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Japanese Women Are Not Oppressed Victims, So Don’t Treat Them Like One

Tokyo Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori took responsibility for his derogatory statement. Isn’t it time for the West to do the same for the distorted picture it has created about Japanese women?



Madam Butterfly is the image of Japanese women created by American writer John Luther Long. Image: By Miomir Polzović - Serbian National Theatre, CC BY-SA 3.0, Courtesty: https commons.wikimedia


Chief Yoshiro Mori of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee made remarks that have been regarded as derogatory towards women, and he resigned accordingly for tarnishing Japan’s image. But what concerns me is the distorted picture of Japanese women that has been painted by the West. 

Are Japanese women really weak and oppressed as those in the West claim? I hope to clarify that nothing could be further from the truth.

Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee, 20, aiming to make a full recovery from leukemia.
Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo and nearly 14 million people
Japanese pro golfer Hinako Shibuno

The Ideal Japanese Woman

The concept of Yamato nadeshiko is the personification of an ideal Japanese woman. She is a strong, dignified woman with a mind of her own who does not succumb to hardships, but overcomes them with tenacity and grit. 

Before the advancement of technology, physical strength was essential for many professions. Women could not compete with men in sheer physical strength, whether in agriculture or war. 

But Japanese women were never inferior to men in strength of mind. They worked diligently every day without a fuss and did not blindly submit to men. This is the character of Yamato nadeshiko—the ideal Japanese woman. Men who see her strength naturally come to respect her.

While Yamato nadeshiko is the perfect woman, nobody is perfect. At the same time, I believe many Japanese women identify with her to some degree.

And yet, Japanese women are often misunderstood in the West as being “weak and oppressed.”

Mitate-Genji Cherry Blossom Banquet Utagawa Toyokuni Ⅲ (Utagawa Kunisada) Ajinomoto Foundation for Dietary Culture

Japanese Women in the Western Imagination

Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when Western people think of Japanese women is Madame Butterfly, who committed suicide after being abandoned by a U.S. Navy officer. But she is a fictional character from a short story written by the American author John Luther Long. The story has been adapted into an opera and often performed abroadーbut not in Japan. 

In other words, not many Japanese women identify with the character of Madame Butterfly. 

Instead, Japanese women favor Kabuki, Rokyoku, and Rakugo works based on real people such as the courtesans Sendai Takao and Kouya No Takao. 

Sendai Takao is said to have been killed with a blade by the feudal lord Date for rejecting his advances when he tried to win her over with promises of luxury. 

Kouya No Takao left Yoshiwara (a former red-light district), married a craftsman who ran a textile dyeing business, and made his business prosper. 

Both women made their own choices and dictated their own lives. The ideal Japanese woman does not give up, even if she had a disadvantageous start in life. She chooses to work hard to improve her prospects. The story of the two Takaos is about such women.

This is why Japanese women should not develop a victim mentality by taking heed of the Western idea that Japanese women are victims of oppression. 

The Japan women's national team won the 2011 Women's World Cup.

Achieve Gender Equality With a Bottom-up Approach

It is true that women in Japan today are more likely to be disadvantaged in the workplace, especially in terms of income. However, women still strive to improve their lives by choosing to work and taking advantage of various subsidy systems. 

Women are gradually being promoted to managerial positions because their tenacity has gained the respect of the men around them. 

At this rate, the Japanese work environment will change considerably in the next 30 years. A bottom-up approach will bring a more natural change to the whole of Japanese society. 


Assuming that a gender-equal society can be achieved by simply realizing a prescribed gender ratio in parliament and managerial roles in large corporations is a mistake. Members of parliament and managers of large corporations are members of a small number of elite, and women who can gain such status only encompass a small part of society. 

Japan's Yui Kamiji after winning the women's wheelchair finals of the French Open tennis
Yoshiko Sakurai, outspoken journalist and groundbreaking President of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentsls

Respect and Recognition Must be Earned, not Demanded

Recognition in the workplace should be based on what the person accomplishes, regardless of gender. Even though the international community has urged Japan to implement a top-down approach, such as requiring men to give 40 percent of their posts to women, many Japanese women do not want to make such petty demands.

A society where men and women live and work in harmony is a society where men respect women from the heart—not a society where men pretend to care about gender equality and concede to demands in appearance only. 

Demanding respect will make men patronize women because they would feel as if they are doing women a favor by “granting” them that respect.

Japanese women have the tenacity to work towards a better tomorrow, and they have been deeply respected in the household because of it. Now that Japanese women have moved into the workplace, all working women will one day be respected just as mothers have been respected in the household.

The movement for women to be recognized, relied on, and given status has already begun without the need for demanding it from men.

Even Yoshiro Mori expressed the same sentiment at the end of his press conference: “The organizing committee includes about seven women, but they all understand their place. All of them have worked in sports organizations and have experience in working with the international community. Their remarks are always on-point, and we would appoint a woman to fill any vacancies.” 

Tokyo Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori took responsibility for his derogatory statement. Isn’t it time for the West to do the same for the distorted picture it has created about Japanese women? .
Tomoko Namba, Founder and Executive Chairman of DeNA, a Japanese IT and AI giant often in the spotlight.
Tsukasa Yoshida in blue, World Judo Masters Gold Medalist, January 2021, Doha, Quatar.

Equality of Outcome vs. Equality of Opportunity

The Japanese approach is different from the Western approach. For example, while judo athletes compete in weight divisions according to Western values, weight divisions are not used in sumo, an ancient Japanese sport that has retained its traditions.

Perhaps imposing a four to six ratio of women to men in parliament is the Western approach to including women in politics, much like how judo athletes compete in weight divisions. 

In the West, the focus is on equality of outcome. But the Japanese way does not categorize athletes by weight because the focus is on equality of opportunity. 


It may take time for the fruits of change to become apparent, but I would ask the international community not to misunderstand Japan just because its approach is different from theirs. 


Author: Nanae Hasegawa, Cartoonist

(Read the column in Japanese at this link.)