Friday 21 February 2014

Whose Bloody Valentine?

So, as something of an antidote to the last couple of weeks of ill-judged whimsy, I’m going to bang on about gender politics in Japan. Again.

What, you may well ask, has prompted this renewed interest in the sociocultural standing of the Japanese woman, apart from the usual factors of pretty much everything? It’s a valid question. The first prompt is a recent story reporting that women now hold a “record” 3 (three) percent of senior government positions. I won’t be discussing this specifically as that would be like shooting dwarves in a tall barrel, or something. The second is the fact that, as the end of the school year approaches, my students have been giving their final presentations. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the overall level, which is definitely up from last year (it’s almost like I’ve become a better teacher…), but as always a there are also a number of frankly depressing trends emerging.

For those of you who have forgotten, I should quickly recap that I’m based in a ‘high-level’ senior high school. There are a couple of private schools nearby with better reputations, but if you don’t want to pay through the nose or leave the prefecture this place will probably offer your kids the best chance of going to a reputable university, if they can get in. What this means is that the students here are by definition those who perform well on the tests which, to a large but not absolute degree, means those who are most adept at reproducing received wisdom (i.e. the party line).

A lot of these kids are, basically, nerds whose self-worth is based largely on receiving approval from authority figures, and have learned that the best way to do that is to parrot as much of what they’ve been exposed to as possible. I can’t in all honesty blame them for this as I have absolutely no doubt I was pretty similar at their age. Fortunately there are also a decent number who are clearly starting to realize how the game is played, and are showing very heartening signs of being able to say what’s expected while simultaneously making it clear they don’t believe a word of this horseshit (and these kids are why I really, really love working here). Nonetheless, the majority are ‘good kids’ who aren’t lacking critical facilities so much as have never had the chance or need to develop them.

Another pertinent impact of the selection criteria for this student body is that a small but definite majority of students are female. Each general course class of 40 students has 21 or 22 girls, and I know for a fact that this is a pattern repeated in other nearby ‘high level’ state schools. Girls just do better at school than boys in pretty much all First World countries (for reasons far too extensive to get into here, but not perhaps unconnected to that culturally-mandated necessity of winning approval through telling people what they think they want to hear).

So clearly I lied about that recap being ‘quick’, but it brings us back to this: this week the students have been talking about, among other things, the Tokyo Olympics, school uniform, elective subjects, and (as my token effort at a ‘light’ topic choice) whether St. Valentine’s Day should be banned.

A pleasing number of students are against the Olympics, and I was only prevented from hugging the handful who expressed open distrust of the government’s ability to manage both the Games and the Tohoku clean-up by the prospect of getting fired for inappropriate physical contact. Sadly, most showed an almost charmingly naive faith in Abenomics, even as its fabled arrows start to spatter to the ground woefully short of the target, and if I never hear the word “o-mo-te-na-shi” again I’ll consider it a life well lived. They all think they should wear school uniform because, “we must learn to follow the rules,” and choice of both attire and subject are distractions most could apparently do without.

[Lazy fisting meta-joke goes here]

All this is to be expected. What I didn’t expect quite so much, and what’s all the more disappointing for this, is quite how enthusiastically students of both sexes have embraced Valentine’s because, “it’s the day for girls to show their quality.” The quality in question being making chocolates and cookies.

Jesus wept. These are the very same girls who I see academically pounding the boys into the fucking ground EVERY. FUCKING. DAY, and yet this is apparently the one chance they get to display their most risible ‘qualities’. If you enjoy making cookies than good luck to you (I’m not above the odd cake myself), but for fuck’s sake girls, you’ve more to offer than this.

What do you do? How do you fix this? A large number ended up giving me those self-same cookies and I took them and ate them all because I’d have to be some kind of prick to throw them back in their faces to make some kind of political point they wouldn’t understand without a good half-hour’s explanation. I have tried embarking on a very measured, contained micro-rant to my ESS club students, who all listened and nodded politely and seemed to be getting it and agreeing before turning back to each other with the trays of biscuits they’d all made for themselves.

I dunno, they all seem to enjoy it and it’d be churlish and not a little counterproductive/ hypocritical for me as a male authority figure to deny them doing something they clearly want to do. The choosing can be feminist even if the choice itself is not. But really. Three-percent. Three fucking percent. This is where it comes from, and until Japan’s structural constraints shift from a point where academically elite girls consider that opportunities to show their ‘quality’ are limited to baking for Valentine’s, this is where it will remain.


  1. Whatever 'First World' is meant to denote, and whether Japan is in it with its buildings, status of women, closed political, legal and financial systems, it isn't a culture I could imagine wanting myself or my children to morally or ethically identify with (genealogically or emotionally is another matter). So, putting aside 'First World' or 'Western', etc., Japan is an unenviable country.

    Carnivorous, red-blooded male though I am,* there's no enviable country where women are vastly unequal. Or to put it less temperately, as I did to my wife:

    "You do realize your men followed like sheep your 'leaders' who led you into a war you couldn't win, and your women only got political rights from a woman Japan's choice of allies would have turned to soap, translating for the men who wiped the floor with your armed forces, with one hand tied behind their backs in a theatre the other side of the planet, but not before Japan let a quarter of Okinawans be killed to no purpose."


    1. Do note the title of my blog post: 'Japan will never rebel'. That's my take on your educational efforts, with one caveat: you may save the sanity and integrity of a few. One hopes they grow up to leave Japan.

    2. 'First World' is a hangover from the globalization postgrad, where it was used quite deliberately to prompt the kinds of questions you ask and avoid skating over the assumptions in 'developed' 'industrialized' etc. Though I'll admit that without that context it can look a little off.

      As for the rest, yeah, I long ago realised I was best of working at the individual level. Doesn't make the rest any easier to deal with though, hence the rant here :(

  2. I'm sure that by showing their 'quality', these girls mean (at least partly) showing how easy it is to manipulate the boys in such simple ways as by baking them Valentine's gifts. They're starting to understand that they can manipulate them in other ways as well, but can't openly show their 'quality' on that one until after high school...
    Sad that examples of how truly powerful women can be are fewer and farther between here than in most of the other so-called 1st-world nations...

    1. Dunno about not showing their other 'quality'. Not at this school (geeks you see), but at some of the rougher ones I've taught at it was pretty blatant. At first (as a young, rather naive man myself) it's quite flattering getting all that attention. Then you unpack what's going on beneath and it gets very depressing very quickly. Happy Valentine's!

  3. Replies
    1. I have no opinion either way on the lady herself (though your preferences are duly noted), but seeing that gesture over and over and over did nothing to improve my general mood.

  4. On the uniform thing, not sure how it prevents distractions since the school uniform, for girls, has pretty much become a fetish thing in Japan. It might be safer for them to wear street clothes.

    1. Not here. The uniform's almost deliberately dull and the kids all look like office workers (a lot of the girls openly pine for a 'cuter' one). There is no doubt a plethora of OL fetishists to take up the slack there though.

      Unfortunate turn of phrase. Sorry,

  5. Still loving your blog.
    Hats off to both yourself and Ἀντισθένης, for putting into words so eloquently the things that I often feel, and making me laugh out loud in the process.

    Jim Di Griz.

    P.S. More cake recipes please.

  6. My wife has recently launched a campaign to move to Germany. I'm not sure what it says about our respective homelands that the current ideal is to flee them both.
    Oh well. Re: uniforms, as a parent I am gung-ho in favor. School clothes are a huge pain. Not sure I want my daughter in the sailor suit, but I'm sure we can find something. At least loose socks are no longer a thing.

    1. I first got here just at the end of that craze. And despite my relative callowness it was one of my first 'kids these days' moments. It's a feeling that I'm depressingly familiar with by now...

      Germany eh? That's a little... random. Any thoughts behind that or did she just stick a pin in western Europe?

    2. Way behind on responses here. I arrived first in 1996, and people were saying that loose socks were finally out. I went back in 2000, and people were saying that loose socks were finally out. Finally, somewhere in the mid 2000s, they actually did disappear, but I never really noticed when. They mystified me the whole time, especially with the glue and everything to keep the socks from sagging. Crazy.

      We have a friend or two in Germany, and the wife keeps seeing these articles talking about harmonious labor relations, generous time off, a stable economy, etc. Also, it's warmer than Scandinavia.