Why Feminism Remains “The F-Word” in Japan

Why Feminism Remains “The F-Word” in Japan

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Man refusing to hear something
Picture: mits / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
A Japanese feminist shares her thoughts on why it's hard for feminists to get their points across in the country - and why "feminism" is still a dirty word.

Foreword: Disclaimer

Let me first offer my sincerest apology, because this essay contains plenty of generalization, over-simplification, exaggeration, caricature, and biased view, both intentionally and out of plain ignorance. It may hurt or offend you deeply. My views may well be like the blind man touching the elephant’s ears, claiming that the elephant “is very thin and floppy overall”. Even so, I am struggling hard to join the dots, and have yet to learn (for a lifetime). I encourage you to join in on the discussion with me to see which part of the Japanese society you have seen and touched, and to tell me what it feels like, to you.

Please also note that while I have apologized profusely in advance, I shoot out apologies like ninja swords. Empty apologies in Japan are equivalent to saying “Howdy,” and are only intended to “soften the mood,” and softening the mood is very important here. After all, I am Japanese.

So please bear with me. Or not. You’re entitled to your own feelings.

The following is my personal theory on why feminism isn’t permeating in Japan as quickly as it should.

Reason #1: Feminists Come Knocking on Your Door With Bad News

The reality is this; If you search #フェミニズム(feminism) and #フェミニスト(feminists) on twitter in Japanese, you will see that almost all yields are negative tweets and that feminists in Japan are despised. With a vengeance of gooey, malicious, die-hard consistency.

This is my wild guess on people’s inner voices:


Feminists: Not all women may point this out to you directly, but see here, this is your stool; as in, your toxic masculinity. Your stool really stinks for us women. It’s been like this for centuries. Because you were in the toilet for long, you wouldn’t notice the smell as much, but I’m pretty sure it stinks for you too, once you try to leave the comfort zone of your toilet cubicle, and come back and take a sniff from the outside.

What’s worse, your stools have collectively poisoned the Earth’s water system, and both men and women have suffered and died from poisoning, in the short run, and in the long run too. And look closely here; there are traces of blood in your stool! If you carry on like this, you will die. Let us work together – live and let live. We both need to change in order to fix this.

We’re willing to observe our own stool as well – there is blood in our stool too, and time is up. We’ve had these cramps for ages, both chronic and acute, so please listen up; we are in pain. We’re not imagining this. Let’s change this. Win-win is the only wa……

Men: (talking over) UGH!! How dare you show us what we’ve crapped out! I don’t want to see it! I’m healthy! My wife is also healthy, and so is our daughter, because I’m a decent man, and they don’t complain about me! They’re not disrespectful like you. Why do you hate us men so much, when we’ve been toiling to protect our women? We’ve been doing the best we can !! Why accuse ME, I’m the GOOD, guy, stop generalizing! I’ve been kind to women!! Women’s crap smell just as bad, or even worse! This is why I hate you Feminazis. I hope my wife steers clear from you. (turns blind eye)

Japanese Men: You’re crazy, don’t you dare show us this crap! While I bust my ass working, while suffering パワハラ pawahara (power-harrasment) by my bosses, I even help out a lot with household chores! [Note: surveys say otherwise.] I even took out the trash a week ago! My wife looks happy, and probably wouldn’t divorce me, even if she found out I go to ソープランド Soapland brothels sometimes, she’s a mature woman – she’ll get around to forgiving me. She knows that men have urges. Even though her cooking is terrible, and she has a slight potbelly, I’m kind enough to let that slide!! And I even let her control the household budget!

I’m a good man. If anything, most women are gold diggers and only want us to be their ATMs. Why accuse US? This why I hate フェミ femi , (a derogatory abbreviation of feminist). I’ll make sure that my daughter doesn’t grow up nursing bitterness like you do. Can’t understand why you’re so angry!! (turns blind eye)

This Is Fine GIF – Find & Share on GIPHY

Discover & share this This Is Fine GIF with everyone you know. GIPHY is how you search, share, discover, and create GIFs.

Some Weebs on Twittersphere: Japanese people don’t crap, FAKE NEWS! You [rest omitted]

Japanese Nationalists: Y-[omitted]

Feminists: Don’t shoot the bearer of bad news. We’re just un-apologetically vocal of the reality that we see. We’re not the Pied Piper of Hamelin luring other women over to ‘the dark side.’ We just want other women to know we deserve better. We won’t bite! Though yeah, we’ve held grudges for far too long, who are we kidding? Grudge has been the driving force that’s won us some of our basic equal rights, brick by brick, grain by grain. We’re simply explaining the reasons we’re so angry. Instead of fighting over a bigger slice of the pie, we’re only trying to expand the whole pie. So chill, and listen up.

Reason #2: The Divide Between Women

Feminist: Let us fight for equality! Couldn’t we women unite, for once? For at least one subject matter? HELP US HELP YOU!!

Affluent Housewives in Japan: You and your radical, crazy, child-like ranting, lol! You’re always condescending. What’s wrong with gender role playing or tradition? Why do you shame us? Our moms have been living it. Our grandmothers have been living it. You are insulting our choices. And after all, it’s not as if men can bear children. You have reaped the benefits from women like US, not from spoiled feminists like YOU. Your mother and grandmother likely made sacrifices like we did, so don’t act so entitled. We’re doing just fine. Look at the bright side. Be grateful for what you have, that is life. Smile! (turns blind eye)

Japanese Women in the Most Marginalized Social Caste: UGH, easy for you フェミ to rant, you have waaaay too much leisure time. What is important is the HERE and the NOW, we have to pay the bills. But all you do is tweet online for “liberation” when in fact you are making things worse for us. You only fuel the misogyny of men, and men lash out at US, not you. You give women a bad name. You say we are not “empowered” and paint us like we are selling other women out, but it is quite the opposite. What have you ever done for us to make things better? Nobody ever listens to your stuck up, scholarly jargon. You wear your elitism up your sleeve. You truly want to help us? Then get down from your soap boxes and pay our bills, why don’t you? Don’t try to represent us. We don’t need your charity. (turns blind eye)

Successful Businesswomen: The weakest dogs bark the loudest. All you feminists do is complain. Of course we know about men’s macho egos and the patriarchy system; you think we’re dumb? When I was young, I’d call my clients on the phone and they said, “How can I talk with a female sales rep? I haven’t got time to talk to kids running errands, get a man on the phone!” But I made it through such adversity, and so should you. I’ve earned my own wage and status every step of the way, breaking glass ceilings so all of you can follow me, but you’re lazy and make excuses. You’re all called a bunch of “sissy wimps” because of your barking. You give women a bad name. Don’t you dare bring up the F word in front of our male CEO or clients, it’ll damage our business – my business. You think by complaining you can beat the men in their game? Look at reality. Blaming society gets you nowhere. (turns blind eye)

Feminists, to other Feminists: I vehemently disagree to your version of “feminism.” Feminism isn’t about X, it’s about Y.

Feminists: (Weep in despair when nobody is watching)

Somebody on Twitter described feminism as 危険な思想 kiken na shisou (a dangerous belief). Feminism is often thought of as a threat or nuisance among all demographics. A relatively progressive Japanese woman in her 60s once told me that her gender-wise conservative female friend had once confided to her, “At first, I thought your way of thinking was criminal!”

The divide between the 勝ち組 kachigumi (the “haves”, the winners) and the 負け組 makegumi (the “have nots”, the losers) is widening in Japanese society. People are being compartmentalized into intricate castes, becoming increasingly intolerant of one another. Whether this was wholly intended by the patriarchy or not, ruling by division is working very well. And the economic decline due to COVID-19 is not helping. We are increasingly sensitive to each other’s 上から目線 uekara mesen (patronizing attitude, looking down from above) and have a tendency to engage in マウンティング mounting (the act of sizing each other up and sneakily showing each other who is superior) to save our self-esteem. This only spotlights our deep-rooted inferiority complexes. If we truly have healthy self-esteem, we shouldn’t feel compelled to “prove” anything.

A chapter dedicated to the subject of middle-aged Japanese people posting on Facebook in a book called センス・オブ・シェイム (Sense of Shame) by 酒井順子 (Sakai Junko) describes the Japanese people’s sudden urge to brag or humblebrag about themselves, which run contrary to the traditional Japanese “sense of shame” and modesty. People may be posting the best reels out of their lives not only out of vanity, but also in order to convince themselves that they are fine and happy. Such daily comparison of each other’s lives on social media can sometimes make people even more competitive. It fuels the cycle of uekara mesen on each other each, in turn, feeding fuel to their inferiority complex.

This view may be distorted, but so are human beings sometimes. Things are not cut and dry, it is rarely ever good versus evil.

Reason #3: The Myth That “Feminists are Fugly Losers That Aren’t Getting Laid”

I refute. Two words: Emma Watson.

Emma Watson He For She Speech (日本語訳付)

日本語訳スクリプトは: http://nyliberty.exblog.jp/23463742/ 英語スクリプトは: http://nyliberty.exblog.jp/23463610/ YouTube Fair Use: This video is for educational purposes and …

“Feminists are fugly, sore losers who aren’t getting laid” translates to “I hate getting into discussion with logical women and can’t bear the thought of her winning, so I turn to cheap personal insults.”

By the way, try not to judge a book by its cover. And don’t assume conventionally beautiful women have it made. They don’t feel safe. Few women feel entirely safe with physically stronger people (mostly men) around.

The harsh reality in Japan is that if a heterosexual woman declares herself a feminist upfront, she will probably not get a date. One may be dodging bullets to declare she is a feminist. But I can assure you, even the relatively decent guys over here aren’t exactly a fan of the concept of feminism. A better explanation may be that they don’t necessarily hate feminists; they are simply not interested. This indifference cuts us to the core. This is a dire situation.

Most feminists are not man-haters, but simply disillusioned by men. (Women have every right to hate, IMHO, given this dire situation, so long as the criticism is logical.) Most of us want to be loved or understood by men, whether in a romantic or friendly context. I only expect better of men, and try to fight to communicate, because I don’t want to lose faith in men, even after all the horrible things we were made to suffer throughout generations.

Reason #4: Logical Debates Are Seen as “Fighting” in Japan

Woman and man on opposite sides of wall
Picture: Pangaea / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Men don’t like “angry” women “telling them what to do.”

Women don’t like “angry” women “telling them what to do,” either.

Especially in Japan, anger is viewed as bad. The slightest hint of anger is seen as “uncool” and immature. The concept of angry women is even more stigmatized than angry men. Debates, discussions, and sharing of opposing views are seen as juvenile “fights” or “arguments” that “divide people.”

“Dividing people” makes people uncomfortable. “Dividing people” is KY (空気読めない kuuki yomenai, as in “can’t read “the air” i.e. can’t read between the lines / fail to see non-verbal cues). Because here in Japan, having a high EQ to “read the air” is everything. Rather than sharing their different opinions, Japanese people tend to pretend that no difference exists in the first place, which dampens discussions and critical thinking – and that limits our communication skills.

When opposing view between parties arise, somebody quickly swoops in to say まあまあ mah mah (take it easy) because such “peace at all costs mentality” is seen as mature and virtuous. The school system reinforces this from a young age – and the seniority system reinforces it in the adult workplace. You’re not supposed to “talk back” to your superiors. Whether man or a woman, if you have a “know-it-all” attitude, you lack 可愛気 (kawaige) and run the risk of being slowly ostracized by Japanese society, as explained in my last article. This can be mind-boggling from the Western perspective.

If you’re a Westerner having interacted with the Japanese, you may have been in situations like these:

Western woman: “…Well, actually, I disagree. See here, my points being A, B, and C…, because this is due to E and D…” (Trying to enjoy a stimulating conversation, sometimes actively being the devil’s advocate.)

Japanese man:  “Oh. Hai. Hai. Hai.” (Thinking: You just contradicted me. What’s worse, I was contradicted in public by a younger woman. How 生意気 namaiki (conceited) . You have no basic manners. You destroyed my 面子 mentsu (face). I hate 理屈っぽい奴 rikutsuppoi yatsu (argumentative people) in general, especially 理屈っぽい女 rikutsuppoi onna (argumentative women). (Looks down at watch)

Japanese woman: Smiling and nodding (Thinking: You just blatantly disagreed with us. That’s a personal attack on us. How brash, insensitive, and hurtful. You probably don’t like us and are disrespectful because you just see us as yellow monkeys. You are the bane of my existence. And why doesn’t she get our non-verbal cues? She drags on and on. Gaijins (foreigners) are so KY.)

Western man: (Thinking: They said “Hai,” which means “Yes,” and were smiling and nodding. The guy looked at his watch, but didn’t spell out that he wanted to wrap it up. So today’s meeting with this potential client went well. I did most of the smart convincing during this pitching session, while my female boss added little to the conversation. I’m entitled to a promotion.)

Western woman: (Thinking: Something wasn’t quite right. What am I missing? Not sure if we could get this contract.)

A New Hope – New Communication Methods

The grueling efforts of Japanese feminists before us didn’t always gain the traction it fully deserved. “Get your head out of your asses” was how the public perceived them, in a crude nutshell. The younger generation of feminists started to provide easily readable feminism-themed books that seem to tone down the “argumentative” or “angry” communication methods, such as 「女に生まれてモヤってる!」(“I was Born as a Woman, and it’s Been Kind of Frustrating!”) by ジェーン・スー(Jane Su) and 中島信子 (Nakajima Nobuko), and 「男尊女子」(“Women Who Suck Up to Men” – by the way, the four kanji combination is a twist on 男尊女卑 which means sexism) written by the aforementioned 酒井順子(Sakai Junko). The former book is “pop,” funny, and easily identifiable, and the latter calmly and eloquently points out internalized misogyny while not being “squeaky PC” in the end. In recognizing the “biological yearnings” of women, so to speak, it resonates with a lot of Japanese female readers.

These books are in contrast to books on feminism that belong to the conventional “serious/academic” category that are filled with difficult sounding jargon, which would sound either intimidating, elitist, or “too stiff” to crack open for many readers. Catchy book titles that pique reader’s interests are everything in order to lure readers into pondering over gender inequality and offer people food for thought.

The awareness rate of the word ジェンダー (gender) in Japan is only 18.1%, and the awareness rate of the “#me too” movement was a mere 21% in Japan back in February 2018. Given this situation, one could surmise that using the F word in book titles is not very strategic as a foot-in-the-door technique. Even feminism needs a strategic marketing and communications strategy, so it seems.

Pending Conclusion (Indefinitely)

I feel I could offer more personal insights on why feminism is seen as a dirty word in Japan, such as the spectrum of being “un-woke”, “halfway woke but in denial due to cognitive dissonance (sour grapes)” and “woke, but too much in despair to join the fight” among Japanese women. I hope to elaborate on such related themes going forward.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy