Joshiryoku Isn’t Empowerment

Joshiryoku Isn’t Empowerment

"Girl Power" is more than just carrying around a handkerchief


Illustration by Richard Koyama-Daniels

Growing up, I was the kind of girl who would wear a Cinderella dress and heels around in my backyard while collecting rocks and building houses for ants. When I moved to Japan for high school, I was suddenly hit with the foreign word joshiryoku. It was in classrooms, it was in magazines, it was on TV. And carrying around a handkerchief was considered one of the highest forms of joshiryoku. 

A handkerchief is the first and most basic step towards improving your joshiryoku, or “girl power,” according to magazines, because it allows you to enhance your femininity. You can lend your handkerchief to someone in need, wipe rain off your clothes or wipe your mouth at a restaurant. But don’t forget to choose a nice handkerchief that gives off feminine vibes, for maximum girl power!

Joshiryoku literally translates to “girl power” but in Japan it means something far from that. Girl power speaks to what girls can do, their aptitude and potential. Joshiryoku, however, is what a girl must do, their responsibility and obligation. Joshiryoku is not about being a strong independent woman but rather having bandaids in a little pouch. It’s about taking care of your appearance and wearing makeup (but not too much). It’s about reading between the lines and being attuned to people’s feelings. It’s being able to cook, sew and stay keenly aware of the latest fashion trends. This is Japanese girl power: being Ms. Perfect. 

To have true joshiryoku you need to have nice handwriting. Since I was still improving my Japanese writing at the beginning of high school, my handwriting didn’t meet joshiryoku standards. I was offended when a male classmate walked past my vacant desk and, upon looking at my notebook, said “there’s no way this is a girl’s handwriting.” I smiled at him as I went back to my desk and semi-slammed my notebook shut. I guess I have no right to identify as female if I can’t flick my こ’s or loop my ’s properly. Sorry we can’t all have perfect script. 

In high school, if a guy brought in homemade goodies for White Day, everyone was shocked at their high level joshiryoku, because it’s not normal for a guy to be able to bake. Apparently the mere thought of a man in a kitchen mixing flour, sugar and butter was bizarre. 

In university and beyond, women are expected to and praised if they serve others before themselves at meals and pour drink refills. If you bring homemade bento to a picnic, it really exemplifies your joshiryoku; you’re sure to make a good impression.

I joke about all of this now but throughout high school, there was a constant pressure for me to have high joshiryoku. I tried hard to become that feminine ideal portrayed in the media. First of all, who doesn’t like being praised? Second, we were taught high joshiryoku was “right,” something “natural” that you had to have or improve if you were a girl. 

But why are all these considered to be feminine attributes? It should be normal for a guy to be insightful enough to care for others, sew on a loose button or even concern themselves with fashion. As well as it should be normal for a girl to slip on sneakers, choose not to wear makeup and focus on their own feelings and well-being for once. If sensitive guys who can cook a mean meal and also have bandaids readily available in a pouch can become widely accepted, maybe we can stop affiliating women with housework and perhaps even help them come back to the workplace. 

Though society, with the help of the media, has conjured up this false notion that a woman with joshiryoku is a superior woman, there are plenty of girls and women without “joshiryoku” who are just as amazing and worthy of admiration. Japan needs to stop associating women with feminine behavior and appearances and disparaging them for not fulfilling traditional gender roles. The consequences will be that girls will forever have to live up to society’s expectations, entrenching gender norms and roles in an endless cycle. 

The views expressed in “The Last Word” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of Japan Partnership Co. Ltd. or its partners and sponsors.

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