This interview with Tokyo based artist and writer Mayumi Yamase is part of an ongoing project interviewing different Japanese women to understand their experience of gender roles in Japan and to get an idea of what it means to be a woman in this country.
You can see Mayumi’s art and editorial works here; www.mayumiyamase.com
Mayumi Yamase – Being a woman in Japan (as told to Tilt)
‘I was born in Tokyo but then pretty much as soon as I was born we moved to The States and I was five or six when we came back, so before primary school. Before I even graduated from high school I went to London to study art at 18 and I stayed there for 7 years and moved back to Tokyo in 2011. I was studying at Chelsea School of Art.
So I have spent half of my life in Japan and half outside. I was 25 when I came back and I felt different, but I still consider myself to be very Japanese. I’m not quite sure where I feel more at home. When I was away I felt in some senses more myself. The environment and the people that I was hanging around with made me feel very at ease and natural, but I also feel at home in Japan now.
Being a woman in Japan has a very different definition from other countries. The whole culture around idols and famous Japanese women I think symbolises a certain definition of a woman. Women here should be cute faced and small and tiny – there is such a stress on youth and on being beautiful – age takes up a huge part of what it means to be a woman here. If you are a woman and over 30 who isn’t married that is very much frowned upon and then when you move abroad (to Europe or the US) that has nothing to do with it. People aren’t so obsessed with a woman’s age. Youth and beauty are not as emphasised.
Innocence is important here. When women are older and aren’t married, it implies that they have lived a certain kind of life before. As a woman, there’s a certain age by which you have to consider the life that you want. It is hard for me to separate myself from my upbringing and think about how men here feel or where it comes from.
An ideal man in Japan stereotypically is hard working and faithful. People having affairs here is common as it is in other countries, but here it is somehow different with the hostess culture and commercialisation of casual sexual or romantic interactions. It is hard to meet people when you are out that you don’t already know and so men who can’t be bothered choose to use money and to pay. It seems that it is somehow from necessity, but sometimes you see young, attractive and successful men who could meet women but they still use these services as it is a certainty – they know for definite that if they pay they don’t have to worry about being turned down or a woman walking away from them.
My mother is not a typical Japanese woman now but when we were kids she was – she had a responsibility to take care of the kids and that kept her in a box and now she is becoming independent – she has her own brand and tries hard to be who she wants to be. In a way she could only do that after we had grown up.
The pressures on women in Japan are that they are constantly objectified in a different way in a materialised way that I don’t feel good about. Chikan culture, (where women are routinely groped on the tube) when I think about that culture and why it happens I think it is because people don’t interact with each other very much and women on the train aren’t seen as real people. When my friends have had this happen to them they tell me about it, but normally they don’t do anything about it. Some of my friends didn’t really care because they aren’t really surprised as it is talked about so much and that shocks me having been outside of the country. They normally kind of laugh it off and don’t consider it to be a violation they find it difficult to talk about it as then you have to dig deeper and really think about this and what it means and that is scary.
Women are under pressure to be domestic and keep a good house and give up work to have children. This is changing worldwide but here this traditional culture is still very strong. The pressure to get married once you are over 25 is strong, people will start worrying about you – these kind of social pressures exist for sure. Men are not under the same pressure to the same extent.
All the rules that you have to follow in Japanese society and companies I struggle with, how you are supposed to speak and to demonstrate respect. When working here I found email tone difficult and having friendships with co-workers was difficult. It isn’t easy to stay at work when you have a baby in Japan, it is expected that you take time off and that afterwards you will have to spend more time with your child. You are not supported in going back to work as often in Japan as you are elsewhere I think, but I don’t have too much experience of typical workplaces here.
I am not sure if I see myself ending up here. I always wanted to go to New York but it is comfortable for me to be here it is where I grew up. I really would want my children to experience the world and be open minded.