that actor Tamaki Hiroshi is both convincing and hot in the role.)

Rupan no Musume (ルパンの娘; Lupin’s Daughter). Mikumo Hana (Fukada Kyouko) wants to live a normal live and marry the detective she loves. Too bad she’s the daughter in a family of thieves! A blisteringly ridiculous rom-com that’s mostly traditional in its subject treatment. However, the show also earns points for its role-reversal in which Hana is constantly coming to the rescue of her male love interest.

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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