Earlier this year, in the city of Maidura, a city mayor collapsed in the middle of a sumo ring while making an announcement. Multiple people rushed to his defense, including two nurses. As the nurses and others were attempting to administer care to the man, a voice boomed over the loudspeakers: “Women, please leave the ring!”
The voice belonged to a junior announcer, who believed he was enforcing the long-standing policy of nyojin kinsei (女人禁制), or prohibition of women from the wrestling ring. The announcer was widely derided on social media and on TV talk shows for attempting to enforce traditions when a man was literally clinging to life. However, this hasn’t been the only example in recent years of public displays of prejudice. For example, in 2014, politician Nishini Hideo made waves when he interrupted a female politician who was speaking about Japan’s low birth rate problem with gems such as, “You should have kids yourself.” And earlier this year, politician Katou Kanji was the subject of days worth of news cycles when he told a woman at a wedding party, “If you don’t get married and have kids, you’ll be put in an old folks’ home at taxpayer’s expense”. Charming, huh?
While such attitudes are still prevalent in Japan, the fact that they quickly become the subject of heated news coverage show how the country has changed even in the past 15 years. That’s how long it’s been since essayist Sakai Junko’s book, Sour Grapes – literally, The Cry of the Loser Dogs (負け犬の遠吠え; make-inu no tooboe) – hit bookshelves and stirred a wave of controversy in its own right. The word make-inu is a metaphor for an underdog, or for someone who’s been soundly defeated. But Sakai used the word to self-deprecatingly refer to the way society perceived her as an unmarried woman with no kids over age 30. Rather than apologizing, though, Sakai defended her choices, and used her book of essays to explore Japanese society’s attitudes towards women in general. Her book became a best-seller, and make-inu earned distinction as one of the Top 10 Japanese Neologisms of 2004 (JP link).
What does Sakai think about how Japanese society has progressed since the release of her book? On a professional level, the author says that, while she’s seen a lot of change, there’s still a long way to go, baby:
The Equality in Employment Opportunity Law was passed, and women have continued to move forward in society. Women have gained economic power without having to get married to do it. And we’ve entered an age where dual-income households are common.
On the other hand, the consciousness of “Men are the breadwinners of the household” still lingers strongly in society. There are many women who are unwilling to marry men with little economic power. Men also think they have to provide for women, so there’s probably many people who won’t step foot near marriage.
(Side note: In addition to these issues, many women over 30 still report an intense pressure to marry. A recent article on online news site Sirabee (JP link) cites an anonymous post by a 36 year old unmarried businesswoman on how she constantly feels like a member of the “loser clique” even though she makes over USD $250,000 a year (￥25,000,000). Ironically, the article ends with a reader poll showing that only 16.2% of men and women in their 30s think marriage will lead to happiness.)
On a personal level, Sakai has abandoned the single lifestyle. Well, somewhat. Focusing every day on travel and eating out with friends proved tiring; “those are events – they can’t be your everyday”, she says. The author currently lives with her boyfriend, and says that she finds comfort in the arrangement in the wake of the 2014 tsunami (a.k.a. The Great Touhoku Earthquake). But, she notes, she’s also guarding herself:
Of course, there’s also the possibility I’ll become single again. Who knows which one of us will die first. That’s why I want to continue to work.
I’m pretty sure if I talked like that to the Japanese woman I’m married to, it would be the start of a…lively conversation. But anyone who knows her work would probably say that’s a very “Sakai-like” answer. The author predicts such diverse arrangements will become typical in time: “I think you’ll see in increase in the diversity of family structures that don’t confirm to the marriage model.”