On Watching “Mad Men” in Japan | セクハラ

Every guy in Japan wears a suit and smokes.

They take trains from the suburbs into an office with a formal dress code and work until 10 p.m. every day. On their breaks, they’re going to convenience stores in suits to buy sandwiches. When work ends, they’re going to bars to change air into an alcohol-and-nicotine haze until the boss goes home.

Meanwhile, women are expected to work part-time, make coffee for the men, raise the kids and eat dinner last.

For the single girls, women’s magazines include dating columns with questions such as, “Why do men talk about difficult topics like politics and the economy?” notes the NYT’s Hiroko Tabuchi, who also Tweeted the mag’s answer:

“Men care about complex topics because it affects their jobs. And they want to educate us girls… But don’t worry if you can’t keep up. Just change the subject!”

Watching “Mad Men” – a TV show set in an American ad agency just before 1963’s Equal Pay Act – holds an accidentally accurate mirror up to Japan. It’s only a slightly exaggerated view of modern gender roles.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, “Between 1985 and 2008, the proportion of female full-time employees fell from 68.1 percent to 46.5 percent. Put another way, 53.5 percent of women in the workforce are part-time or contract workers, while the figure for men is 19.1 percent.” (Japanese part-timers are increasingly falling into poverty).

The World Economic Forum rates Japan at 94 out of 134 countries on gender equality in its 2010 survey, up from 101 but still lower than Zimbabwe.

The “Mad Men” era started its slow decline in the 1960s with the Equal Pay Act (1963) and the Civil Rights Act (1964). Today’s still-flawed U.S. workplace is the result of 45 years of social adjustment to the idea of equal rights.

These laws came to Japan in 1986 and they came without any feminist social movement. You can assume that Japan is about 24 years behind the U.S. in workplace equality laws and, culturally, about 34 years behind. Basically, it’s roughly around the Don Draper era.

Intermission: The Gojo Cat Bag Man
The cat-food slogan bag was broadcasting the sound of rushing water.* It was slung over the shoulders of a fellow train passenger, who had started up an awkward conversation with a young lady who laughed nervously.

We walked to another train car. The Cat Bag Man followed us. Soon, his rushing-water broadcast gave way to the lustful moaning of a porn actress. The Cat Bag Man was playing hardcore pornography through loudspeakers in his handbag, surrounded by elderly women staring silently at the ground.

When my girlfriend and I talked too loudly, he stood up, walked over to her and accused us of making petty assertions or asked her out for drinks.

Trickle-Down Harassment
The Cat Bag Man was not my only encounter with a creep. One man had a camera pointed at the window of a women’s yoga class. I bumped into one guy who squatted on a stairwell to look up a skirt.

Before we go on, let’s be clear: The superpervs are a rarity. What’s striking is not the abundance of creeps, but the brazen nature of creeps.

Men certainly check out women in America. But the time spent “looking” at women is directly related to the degree of power held by women. Men in the modern U.S. make wide sweeping glances, men in Japan just as often unapologetically leer. The really deviant guys take video.

What, then, do creepy old perverts have to do with watching “Mad Men” in Japan? Only that the diminished role of women in Japanese society reduces their ability to respond to men who go too far. The problem with the world of “Mad Men” wasn’t Don Draper. The problem is the lowered bar that Draper and his ilk set for the men they shared a culture with.

When the middle ground is low, you dig a pretty deep hole for the bottom-dwellers. The problem with Don Draper in Japan is that the hole fills up with guys broadcasting pornography to middle-aged women and children on their way to a museum.

The Trouble With Wa
Japanese women are in a double bind: They earn less while surrounded by gawking men in a culture that emphasizes social harmony and saving face (“wa“).

Publically complaining about being gawked at is awkward. So women aren’t confrontational. The guy knows it. No one will be confronted, and no one will confront anybody. It’s the opposite of what happened to this guy in New York City (NSFW).

Which just goes to show that perverts are everywhere.

And Now for Some Cultural Relativism
While the problem of sexism in Japan is real and clearly problematic, there’s one caveat I’ve heard from female expats in Japan: The motives behind “sexual harassment” in Japan can be innocent. Japanese women will ask Western women if they can touch their breasts, so will the men. Male students will ask embarrassing questions to male and female teachers.

I won’t try to discern the lines between naive question and objectification here. Obviously, if someone’s uncomfortable, it should stop. What shocks foreign visitors to Japan is that it even has to be explained. But Japanese ideas about the body are much more casual than in the US. Families and co-workers bathe together at onsens. Nudity is not as explicitly sexualized. So attitudes in Japan can strike some (Americans, particularly) as a bit too cavalier.

For our part, the Gojo Cat Bag Man delivered his epithets or his invitations and then ran to another car. There’s no doubt that this wasn’t an innocent cultural misunderstanding, even though none of the other passengers said a word. You can imagine that this wasn’t the first time they’d seen someone cross the line.


* A cloth bag with pictures of old cat food ads and the slogan “Cat-astrophic for all other cat foods.”

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17 Responses to On Watching “Mad Men” in Japan | セクハラ

  1. Laura says:

    Word to everything you wrote. I had a peeper/perv I caught on my balcony last year and I yelled at him and he jumped off the second level and ran away. People at work couldn’t believe I was so “brave.” It makes me sad to think how a “normal” woman would have reacted…?

    • owwls says:

      Make him some tea?

      In all seriousness, today a student was on the train with me and a creepy pudgy guy in a fuzzy sweater and rolled-up jeans (and keitai charms hanging off his backpack) just walked up to her and stared at her face. The student did the “ignore it and it will go away” thing, and the guy stared for a while longer and then walked away.

      To me it was absolutely threatening, but she just brushed it off (visibly). I was kind of left in a bind – I followed her for a while to make sure HE wasn’t (she knows me by name, so I don’t think it was that creepy). But you still wish you could just say, “Hey, do you have a problem, buddy?”

      • Zach says:

        Wow. Makes most rides on the NYC subway seem tame.

        Great piece. I love that your blog has actual longform writing that really shows off that Salvaggio abili-tay. I’ll do better at keeping up now. Cheers man.

      • Laura says:

        That makes me really angry. They ought to have “anti-perv assertiveness training” courses for young girls here. I’ve seen similar incidents on trains. Or like “Densha Otoko,” the pervert on the train is verbally assaulting Hermes and she just sits there like “yaa, please stop.” The passivity of a lot of women here is why these kinds of nonviolent creeps can get away with doing what they do.

        I’m not trying to be That Loud Butch Foreign Chick, but it really does irritate me and I like to do my part not to let it happen without consequence. The other day I was walking to Thanksgiving from Chojabaru JR and this guy rode by on his bike, muttered some comment, and gawked. I raised my arm in true angry-gesticulating-Italian-American fashion and yelled “what the F are you looking at! move along!” and move along he did.

        I bet your student feels safer knowing you’re looking out for her. Keep fighting the good fight!

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  10. spartan2600 says:

    My girlfriend, who went to Japan last week and is now teaching English there had a terrible incident when she was an exchange student as a sophomore in highschool (so 16 or 15 years old). She was participating in a festival parade and was carrying something heavy (like a caravan or something) over her shoulder, and using both hands along with 3 other participants. Suddenly, a couple of high-school-aged boys ran up to her. One went behind her and squeezed both her breasts as the other took a picture and they ran away- she would’ve dropped whatever she was carrying if she tried to stop it.

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  14. Hey,
    I’ve been reading your stuff for a while and just read this one today since it popped up in my facebook. You focus a lot on pervs and creeps in Japan, but I wonder if you have been there so long you see the west with slightly rose tinted glasses.
    I studied in Japan, then was on JET for a while. I’ve lived in both Nagoya and in the Mie countryside. I never had any problems at all in Japan – my British friend (in the countryside) was pushed off her bike and groped but that’s all I’ve heard of.

    I’m British but now live in Frankfurt, Germany. In England I couldn’t walk down a street after dark without a guy following me and asking me how much it is for sex (no really, this happened). And here in Frankfurt I get cat called so much, and perved at and have creeps come and hang around me. I’ve had men pull up their cars next to me and tell me to get in. Multiple times. And I’m totally average looking, and (though it shouldn’t be an issue) dress mostly in jeans and boob-covering tops.

    I think I would take a random guy with porno sounds over daily comments on my appearance like I get here.

    I was hoping this blog post would get into a lot more of the key themes in Mad Men – the working life, how Don is able to sleep around and get away with it, family values etc etc. I still enjoyed it though :)

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