Artistic Representations of Gender Differences in Japan

Hi, I’m Luiza and I attend The American School in Japan and I’m Brazillian. I’ve lived in five countries, including Spain, Mexico, US, Rio, and Tokyo. Since moving to Tokyo, I have found myself thinking about some of the cultural dynamics that pertain to gender in my community that is different in some ways and similar in some ways to other communities that I’ve lived in. For this project, I decided to explore the historical roots of patriarchy in Japan in order to better understand how they have influenced gender inequalities and issues that continue to exist in Japan today.

I created three art pieces illustrating gender dynamics in Japanese culture that I have observed during my year and a half of living in Tokyo. In order to understand their meaning, some historical context is in order. 

What are the Traditional Gender Roles in Japan?
Japanese people heavily rely on culture and tradition. Their culture is influenced by Confucianist ideals. This meant that the women were dependent on men and they were the “leaders” of the household. Women were expected to marry whomever their family arranged, to produce an heir, and look over the house chores. During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1602-1868) women did not legally exist, they were not allowed to own property and were in man’s servitude.

Wash Day c. 1870

Slowly the Confucian family ideals changed, the most drastic change occurred in World War II. In 1946, the Japanese Constitution revised a set of laws that defined Japanese family relations and granted women every possible right. The revised Civil Code tried to create equality between the sexes. Despite legal equality, in practice women were not equal. The Civil Code was considered a “marked shift” in thinking. Before, a woman was expected to be dependent on her father, her husband, and finally on her eldest son. All were heads of the household. Now,  she could be the head of the household (Sato, 1987).
Men much like women were heavily influenced under the Confucian system: loyalty and courage. Men were expected to be loyal to their lords, while women were supposed to be  loyal to their family and husband. Men must be leaders, risk-takers, decision makers, and profoundly loyal to their lord and emperor. During the Tokugawa period, Confucian structure was encouraged by the Shogun (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000; Slote & De Vos, 1998). In addition to this, men were required to cultivate themselves through intellectual activity, self-denial, and discipline. Even the lower classes were expected to practice self-denial and discipline.
These ideals changed during and after World War II. Women who didn’t have financial support were drafted by the Japanese government to “sexually service ” men in the military.  These women were known as “comfort women.” Soldiers referred to these women as “hygienic public bathrooms” or even as “semen toilets.” Men were expected to use these services because it was believed that men who refrained from having sexual intercourse fought poorly (Mclelland, 2010). Men were forced to fight under distorted samurai ideals to the point of suicide. These ideals took the ideas of brotherly love and used them to make men fight to a point where they were unidentifiable to their friends and family. Kamikazes were a result of this distortion. Loyalty to Imperial Japan and courage were also fuel for the bloody violence.

What Are Current Female Gender Roles in Japan?

 In 2007, Japanese men averaged only 30 minutes of housework, child care, and elder care each day (North, 2009). Wives are expected to shoulder these tasks, yet this expectation is slowly changing. Women are expected to be the full-time parent, while men are underpaid and overworked. The man simply cannot be a full-time parent with the demands of his company which leads women to not much beyond motherhood, while men are not entitled to much beyond work (Bae, 2010). Motherhood is considered the defining characteristic of a woman. Motherhood is adulthood in many regards. “This is why many young Japanese women struggle to form their own sense of identity apart from this cultural expectation.”

Image result for japanese mothers

Women’s happiness is found only in marriage, according to Confucian cultural tradition. Women marry between 22-27 years old. It was not uncommon for women to be socially outcast if she has failed to marry by 27. However, this is slowly changing where it is becoming more socially acceptable for both men and women to marry later in life. This has lead to a shortage of children because of the shifting roles of women and a reluctance from Japanese men to do what are known as “female tasks.”

What does the Older generation of Japan feel about Gender Equality currently? 

The older generation in Japan seems to have a very closed off mindset about gender equality. That generation seems more tied down to culture and tradition,  and didn’t seem to grasp the concept of women feeling disregarded. Not only do they still believe that women’s only job should be in the household, they believe that men are more capable of handling the stresses in having a full-time job. One 69-year-old man stated that a woman being a CEO in a big company would result in the company losing money and the work would not be fully completed. He also stated (translation):

” Women by getting big work jobs endangers future generations as they are not fulfilling their duty in bringing an heir. This is probably why we have a shortage of children in Japan.” -Yasuku Dari

What does the Younger generation think about gender Equality?

Yet the younger generations had an awfully different mindset from the older generation. They believed that there was an “epidemic” which was occurring in Japan. This epidemic consisted of women all around of Japan advocating for their right and wanting to be more than a mere worker. Women here now aspire to be the CEO’s and the CFO’s of companies. But by doing this, women no longer envision futures with kids or even husbands for the matter of fact, this not only decreases birth rates and future generations but it also angers the older generations. Which brings older generations to say that women who have made an admirable future for themselves, are now considered a disgrace, or even a leftover. Masako Hayaku, 34, stated(translation):

” I only got married at 32, by that time my family had already said I was a disgrace and had disowned me because I hadn’t produced an heir to our family name.”

-Masako Hayaku

Japanese Language and Sexism

The Japanese language is currently trying to become more gender neutral yet many still use derogatory language.  To many in Japan, the language’s “double meaning” comes from its culture. The language like many show Japanese women and men’s “status.” There are various expressions of Japanese culture that are used to criticism women and base them into derogatory manner based on their physical appearance and status.

  • In Japanese Onna (woman) can mean mistress or prostitute and Otoko (man) can mean good man or sexy man. Therefore if someone were to say:Yasushi wa ii otoko ni natta, it would mean Yasushi has become a good or sexy man, but if it were reversed it would mean Yasushi has become a good mistress or prostitute.
  • UrenokoriIn Japanese, this word means unsold merchandise, yet in the Japanese society many use this word to describe a woman who has not married yet
  • OkameIn Japanese, this means ugly turtle. But in Japanese society, it is used to describe a woman who they don’t think has beauty or any physical factors which appeal to them.
  • ShujinBefore WWII in Japanese culture, this word meant master, and was used by servants to refer to their master. After WWII women now use this term to refer to their husbands. Many women feel this is a respectful and convenient way to call their husbands.Image result for old japanese paintings

As seen in all of these examples we can see that the Japanese language is heavily influenced into making men feel more dominant and women feel as if it is normal to be treated this way. This is because the Japanese culture has forced a mindset which is slowly changing but still, people use terms which seem derogatory to women from the west but is normal for women here.



I designed three art pieces to capture what I have learned about Japanese culture in regards to Gender. The first piece shows how Japanese men and women should be considered as equals. In this piece, the viewer can see that even though you have different visual characteristics people should be considered both as equals as they have the same mental capability and to be considered as equals we have to give both genders the same opportunities. The second piece simulates a propaganda poster for women who are considered “leftovers.” This piece not only showed how Japanese women don’t need a man to feel happy, this also shows how family members should never call the women as leftovers. The third piece is a man which is drawn by sayings that women say in Japanese, this shows the evolution that Japan has had with its language trying to make it more neutral.

EQUALS (Double Exposure Color) 

This images captures two of my friends, Reina, a girl, and Takuto, a boy. They both are fully Japanese. What this piece symbolizes is peace and most of all equality. Japan, a country who is heavily idealized in its gender roles, rarely sees a man and a woman in the same spectrum. What I am trying to communicate in this piece is that even though the woman and the man who are looking at opposite directions have different physical characteristics they have the same mental capacity. In the end of the day even though they might look different from one another, they should still be treated the same as they have the same mental capacity.


NOT A LEFTOVER (Inspired by Shepard Fairey)  

This second piece is inspired by the Shepherd Fairy most recent artwork because of the Donald trump inauguration. His artwork is usually based on series of event which leads him to create inspirational artworks that help people of all different races come together and fight for what’s right. In this piece, I’m trying to create the same commotion out of this artwork.  This piece was created to show that even though society believes that sometimes in a Japanese woman’s life if they aren’t married by 25, they will be considered a leftover, and disregarded no matter their personal accomplishments. This is a common idea before World War II, which is why I put the Rising sun flag, an imperial flag commonly used in World War II to signify that Japan has moved on from that time so so should their ideals.


旦那様、ごはんにします?お風呂にします  (Text Wrap)

In this last piece, we can see a Japanese man but there is a Japanese phrase in between. This Japanese phrase is: “旦那様、ごはんにします?お風呂にします?” Which translates to Master, would you like to have dinner or a bath? This is a very common saying for Japanese housewives to say to their husbands after a long day after work. Not only does it show how the wife does everything imaginable possible for the husband but she also treats him as if he were her superior. To change the perspective, instead of putting a woman’s face by these words, I’ve put a man. This is to show if the roles were reversed Japanese women would probably feel more confident not only in themselves but also in how people treat her.


Call to Action

Culture and history play important roles in shaping notions of gender and it impacts a society. I encourage you to think about how gender relations function in your country, town, neighborhood, or even your home. What are the roots of those dynamics? How can they be challenged to produce a more equal society?


Begley, Sharon. “Playing the Mating Game: When Will a Woman Go for the Hunk or the Hubby?” Newsweek, vol. 134, no. 1, 5 July 1999, p. 55. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, Accessed 1 Apr. 2017.

Hays, Jeffery. “Japanese Mothers and Housewives: Having Children, Duties, Education and School Lunches.” Facts and Details, Jan. 2013, Accessed 16 Apr. 2017.

“I Don’t.” The Economist, 1 Sept. 2016, Accessed 16 Apr. 2017.

“Japanese Women Tire of Their Men.” The Australian (National, Australia), 6 Jan. 2011, p. 10. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, Accessed 1 Apr. 2017.

Kanagy, Ruthy. “Gender Roles in Japan.” Moon, 4 Aug. 2013, Accessed 12 Mar. 2017.

Kincaid, Chris. “Gender Roles of Women in Modern Japan.” Japan Powered, 22 June 2014, Accessed 16 Apr. 2017.

—. “A Look at Gender Expectations in Japanese Society.” Japan Powered, 7 July 2013, Accessed 5 Mar. 2017.

Learner, Neal. “Fighting for Equality in Japan.” The Progressive, vol. 63, no. 3, Mar. 1999, p. 15. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

Scott, Greg. “Gender Differences in Modern Japanese.” Lingualift, Accessed 27 Mar. 2017. 

Sugihara, Y. & Katsurada, E. (2000). Gender-role Personality Traits in Japanese Culture. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 24. 309-318.

Sugihara, Y. & Katsurada, E. (2002). Gender Role Development in Japanese Culture: Diminishing Gender Role Differences in a Contemporary Society. Sex Roles. 47. 443-452.

“Yasuku Dari.” Personal interview. 27 Mar. 2017.

“Lin Masayaki.” Personal interview. 12 Apr. 2017.

“Masako Hayaku.” Personal interview. 14 Apr. 2017.


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