A new book of student research into key areas of gender in modern Japan highlights emerging trends of redefinition between sexes, and the impact on its society.

The essays in this volume provide fascinating insights into gender diversity in modern Japan, as well as telling the story of what we are doing at Cambridge

Brigitte Steger

There is a picture of Japanese gender roles familiar to many - the suited ‘salary man’ with the stoic work ethic and slavish commute, and the housewife, single-mindedly occupied with her children’s education and tending to the home.

But, beginning during the nineties recession and snowballing with recent economic meltdowns, rigid gender definitions are being subverted by a generation with shifting values and uncertain futures. The challenges and consequences for Japanese society as a result could prove far-reaching.  

Now, a new book from Cambridge’s Department of East Asian Studies has collected the latest research into Japan’s emerging gender identities, covering transgender people and absent fathers, girls in manga comics and the emergence of ‘Herbivore boys’, young men uninterested in careers and relationships.

The book, Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy, is published by Lit and launched on 23rd February at Robinson College. The book not only features vanguard research in this field but also represents some of the very best undergraduate work from the Department’s Japanese Studies course over the last three years.

The editors say that the collection is relevant for both academic and general audiences interested in Japanese society, and hope it will inspire current and future students.

“Some of this research represents the only academic work on these issues currently in English - even in Japan there isn’t much about ‘herbivore boys’ and transgender people,” said Dr Brigitte Steger from the Department, who co-edited the book with researcher Angelika Koch.

“Japan’s gender identities are in turmoil. The essays in this volume provide fascinating insights into gender diversity in modern Japan, as well as telling the story of what we are doing at Cambridge.”

One of the four featured essays looks at changing politics around transgender communities. Although sex change surgery was illegal in Japan until the late nineties, there has been cultural acceptance of transgender people as long as they adopt the right stereotype of the flamboyant gay man, often wheeled out on TV shows.

Transgender people have fought successfully for the legalisation of sex reassignment surgery and gender change on their family registers – although in order to be eligible they have to fit these conservative gender moulds.

Another focus of the book is the ‘Herbivore boy’, a subversion of the classic hard-working, sexually assertive male increasingly adopted by young men who assume traits of general sexual apathy, fashion consciousness through make-up and clothes, and refuse to engage with the “corporate employment and marriage” lifestyle that defined Japan for much of the last fifty years.

“Many young men don’t see the point of conforming to ‘salary man’ models anymore. With economic collapse, they don’t see why they should repress creativity and prolonged adolescence - often as a conscious rebellion against the lifestyle of their fathers,” said co-editor Koch.

Fathers and their absence are explored in the book. At the turn of the century, Japan’s ailing birth rate prompted the government to launch campaigns encouraging men to be more active in family life. This, however, isn’t translating into the education for the next generation - quite the opposite according to research from former student Zoya Street. 

Moral education textbooks used in Japanese classrooms still promote the distant ‘absent’ father archetype as the ideal, a persistence that may prove increasingly damaging for family life.

The book also examines the role of women in ‘boys manga’ comics, most commonly a strange mix of pornography and innocence. But increasingly women are given meatier roles, for instance as criminal masterminds.

Such shifting gender types, and other aspects of societal change, have led Japan to experience a “continuous drop” in marriages as well as fertility rates in recent years. Many no longer consider marriage an integral part of their life.

With an ageing population living ever-longer past retirement, and a younger generation disengaging from social contributions that form Japan’s backbone, there is increasing concern about redefined gender roles and their impact on society.

“This isn’t just exceptional undergraduate research,” added Steger. “It’s a very timely examination of the seismic ructions in gender roles that are taking place in modern Japan, and their ramifications”.

For more information, please contact Brigitte Steger: bs382@cam.ac.uk

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