Want to wear Hello Kitty accessories and still be taken seriously? In Japan you can. Here’s why.

As we’ve previously discussed, Japan remains a largely patriarchal society. There is a gender gap, and while women in Japan today may have more opportunities to advance at work than before, many women still choose a life of childrearing and home-making over grinding away in an office. In fact, some women might even say that there’s a lot of perks to being a woman in Japan.

Personally, as a foreign woman living in Japan, I find one of those perks includes being able to be girly without annoying other people, attracting the wrong kind of attention, or being taken less seriously.

Increasingly in the west, there is a tendency to look down on feminine women who delight in frills, bows, cupcakes, and kittens, or who aspire to run a household and raise children. In a world where women who dress up to the nines in casual situations such as college campuses can receive bucketfuls of vitriol hurled at them and where openly kooky, adorkable actress Zooey Deschanel is heaped with ridicule for naming her newborn baby girl “Elsie Otter”, is there anywhere left where it’s okay to be, well, girly anymore?

▼ Japan!

Flickr/Kristoffer Trolle

In Japan, they have something called “joshiryoku” which literally translated means “girl power”. However, rather than conjuring up images of boldness and toughness, “girl power” in Japan means embracing one’s femininity. “Joshiryoku“, therefore, could more accurately be translated as “feminine power.” Here are a couple of reasons why it’s considered totally okay to be a girly girl in Japan.

1. In Japan, women are celebrated for their feminine characteristics

The line between the sexes is still quite defined in Japan (although that line is increasingly beginning to blur). Here, they haven’t reached the stage of (as an extreme example that was in the news recently) banning boys from playing with Legos in order to push traditionally masculine toy preferences on girls, and it’s still completely accepted for adults to tell little boys how tough they are, and to tell little girls how cute they are without worrying that they are contributing to gendering. For better or worse, it’s sort of a different world in Japan, .

▼ Being able to wear a giant bow on your head with zero irony is one example of women in Japan having more freedom to be girly.

Flickr/John Gillespie

And, in this world, women are able to be women without feeling pressure to act more like men. While traditionally masculine traits such as aggressiveness and assertiveness undoubtedly contribute to success in the boardroom, for women who have no desire to climb the career ladder, there is little incentive to adopt these characteristics. Instead, being communicative, empathetic, and caring tend to benefit women who take on more traditionally “feminine” roles such as home-making, kindergarten teaching, and the like.

Since feminism isn’t at quite the same stage in Japan as in the west, it’s a harsh reality that for many career-minded Japanese women, there are higher hurdles in their way since society here has different expectations of women. But for those women who aren’t as naturally business-focused, there is little need to worry about society “expecting” them to, for example, return immediately to work after having children or pay for daycare while they return to the office, even if they don’t want to. Some aspect of this is economic, as well – it’s still quite normal in Japan for families to exist on a single salary, whereas in the west households often require two working partners.

Flickr/Etsuko Naka

2. In Japan, women enjoy more freedom to dress up without being catcalled

Japanese women enjoy the freedom to put on makeup and high heels just to take a trip to the grocery store, if they feel like it (and many of them do).  In the U.K., where I’m from, people tend to dress more casually in general situations, unless it’s a special occasion. There’s also the risk of attracting unwanted attention in the form of street harassment. I mean, yes, in a perfect world we’d all be able to walk down the street wearing whatever the hell we want and not hear a squeak from anyone about it, but we don’t live in a perfect world. And in the west, yep, it’s still entirely possible to be catcalled walking down the street in a pair of sweatpants and a huge padded winter coat.

In Japan, however, where losing face in public is a common fear, catcalling is much, MUCH less prevalent.  Yes, nanpa (guys approaching girls on the street to ask them out) does happen and it does make many women uncomfortable, but it doesn’t seem to be done with the same malice as does street harassment. Not having to worry about people loudly passing judgement on your outfit on the street in Japan means that women have more freedom to dress in whatever they want to wear, even if that’s a Little Bo Peep style Lolita dress with matching frilly accessories.

I would be remiss not to mention that Japan does have a problem with chikan (train groping) which brings misery to women who suffer through it in silence out of fear of speaking out. However, wearing a short skirt, heels, and a lot of makeup is so common in Japan as to not even raise an eyebrow, and in a society where most people are dressed up, you don’t feel like you’re standing out too much if you join in. In fact, a lot of foreign women who come to Japan gradually find themselves altering their wardrobe as a result of feeling less satisfied wearing the jeans and sneakers which are more commonly worn in their home country, and some describe this increased freedom to “dress girly” as one perk of living here.


3. Japan loves cuteness un-ironically

Another reason why being ultra-feminine is more accepted here is that in general, Japan just loves cute stuff. Grown women walk around with tote bags, key chains, and phone straps proudly featuring adorable characters like Rilakkuma, Funasshi, and Hello Kitty.

Even guys get in on the act sometimes! And nobody calls them childish or questions their manhood (at least, not unless they’re a big jerk). Guys, want to wear a pink shirt but worried that it’s too feminine a colour? Nobody will mind in Japan! Girls, want to walk around wearing a cuddly panda on your head? Go for it.  If you’re a girly girl (or guy) who loves cute characters, cuddly toys, and fluffiness, Japan is basically your playground.

It does seem curious and counter-productive sometimes that in fighting for equality for women, there is often a temptation to laud the adoption of male characteristics while scorning female ones. We could also say that being feminine in Japan isn’t always a choice so much as it is a result of social pressure. But in Japan, femininity is widely considered a vital tool for navigating the world as a woman, rather than as an obligation or hindrance.

Top image: Flickr/渺 渺