‘Kawaii’- is it standing in the way of female empowerment in Japan?

for March, 2017

‘Kawaii’- is it standing in the way of female empowerment in Japan?

Posted on 8 March 2017 in womenomics -

It seems fitting on International Women’s Day to share some of the research I am currently doing in preparation for a talk at Rikkyo University’s Gender Forum this year. My research covers ‘The Gender roles in Japan’ and looks at whether those roles are so ingrained within Japanese society that they need to be tackled more from a grassroots perspective to really implement change. Company and government led initiatives are still happening within the ingrained expectations of gendered behaviour and therefore have limitations to their effectiveness. Although ‘gender diversity’ and ‘womenomics’ are key buzz words in Japan and there are pockets of advancement, Japan dropped significantly in the Global Gender Gap Report from 2015 to 2016. Furthermore, if Japan wishes to encourage their female workforce to both support Japan’s economy by participating in the workforce fully and off-set their demographic time-bomb by having more babies, fundamental shifts in the gender roles in society need to happen.

The situation is complex and challenging. For women in Japan, social etiquette dictates from a young age how to behave and how to look. An interesting element of this is the ‘kawaii’ sub- culture that has been very influential in defining how women act and behave and is perceived as a desirable trait for a woman to possess. There is no doubt that the cutesy image of Japanese women has been a strong feminine archetype and has permeated many areas of society but the over-emphasis of this as a feminine archetype may be an obstacle in the workplace, preventing women from adopting traits that are non-kawaii but that may support them in attaining female empowerment, leadership skills and being confident in their job capabilities.

Whether we like it or not, success in the wider world of business is still based on masculine traits and there are still judgements made of male and female behaviour on whether you can do a job effectively. On a Linkedin thought leadership post today, I noticed that advice for women wanting to look ‘powerful’ and ‘strong’ is to rid themselves of overly feminine behaviours when presenting and adopt more masculine ones. This may work in the West to some extent, although aggressive women are still treated differently to aggressive men, but can be detrimental for women in Japan.

This doesn’t mean that Japanese women are just smiling kawaii robots. Read this article about how Sanrio, the producers of Hello Kitty have produced an angry panda, Aggretsuko, that rebels against this expectation of being ‘kawaii’ to see how widespread this expectation of kawaii is and how stifling it is. “Japanese girls suffer from a social structure where we are supposed to act properly. But many of us have two sides. They might look cute on the outside but can be aggressive inside. Sanrio shows this kind of girl quite well with Aggretsuko”.

So can the gender roles in Japan be made more favourable to gender diversity? Various models exist around the world but can they be adopted in Japan? Yes, I believe they can through grassroots change within a Japanese context. Going back to my research, I believe that one of the areas this can happen effectively is within early Year’s Education, not least because schools play such a strong role in socialisation within Japanese society but also because studies show that ‘kawaii’ is a significant factor amongst interactions within early year’s education and will no doubt shape the perceptions of children and gendered behaviour significantl

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