Twelve days into the Olympics and 75% of Japan’s gold medals are due to women winning combat sports: one judo and two wrestling. One female wrestler, Kaori Icho, has completely dominated her sport for the last 12 years – she is the first Japanese woman to win three gold medals in a row, has won the world championships seven times, and has not lost a bout for more than 150 matches. During last night’s coverage the commentators were saying that they have never seen her lose, and don’t know how she would react.
Given the popular image of Japan as a sexist place, it’s genuinely surprising to see women’s participation in sport and the acceptance of women in a wide range of activities that in the west are largely reserved for men. The degree to which this process is normalized, accepted or encouraged is most evident in the olympics coverage, because it’s not just that the women are given air time – the coverage of women’s sport has been excellent. When a Japanese woman is competing in a combat sport, they don’t just flick from some irrelevant men’s sport to cover her bout – they give uninterrupted coverage on the main channel for the entire tournament, which meant last night I watched two hours of uninterrupted wrestling, and I’ve seen multiple hours of women’s judo. Furthermore, they bring a female expert from the sport into the studio to do analysis and coverage, and the male commentators show obvious deference to her expertise. The women’s soccer (the biggest contender for gold number five) is covered on the national TV channel by an excellent woman (I haven’t caught her name) from a previous generation’s soccer team, who provides analysis and detailed commentary that would make Australia’s Craig Foster proud. The wrestling has similar coverage, from a previous champion, and the same applies to other sports where women are playing. Essentially, from the top of the channel down to ordinary people in bars and living rooms across the land, women’s participation in sport is shown the same respect as men’s – with, perhaps, the notable exception of the soccer federation, which oversaw a notable blunder in which the women’s team flew economy in the same plane that the men’s team (who are eternal losers) flew first class. This extends to participation in ordinary sports centres too – quite often my own kickboxing class in Tokyo will have as many women as men participating.
It could be said that this is just an olympics sport phenomenon, reflective of the fact that the women are excelling in combat sports and combat sports are the Japanese public’s favourite activity. But it’s not limited to sport. On the train channels at the moment are a slew of adverts featuring pretty mainstream-looking non-nerdy women playing computer games, and computer gaming is seen as a completely reasonable activity for girls to engage in. It’s really common here to see young women fiddling with portable came consoles and fooling around in gaming arcades, and most gaming companies have developed games aimed at women, or are looking for ways to market their main games to a growing female market.
Another area in which women’s participation is encouraged and accepted is that most macho of western domains, beer drinking. Advertisements for beer here are completely devoid of macho images of working men, but instead have couples enjoying time together, but beyond that there are a whole slew of adverts aimed purely at women: no men in the scene, no evidence that beer has anything to do with men. I recall reading years ago that John Singleton (a famous advertising mogul in Australia) said that there were three key things that had to be in a beer ad to make it successful: 1) a man, 2) a beer, 3) a man drinking a beer. Not so in Japan, not at all.
But the most striking example of this equality of participation is in that most male-dominated of hobbies, role-playing. In my 5-10 attendances at conventions in rural Japan I noticed that about a third of the group were women, and I also noticed that women would GM games and would also be deferred to by men (including GMs!) as experts on a particular game – when I played Make You Kingdom the GM deferred regularly to a female player on rules issues. Recently, playing 13th Age in the Akihabara gaming shop Yellow Submarine, there were five or six gaming tables and every one except ours had at least one woman participating – except for one table, which was occupied by five women of about the same age as me playing Double Cross. Those women must have been in the hobby for as long as it’s been going on, which suggests that role-playing has always been popular with women. To the best of my knowledge this level of female participation in role-playing is unheard of in the west – in the UK when I gamed at a pub, there would be maybe 40 men and every couple of weeks one woman would turn up – and she would be stared at like a freak. It’s extremely hard to find women at any organized gaming events in the west, though you can get women interested if you recruit them through friendship circles, etc. But here in Japan it’s normal to see women playing. They’re still a minority, but not a tiny minority, and clearly their participation is seen as normal by the boys.
When people comment on gender inequality in Japan they tend to overlook many facets and nuances of gender relations here, but it really frustrates me when they overlook this aspect of Japanese life, or when they single out a single event like the first class soccer controversy as evidence of some deep problem – especially when that kind of controversy happened in Australia too, where women would generally consider themselves to have very few equality issues still to resolve. But in sport, in nerd activities, and in beer drinking women’s participation is both encouraged and seen as normal in this country. For role-playing, particularly, this is a fascinating and eye-opening insight into how far western gaming still has to come in encouraging openness and diversity of participation. In both the nerdy and the sporting worlds, maybe Japan has something to teach the west about gender equality?