Here’s this week’s Media Mix about appearances and gender roles in the media. Most of the article addresses a series of forums published in the Asahi Shimbun, which started from the premise that gender stereotyping is a problem the media must admit and deal with. But, of course, the media can only perpetuate something that already exists in some form, and other institutions are just as complicit in such stereotypes. In one of the Asahi forums, journalist Momoko Shirakawa took issue with local governments that carry out konkatsu (marriage activity) events, which assist local men in finding brides, usually from outside the area. These events invariably treat women as being passive participants–the men have to convince the women of their own worth, which implies that it is the men who are creating a relationship. All the woman has to do is accept. Though this may sound like a small issue, it reinforces the idea that women are basically looking for support rather than a partnership.
In such an environment, women will find it hard to be taken seriously, which is why the emphasis on appearances still creates problems. As another forum participant, essayist Keiko Kojima, pointed out, Japanese comedy, especially the TV variety, is all about making fun of the underdog, and the easiest target is a person’s appearance. Since comedians essentially ridicule themselves, they think they can’t be accused of cruelty, but Kojima points out that women who are considered conventionally homely get the most work as comedians on TV, and that the humor poisons society at large when similar jokes are used by children against classmates they don’t like for whatever reason. And while such humor is not limited to Japan–think of the late Joan Rivers and her obsession with “sluts” and overweight women–in Japan such humor is practically institutionalized, a fact that is proved because no one tries to explain it. They just know it exists as something that’s peculiarly Japanese.
Ryan Takeshita touched on this reality in his Huffington Post article. He seemed genuinely puzzled by Tomomi Inada’s “joke” about how good-looking she and the two other defense ministers are. Usually, when a Japanese person makes a joke whose premise is that the speaker is good-looking, it means the opposite, because it is bad form to insist you are beautiful, whether you’re a man or a woman. Consequently, any Japanese person who heard Inada’s remark might conclude that she actually thinks she herself is not good-looking. But, of course, she was talking to a predominantly non-Japanese audience, which could mean that she understood humor in a foreign context. What she didn’t understand was that this audience had passed the cultural point where such a joke is funny a long time ago.