Heterosexism and women’s lives in Japan

Heterosexism and women’s lives in Japan

Hattori, Ayako

Heterosexism and Women’s Lives in Japan

What does being “heterosexual” mean for Japanese women?

“Are you a heterosexual woman? Did you choose to be heterosexual?”

If I asked a woman on the street in Japan, “Are you a heterosexual woman?” she probably wouldn’t understand the question, because she won’t understand the word `heterosexual.’ If she is attracted to men sexually, it is too fundamental for her to need a name for her sexuality.

If I explained to her the word “heterosexual” and asked her, “Do you choose your heterosexuality?” again, perhaps she won’t understand what I ask, because her heterosexuality is too fundamental for her to choose.

However, sexuality is constructed socially. This means that we can make and choose and change our sexuality in our lives. But in Japan heterosexuality is so natural, fundamental and common that heterosexual people don’t need identity and the word `heterosexuality.’

Heterosexuality is compelled socially and economically

Throughout our lives, we receive many unconscious messages from our society which work to compel heterosexuality. We do see some Lesbians and gay men on TV shows or movies from the USA. But most Japanese media say the heterosexual lifestyle is what is good for us. A young man and woman love each other, they are married at the right age, they have 2 children, and they live together to the end of their lives. In recent years, many Japanese women and men haven’t married or had any children. But the ideology and social system compelling heterosexuality is still strong.

For example, in comics written for girls (in Japanese they are called “shojomanga”) the heroines often still say “My dream is to be someone’s new bride.” Many girls like these comics and buy them. In the comics, the heroines dream of husbands who are strong, gentle, and good at cooking and cleaning. But in women’s real lives, they can’t find such good husbands. Most of the wives in Japan have to do almost every household matter, have part time jobs at low wages, and nurse children — and the husbands don’t help at all. So that women will enter into such an unfair marriage system voluntarily, the society and media need to embellish it as `love’ and hide the ways it is compulsory.

Then what happens if women refuse to get married? It is difficult for those women because the whole Japanese social and economic system compels them into marriage. It is still difficult for women to get good jobs and salaries. And unmarried women are bothered by their neighbors, relatives and co-workers, who think unmarried women are strange and unhappy. Unmarried women are often asked, “Why aren’t you married?” or “Aren’t you interested in having your family?” in well-meaning attempts to persuade the women to get married. In Japan, marriage and heterosexuality are compelled and embellished and are supposed to be the common women’s lifestyle.

Women internalize their social orientation to men

In Japanese we translate the word “heterosexuality” into “i-sei-ai” (different-sex-love) and “homosexuality” into “do-sei-ai” (same-sex-love). But the English word “sexuality” doesn’t include the word “love.” Obviously, sexual love is an important part of sexuality.

But the Japanese words `i-sei-ai’ and `do-sei-ai’ don’t accurately reflect the reality of “sexuality,” which encompasses more than just sexual attraction. And I think heterosexuality in Japan for the most part is compelled, so it is not love as a conscious choice. So we should translate the word “heterosexuality” into not “i-sei-ai” but “i-sei-sikou” (different-sex-orientation) into Japanese.

The word for women’s heterosexuality would be “dansei-sikou” (men-orientation), since for women the opposite sex is men. But because of sexism, dansei-sikou is not just orientation to men, but also orientation to men’s power.

Recently in Japan, men have started talking about women’s issues on TV and in the newspaper. Some of their opinions are good, but others are very bad for women. But many heterosexual feminists like all of them without considering the validity of the men’s analysis. Often people in the minority who are oppressed socially welcome or worship the attention of the majority or the oppressor, because they expect the interest of the oppressor will lead to help. For women in Japan, heterosexuality and worship of men join together to the detriment of women’s issues.

I sometimes see some men talk about women’s issues in public. Many heterosexual women are fascinated by these men. I think it is one way for women to express heterosexuality in Japan. Their heterosexual love includes worship of men: They accept men’s power so they like men. Unconsciously, those women’s orientation to men and men’s power affirms the sexism around them.

Why are lesbians discriminated against?

Sometimes English speakers ask us what we call a “Lesbian” in Japanese. We answer “Lesbian.” (In Japanese, we pronounce it “Rezubian.”) We have no Japanese words meaning “Lesbian.” They continue, and ask us if Japanese lesbians are called any derogatory names. Yes, we have some rude names like “onabe.” “Onabe” means stone butch or drag king. But actually the word has no meaning of its own. It is derived from the word used to insult gay men.

In Japanese, the word “okama” means a transgender gay man or a drag queen. Literally, the word means a special iron pot in which to cook rice. It is round and looks like a person’s hips. So in Japanese, “okama o horu” (to dig a “okama”) means anal sex and “okama” is a derogatory name for gay men. The word “onabe” literally means a pan or pot. Just because the word “okama” is used gay men, Lesbians are called “onabe.” But the term has no meaning of its own, so Japanese lesbians don’t want to use it. In Japan we lesbians are an invisible people without an original name.

In order to compel women towards heterosexuality while at the same time covering up the compulsory mandate for heterosexuality, society needs to hide other choices. The possiblity to be a Lesbian in Japanese society is hidden from heterosexual women.

If I asked a woman on the street in Japan “Are you a Lesbian?,” she’ll probably be frightened and deny that she knows what I’m talking about. And if I asked her “Do you know some Lesbians?” she probably will deny this too. For most heterosexual women, Lesbians are abnormal people who are in pornography or who are strange people in other countries. They don’t think they can be Lesbians.

Lesbian issues are invisible as well in the women’s movement and the women’s studies programs in Japan. Recently some Lesbians have come out in the women’s movement and women’s studies. Probably most of the women in movements in big cities have seen some Lesbians. But most of the women in the women’s movement don’t think of heterosexuality as a compulsory system of patriarchy. They think Lesbian issues are just for Lesbians. They don’t consider heterosexism or choice of sexuality. When we urge them to consider heterosexism as a feminist issue, they get angry and refuse. Some of them are very discriminatory against Lesbians.

Does Japanese society tolerate women’s relationships?

Sometimes Lesbians from other countries or heterosexual feminists in Japan say Lesbians in Japan aren’t heavily discriminated against. They think women and men have their own gender-based social cultures in Japan, instead of couple-based cultures as in Western countries. They say such gender-based social cultures are good for Lesbians. But I think the social cultures in Japan are just gender segregation, not women’s cultures.

Actually, Japanese society seems to tolerate physical contact between women. We often see two girls walking on the street hand-in-hand, or see girls sitting and hugging each other. It does not attract attention at all. I know one white Lesbian English teacher from the USA. She had a Japanese woman student, and the student sent her presents and wanted to go on a trip with her. She thought the student was also a Lesbian and tried to seduce her; but the student wasn’t a Lesbian.

The student and the girls hugging on the street don’t identify themselves as Lesbians. They don’t think their feelings and relationships are sexual or that they can give priority to their relationships with women over their relationships with men. And because no one recognizes their feelings for their women friends as reflective of their sexuality, society tolerates their physical contacts.

Japanese society segregates women from men. Society intentionally obstructs women from recognizing their relationships with other women as potentially sexual, by carefully hiding the existence of Lesbians. Even if girls or wives have emotionally intimate relationships with other women, it is no problem, because society thinks girls will be married and wives won’t divorce. The marriage system is supposed to be unbreakable.

Men see women as sexual objects, not as individuals with their own sexuality. Men think even if a girl loves another girl, soon she will love a man and get married.

Lesbians face stereotypes and harassment

As one way of hiding the possibility of sexual relationships between women, society spreads degrading stereotypes and exaggerated sexual images of Lesbians. Some of the images are pornography for men; while others are directed towards women by stereotyping what Lesbian sexuality is supposedly like.

These latter images are often very ugly, making women afraid of Lesbian sexuality. And many Lesbians have internalized these disparaging images and learn to hate themselves, with a loss of their self-esteem.

Lately some Lesbian pornography made for women has become available in Japan. This pornography is not ugly — some women like it. But even if the images are soft and beautiful, they are still porn. As more Lesbians and gay men come out, the ugliness of the porn is exposed and the porn loses its power to define lesbian sexuality. And as more Lesbians come out, it makes it possible for more women to recognize their relationships with other women as sexual. But still, because of the soft porn images, women don’t take their sexual relationships with other women seriously.

In reality, Japanese society is completely intolerant of Lesbians. When we come out as Lesbians, we are attacked heavily. They laugh at us, slander us, give us the cold shoulder, or deny our coming out by saying, “You don’t seem like that type of person.” (Who is “that type of person”?) Sometimes we lose our jobs, are raped by men, or are sent to mental hospitals by parents — even now in the 1990’s.

Why are Lesbians are discriminated against so much? Society wants to force women into heterosexuality. Society denies the existence of Lesbians, spreads stereotyped pornographic images of Lesbian sexuality, and attacks Lesbians. Heterosexual women who think they are being “normal,” are actually compelled by a social structure they haven’t questioned, further supporting the system.

Japanese women’s choice of sexual orientation is influenced by their economic limitations

First let me explain the Japanese employment and salary system. We have a peculiar system in Japan. Generally big companies employ men, who aren’t fired until they reach retirement age (60 or 65). And most men rise through the ranks during their careers at the companies. They can get allowances for their wives and children, and sometimes they and their families can use hotels and amusement facilities that the companies own or lease. At the retirement age they get substantial retirement bonuses and pensions. So they pledge loyalty to their companies and work hard.

But, some of the men are lazy or are not good workers. However, the companies seldom fire the men because of the way this system works. As a result, this system is very expensive. To support it, the big companies exploit women and the workers of affiliated small companies. Even at big companies, women seldom get jobs. And when they get married, the companies pressure them to quit their jobs. Most of their husbands work hard for their own companies, so the women don’t get much help from their husbands with household matters and raising the children. Thus, most women quit their jobs when they get married or have children.

When the children grow up and go to school, the women get part time jobs at factories or small companies. Sometimes they work as many hours at such “part time jobs” as they would at full time jobs; but they earn part-time wages without any benefits o??? pension. When the economy is doing well, the companies employ many such part time workers; but when the economy worsens, the companies can fire them easily.

Big companies exploit part-time women workers while giving men promotions and good salaries. Meanwhile, women give up their careers to help their husbands further their careers. This system obviously discriminates against married women, but Lesbians also are harmed by this system. Even if women are single or married, they can’t get good jobs and salaries. And after women have gotten married and quit their jobs, it is difficult for them to divorce because they can’t afford to support themselves. Middle-aged women can get only part-time jobs with low wages, so they can’t live independently or support their children on their own.

In Japan it is still hard for Lesbians to live freely. Because they are women who are not married, they are considered “pre-married,” and “pre-married” women are not full-fledged persons. I know a Lesbian couple who went to a real estate agent to find an apartment for rent. (They didn’t come out as Lesbians to the agent.) The real estate agent said they had no apartment available for two girls. So they went to another real estate agent and said they were cousins, and found an apartment that way.

I mentioned that Japanese society seems tolerant of physical contact between women. But when two girls help each other to live independently, our society finds that very threatening. Sometimes even middle-aged or elderly women can’t rent rooms on their own. The deposit for apartments is often very expensive, and single women often can’t save that much money. Additionally, they are often required to have a male family member sign the lease as a guarantor.

“Pre-married” women aren’t permitted in Japanese society to make their own decisions. Society expects that they will live with their parents. Of course, some women leave their families in the countryside and move to big cities by themselves to go to college or find a job. But even then, they depend on their fathers’ advice and assistance. Many women stay with their families until they get married.

When I organized a Lesbian retreat in my local area, the parents of one of the women found out she is a Lesbian. Her mother opened every letter that came to her, and found our retreat announcement. The mother confined the daughter to the house and monitered every phone call and letter to her. And she called one of the retreat organizers and the youth hostel where it was being held, and slandered us.

The Lesbian was 20-something years old (legally an adult in Japan), and had a job. But her parents didn’t consider she had the right to make her own decisions about her own life. And they wouldn’t consider that she had chosen to be a Lesbian, on her own. So they attacked her friends for “seducing” their daughter and cut her off from her friends, to put her back on the “right track.” The ones who bother the “pre-married” women most are their mothers. They have bought into the ideology that women can’t and must not decide their own lives; this ideology controlled their lives and directed them to get married. And so they have internalized the ideology, and use it to oppress their daughters.

Societal privileges that come with marriage in Japan

In Japan, when women get married, on the surface it seems they are able to get many privileges. If women get married they don’t need to get full-time jobs because they can depend on their husbands’ incomes. When they depend on their husbands’ incomes, their husbands can deduct their wives as dependents from their income taxes.

Secondly, we have a national retirement pension system in Japan {similar to Social Security in the United States}.Most Japanese people have to pay a high percentage of their income into the national pension program. But married women who earn less than 1300000 yen (about $12,000) in a year don’t have to pay into the program. So most married women carefully make sure they earn less than 1300000 yen a year because it is cheaper for them than paying into the pension program. Even if their husbands die, women are entitled to get part of their husbands’ pensions and half of his inheritance.

Lastly, society considers married women to be more “normal.” If a woman decides to get a divorce, she will lose all those economic and societal privileges granted to married women. For instance, if a married woman’s husband dies, she can get welfare for their children. But single mothers who divorced or who never married get less support from welfare.

In the 1980’s “women’s independence” became a hot topic in Japanese society. One thing that happened was a rise in the number of women who can find well-paying jobs and who don’t want to get married. As one way of ensuring that women will want to get married, society must give some economic and social privileges to married women that unmarried women don’t have access to. But after women are married, they have to take care of the household and at the same time often hold part-time jobs with low wages, all while raising the children.

Women’s independence is blocked by societal pressure for marriage, which keeps them in their families’ or husbands’ house. One reason I think society wants them to stay at home is to use them as a workforce to take care of the elderly persons in their household. In Japan, an increasing percentage of the population is composed of elderly people. Women staying at home to care for them will save social welfare money which otherwise would be spent on their care.

Discrimination against women pushes women into marriage

Generally, Japanese society frowns upon or holds taboo the marriage between two persons with different social statuses, between different classes, nationalities, ethnicities, races, etc. But heterosexism at its root provides affirmation for relationships that create dominant men and inferior women, at the same time forbidding any relationships between a woman and another woman, or a man and another man, even if they are of the same social status. Heterosexism permits men to exploit women in their home. To make the exploitation more palatable, heterosexism introduces the ideology of “love.” So that women will willingly engage in an exploitative system, women are taught that they supposed to love men voluntarily.

Part of training women into heterosexuality includes placing exceptional value on men’s social power and worshipping men. I mentioned earlier that Japanese society forbids marriages between two persons with different social statuses, but actually it is more complex due to the role of sexism. The man in a heterosexual couple is expected to be of a higher status than the woman. Stereotypically, he should be older and taller and have more education than his wife. The reasoning is that he will be better positioned to provide for his wife, and she will be able to take care of her husband in his old age.

Even if her husband doesn’t deserve her respect, because he is of a higher status, the wife generally looks up to her husband. As a protest against such stereotypical expectations, some heterosexual feminists choose men with lower social positions as partners. Perhaps they want to balance the social power between themselves and their partners, to facilitate establishing an equal relationship. I wonder why they even choose men as their partners, if they really want equal relationships.

For instance, at one meeting of a women’s studies group, one heterosexual feminist predicted that if women and men become equal, she would lose her sexual desirability for her husband. For this reason she was against complete equality between men and women. Her heterosexuality and her desire to be subordinate are interconnected and are internalized to the point that they affirm sexism in and around her life.

Likewise, misogyny and homophobia towards Lesbians is interconnected. Men find women with self-respect and self-confidence threatening, as well as women who give priority to their relationships with women over any relationships with men.

Misogyny and homophobia is internalized in many Lesbians, leading many women to hate themselves and lose credence in the effort to gain equal rights and visibility. Some Lesbians still fall prey to worshipping men in other areas of life, while at the same time only sleeping with women. Additionally, since society defines women’s social statuses through their relationships with men, generally heterosexual women have higher social positions than Lesbians. So some Lesbians want to have sexual relationships with heterosexual women. It is one way sexuality continues to be oriented towards and defined by men even for Lesbians.

Internalized heterosexism often unconsciously underlies the women’s and Lesbian movements. Married or heterosexual women in the movements often discriminate against women who have chosen not to marry and Lesbians. Women who tend to align themselves more with men attack women who are more autonomous.

For instance, when organizers suggest making meetings women-only space, some women are angered and say that policy discriminates against men. For women angered by the thought of women-only space, any strategy against discrimination against women is considered discrimination against men. Perhaps they are frightened of the idea of having more social power. They affirm the domination of men. Sexism and heterosexism join as a way to control women’s minds and actions. It is a continual challenge for us to eradicate sexism and heterosexim in our minds and gain freedom in our thinking.

Challenges for women choosing independence

Recently, the media through TV and newspapers has been saying that as women become more autonomous, the system of marriage and family is being destroyed. Some young, well-educated women have been able to get good jobs. Although many Japanese are doing poorly economically, these women can live in big cities and enjoy traveling abroad, designer clothes, and fine restaurants. But the success of these women denies the economic reality of the great majority of women who are older, less-educated or live in rural areas. A new phenomenon of class differences among women is becoming more prominent.

But do the successful young women in the big cities get the right to decide their own lives?

They could live independently throughout their lives, if they wanted. But most of them get married and quit their jobs when they have babies. Society gives these “pre-married” women the right to enjoy some pleasures of high society. But at the same time, the women know that, because they are women, it will be hard for them to continue to receive promotions and raises. So they decide to get married and thus depend on their husbands’ incomes and status to keep enjoying a high standard of living.

They know they can live without marriage, so they may think they “decided” to be married. But the choices given them are carefully limited, so that in reality societal and economic pressures force them into marriage.

Some heterosexual feminists say they choose to be heterosexual. I propose that in a society that discriminates against alternate sexualities, it is impossible to say one “chooses” to be heterosexual. Of course these heterosexual feminists know on an intellectual level that they have another choice, which is to have sexual relationships with women — because Lesbians in the feminist movement point that out. The heterosexual feminists are not very willing to scrutinize the ways in which they are compelled into heterosexual relationships. And if they are married and insist they freely chose to be married, they tacitly affirm their heterosexist privileges and discrimination against Lesbians.

There are bisexual women who say they can love either men or women, because their minds are free from sexism and heterosexism. Bisexual women say they choose partners for their personalities, not based on their gender. This overlooks the ways in which personal experiences and personalities in our society are shaped by gender-biased social systems. Personalities are in part developed through social systems. I think it is impossible to for a person to develop without the influence of sexism, regardless of whether the parson thinks sexism is good or bad. I think bisexual women should consider if their relationships with men are compelled by heterosexism and include an orientation towards men’s power, or not.

It is true that bisexual women are discriminated against in our society. But people also recognize that bisexual women don’t ignore men totally, so bisexual women are not discriminated against as much as Lesbians. Bisexual women are able to take advantage of some of the privileges available to heterosexual women. Some heterosexual feminists say Lesbianism is just a way to rebel, or a counterculture. But women in Japanese society could learn a lot from Lesbians. Most of them have never analyzed or understood heterosexuality as a compelled economic and societal system. Women should have more respect for Lesbians because of our struggles for women’s rights and fights against heterosexism and inequality between men and women.

Those of us who are Lesbians can observe many of the lies told by heterosexism. Being proud of our sexuality is a way to refute the control of heterosexism and sexism. Being Lesbian is a stand against the systems oppressing women. When we come out, we are a living statement that we can choose alternatives to heterosexism and give priority to relationships with women. We give other women guidelines to consider the systems in our society. I think it is worthwhile for women to live as Lesbians for women.

I ask you (heterosexual women) one question. Can you live as a Lesbian? Can you choose a woman as a sexual or life partner? Can you give priority to your relationship with woman over those with men? And can you come out as a Lesbian? When you can do so easily and freely, we can say we are free from sexism and heterosexism and have a good society for women.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Nov 1999

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