Not softlier pillowed is my head
That rests by thine, unloving bride,
Than were those jagged stones my bed
Through which the falls of Nuki stride.
The Flower Feast, The Tale of Genji, Part 1
Although I am intimately connected with Japan and Japanese culture, I have never had a great interest in a lot of Japan’s famous exports. The major exception is of course their video games which is a much covered topic on this blog. I have read quite a few novels and watched enough anime to be familiar with it in general; some of which I watched thinking it would improve my knowledge of the language. This includes watching the original Dragon Ball series and some of the follow-up Dragon Ball Z.
There was a lot that fascinated me about the original series which (it is easily forgotten), begins as a retelling of Journey to the West. That is the portrayal of women. This post isn’t just going to be about Dragon Ball or anime though, it is just a good place to start.
I am going from memory of something I’ve not watched in years so I may make some errors due to the haze of time. The majority of characters in the series are male and are usually passive or subservient to women. A couple are perverts, the protagonist Son Goku, is indifferent and none that I can recall behave in a strong or masculine way around women. The main female in the series is Bulma, who when first introduced is a teenage girl. She is spoilt, vain, selfish and has a ferocious temper that all the male characters dread more than the mortal danger they often find themselves in.
There is also Chi-Chi who Son Goku meets as a child. She is cute, sweet and loyal and I believe her part in the series involves Son Goku helping her father for a reason I cannot recall. While she is sweet as a little girl, when she is later introduced as Goku’s wife in the next series, she is only distinguishable from Bulma by her hair colour. She is a bad-tempered housewife who berates her physically strong but emotionally passive husband Goku in every scene I remember her in. She in fact, is the raging harpy in the image I posted above.
There are a lot tired of tropes in Japanese comics, animation as well as in the RPG video games influenced by them. Usually these are women with personalities that the writers and or/their fans dream about and the protagonist is usually a shy (but secretly powerful), Gary Stu. This is one reason why I often find myself feeling like I’m reading, watching or playing the same story over and over again and is why I tend to avoid this stuff altogether. The two women in the Dragon Ball series though are far more interesting as they are more true to life than many non-Japanese seem to realise.
There is a misconception about the patriarchal nature of Japanese society. I would go so far as to say that it’s not only a misconception, it is a complete myth. There are of course many masculine men but most of the society is thoroughly emasculated when it comes to the supposedly weaker sex. Consider firstly that while men are still generally the bread-winners, the women control the family purse and the household. Consider also that this is likely still common in families where both the husband and wife work. This is something I’ve observed at all income levels of society too. For more evidence of this, just take a look at the obscenely expensive wedding receptions and their huge and female-orientated retail industry. Consider also the truth found in comedy from the clip below.
Jokes without any truth to them, generally fall flat. The above clip is very funny to me and many Japanese because of the truth to it and this seems to have also been noted in the comments by others who have had the same experience I have. Anyone who has spent any time with Japanese will no doubt have experienced being waited upon by a seemingly devoted house-wife. This observation is often a facade and while they don’t physically beat their husbands, they still unleash similar verbal fury.
To share an illustrative personal experience. I was briefly a regular acquaintance a a fairly typical Japanese family home. They were quite wealthy and lived in a nice house, had two expensive cars and had one healthy and intelligent child. Only the father worked and the mother really only had to cook, clean and then spend most of the day at a cafe until her husband and child were due home. This should make for a very comfortable and happy life for the woman but nearly every time I came towards their house I overheard her either berating her child, her husband or both. Both of them were male and both were friendly and passive; yet she was a raging harpy. Once I knocked on the door her tantrums would immediately cease and she came passively to the door all smiles and often knelt in a traditionally submissive position as I left the home after each lesson.
There are women who fit the ideal of a Japanese woman that many men find attractive but I would say this is quite uncommon. A lot of Japanese women are just like their fictional manifestations. They are very cute and submissive when young and unmarried but turn into nasty malcontent harpies once they are secure in marriage. Unlike much of the West, marriage is much more secure in Japan because divorce is still socially frowned upon and much more expensive for both parties than just dealing with it.
As with many social issues, the responsibility lies with the men. In the case of Japanese men, I would say they are far too tolerant of this behaviour and I would guess that men who could not be described as “passive” are the most happily married in the nation. The poem I was able to quote at the beginning suggests this is a long standing problem in Japanese society.
The only real point I have to end on is to simply tell people not to believe the twin myths of the Japanese patriarchy and the submissive wife. They are both a fiction. Japanese women will at least try to hide it from outsiders but as I can attest, it is still easy to see if only through fiction, comedy, experience and hearing it from behind closed doors.