Japan loves groups. It loves drawing thick lines between groups. There’s Japanese people and non-Japanese people; Yankees and Otakus; locals in this prefecture and those in that one. I could rail on about how those who dare straddle the line between two juxtaposing groups is blown all out of proportion, but that is for another time. No, this one is all about the biggest grouping of them all: Men and Women.
The thing is, Men and Women are different. It’s a biological fact. But individuals and societies as a whole react to this fact in different ways. Some wish to uphold and maintain those differences negatively, positively, or work around the differences, or respect the differences and prioritize the similarities. You get the idea.
But one thing I think we’ve all grown up with is the idea of gender equality: a fair crack at the whip no matter what you keep in your trousers. There’s been that sense of drawing the two genders closer together, of blurring the lines, for progress. And that is, in this writer’s opinion, a good thing.
Ah! But remember those thick lines Japan likes to draw between groups, and neither the two shall meet. Well, this movement has been glacial at best, non-existent at worst.
There’s a sense that there is a Japan for women and a Japan for men. They have certain shops they go to, things they buy, places they like to go. So far so normal. But where things start getting weird is just how heavily engrained it is. I’m yet to meet a schoolgirl who wears trousers instead of skirts, and I haven’t heard a single complaint about it (although, she’d probably be met with a wall of resistance if she tried). Girls like hearts, pink and cute animals; boys like stars, blue and fast cars. Boys’ anime is muscle-bound heroes and fighting robots; girls’ like magical girls, florid dresses and…er, cute animals.
Again, you might not think that so strange, especially for kids: isn’t it the same where we’re from? Well, it is, but it’s quite astounding just how powerful it is. For example, when kids eat lunch, they use chopstick sets, table cloths and duffel bags. The girls are surrounded by pink. The boys by blue. Any straying from the formula is very, very rare.
Moving on to junior high and high school, and students are forced to sit in grids of boys and girls. Any chance to speak, though, and they will clump together in their groups like magnets, avoiding the other sex. Many schools outright forbid students having boyfriends or girlfriends. I’ve even heard of an instance where students were forbidden from being with a student of the opposite gender outside of school.
So intensely ingrained is this alienating of the opposite gender that, by the time teenagers in Japan reach adulthood, the opposite sex might as well be an alien race. You can hardly blame them: if you are still thinking that this isn’t so different from the west, think again. Even as teenagers, sure, some kids would jeer you for talking to the boys/girls, and some meathead kid will make some snarky comment if you take an interest in knitting or rugby. But by and large, the blurred lines come into play here, and it’s not so taboo to wander across the traditional gender lines anymore. Society will support you. In Japan, it won’t: on the contrary, it will push you back. A tomboy who prefers to hang with the boys? Ha! No chance, no go back to talking about boy bands. Oh, and you quite like pink, boy? Don’t even try it.
So, the chasm of the gender gap leads to some bizarre scenarios. It is distressingly rare for a man to have a significant number of female friends, or vice-versa. At work, the guys go out drinking beer after work, whereas the women go to a mixer bar. Or somewhere that offer’s a “Lady’s Set”. And you can guarantee that flyer will be covered in hearts and will probably be pink, as well. And, inevitably, it contributes to Japan’s uber-low birthrate.
It’s a big ask to get Japan to confront it’s group-system, but it honestly needs to start relaxing when it comes to people peering over the breach of the gender gap. It is human nature to be curious about it, and it should be celebrated, not squashed.