Feminism in Japan

Feminism in Japan

A look into life in Japan as a woman


I recently bumped into a friend having a picnic at a park. She was with another friend of hers and their baby sleeping in a stroller. They were eating take-out pizza on a nice sunny afternoon. It wasn’t long until we exchanged pleasantries that I realized my place. It wasn’t because she was a mom and I am childless (by choice) or that the conversation just seemed to stop at the weather, but it was a comment she made after my friend asked me if I’m thinking of freezing my eggsー to me, it sounded like a normal topic to talk about on a sunny afternoon.

Is That Something to Talk About That Casually?!

“Oh by the way, have you frozen your eggs?” my friend asked in the middle of a conversation. I was elated to be asked because I was just beginning to go through the process myself. I replied “I haven’t yet but I’m trying to! You?” and told my friend that I would love to catch up over coffee sometime to talk about it more. Then her friend joins the conversation a little after. She asked “Wait what? What are you guys talking about?” She seemed to have not caught it the first time when my friend asked me so I said, “Egg freezing!” then she laughed, “What?! Is that something to talk about that casually?!” 

Yes, It’s That Casual

I was frustrated by her response. Not only a woman who had a child herself was not willing to talk about a topic that could have also been an alternative choice for her in another life, but she laughed at us in a way that we were the odd ones. That we are somehow talking about a sensitive topic that seems to be reserved between certain groups of people. I agree that fertility is a sensitive topic and we should be mindful of how we approach it, but in this case, my friend and I are in the same boat. Being child-free by choice at a certain age naturally brings up conversations like IVF and fertility matters. There is nothing weird about it and in fact, it’s a valid question. According to the Ministry of health, labour, and welfare, there were 56,000 newborns through IVF in Japan in 2017. That’s about 6% of the newborns from that year. It really isn’t that unusual anymore. 

Feminism in Politics

Feminism in its purest form is about choice. A political movement toward collective liberation from what is limiting us to do the things we want to do because society is designed by men for men. In Japan, out of 18 cabinet members, only 5 are women. At the governing level, women are taken out of the conversation. Where are the exemplified conversations? How are we supposed to hold conversations with one another that create meaningful change if we don’t know how to even have them? 

Far Away Conversations

I’ve always had a tight knot feeling in my stomach when talking about feminism and women’s empowerment in Japan because you just don’t hear it enough between women, let alone between anyone. (Men are not even remotely a part of the conversation but that’s a separate issue) That’s not to say there are no feminists in Japan, there are but you need to look hard. If you say you are a feminist, you are boxed into a certain type of person. You are ‘tsuyoi (strong)’, ‘kowai (scary)’ or even ‘sugoi (surprised that you are so passionate or have knowledge at all!) Conversations like this only happen far away somewhere, not at ground level. 

Poor Things

I recently watched Poor Things starring Emma Stone playing Bella Baxter, a young woman brought back to life by a scientist. She rediscovers the world through a whirlwind of travels and Bella grows into someone with ambition, purpose and radical self-discovery. Bella starts to learn what it means to be a member of polite society, more so a woman. In polite society, people exchange pleasantries at a surface level, not what Bella knows how to do. I couldn’t help but notice some similarities in Japan.  

Addressing it Openly

Famously, Japan has a phrase called “honne to tatemae.”  It means saying what you actually mean v.s. making up false or fake things to say in public. Tatemae may work in situations when we want to avoid confrontation, but you can never know what the other person is thinking. Tatemae, a certain politeness is a plight for those who want to have honest and meaningful conversations. It feels lazy to shy away from conversations in the name of politeness. Shouldn’t we participate in more open conversation that is supposed to make our lives better?

I wondered how Bella would react if she was at the picnic. She would probably say something like, “Megumi and her friends must freeze their eggs because they are getting old. They don’t want a baby now but they might want it later so they freeze their eggs. Much like how I freeze my lasagna so I can eat later.”  We all deserve a go on honne without judgment. If we have the space to do so, we can learn to ask better questions as well.

If you haven’t read our movie review on Poor Things, you can do that here: Poor Things