A photo essay

This is one of the girls from a Maid Cafe,” says Sarah Bischoff, pointing to a blurred figure in a photograph of a Tokyo street, “in her repression, but also in her change, she's becoming something else, but it still centers around the heel.”

She's dressed in knee-high white socks, Mary Janes, a poofy, short-short skirt, curled hair and a big bow. She's handing out tickets to come in, to come and get serviced by the maid, who calls you master, and feeds you by hand.”

For Sarah, one of three Cap students who recently won the prestigious Japan Award, which offers a chance for a four-month, all-expenses paid trip to study in Japan, the photograph symbolizes the situation for women in this ancient culture.

This, in Japan, is a little girl's shoe,” says Sarah, pointing. “This is the image Japan has of women, right there, and so, therefore, the rest of her is blurred ... What is she? She's the shoe and the heel which disables her from being able to walk properly ... that's what we hold up of women, no voice ... a little girl.”

Sarah has dreamed of going to Japan since she herself was a little girl, so, when presented with the opportunity, she diligently studied Japanese language and culture at Cap in order to apply for the exchange program. “They don't tell you anything before you go, they just tell you where you're going... you don't know what's expected of you,” she explains. All she had was the knowledge from her course readings, which provided certain warnings against pinning the women she would encounter to outdated stereotypes, like school-girls, Geishas, and Harajuku hussies. 

Family Life
“My host family was wonderful; they're the Suzuki family, I love them so much. My host mom used to put treats in my lunch box every day; she made me lunch every day. That's rare.” She became used to sharing mandatory evening baths and to the food, which she fell in love with right away, partly because Vancouver sushi had prepared her well for chopsticks.

Her house was located in the small city of Seto, Aichi, where she lived with her host sisters Maya and Shiho, 19 and 22, her Mom Sanae, and Dad Isao. Sarah had a unique family, according to her teachers, because they love each other and shared possessions, like a house and car.

Another student on the exchange had a much different family experience, perhaps more common, as they believed marriage should be a partnership. They stated “flat out, don't marry for love, marry for money ... they say 'love's not worth anything if you don't have money.'”

Her 'sister,' Shiho, was married but still lived with her parents and did not seem to visit her husband very often. “If you're over 25 and not married, you're considered 'stale Christmas cake,'” says Sarah, laughing, “and if you're still not married when you're 30, you're called a 'losing dog' ... But now there's a huge movement in postponing marriage.” 1 in 4 women in the year 2000 remained unmarried.

These family changes have to do with the intense economic requirements placed on the man. Women are still traditionally expected to move in with their husband's family but are becoming less satisfied with the life they are allotted. Women are also faced with the choice between careers and families, so even though there is an Equal Opportunity Law, it is rarely enforced. In 2005, women only held 10.1% of management jobs in Japan, according to the International Labour Organization. In 1985, they only held 6.6%. The UN stated that Japan ranks as “the most unequal of the world's rich countries.”

She explains that culturally, if a woman with a PhD and a man with a Master's Degree worked together in an office, the woman would still be expected to pour him tea, though now it has become a symbolic and political assertion when a woman chooses not to. Women also don't get promotions in business the same way men do, so they are more likely to go on vacation, while men will not. “They take vacations and [as a result] are way more international.” This trend has also allowed a major shift in the gender paradigm.

Her perceptions on this issue were encouraged by her Capilano studies, and the required reading of Veronica Chambers, who wrote Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation, helped install it. Through travel and media, Japanese women “return[ed] with new ideas about independence and individuality and romance,” writes Chambers. It led to a wave of marriages where the power dynamic had shifted, and the broader minded, better traveled and more adaptable women found themselves on honeymoons with economically powerful husbands possessing child-like emotional intelligence. This evolution of women's roles has had a great effect on the family, increasing female independence while men stay primarily entrenched in traditional roles. 

The salarymen are the business men; they work long-ass hours, they commute a lot [2-3 hours], that's where the coffin hotels (they're horrible) came from ... their wives don't see them, they're not involved with the family, they're not available,” she explains. Salarymen are a common feature on the trains that make up the arteries of Japanese travel.  

School Life

From the day I got there, I was kind of lying a lot in order to fit in.” She attended a primarily all-girls school, and despite the societal trend for feminine empowerment, she found her new classmates style and expectations difficult. “If you don't [lie], you have the impression that no one is going to understand you and they're going to look at you like you're weird, more than they already do because you're one of three white girls at your school ... so when they ask you about your interests, and everyone says shopping, I would say 'I'm interested in shopping,' even though I'm not.” Admitting that she didn't like Karaoke made her feel like a social pariah.

Japanese culture is oriented towards community harmony, rather than individualism, and so Sarah was challenged to adapt. “They were so nice, cute and kind … [but] the girls I met, when I asked them what they were interested in, they said 'money.'”

She tried to look deeper, accepting that societal pressure to conform was immense, believing that something else must be hidden under the school-girl skirts. During one class, all of her classmates skipped their studies and simply curled their hair together while talking on their cellphones.

She asked her Modern Japanese Culture teacher, Yamaguchi Sensei, if girls were allowed to wear pants, even though the weather was very cold outside. “Aren't there any feminists who refuse?” she inquired. “He didn't understand that, at all. He said, 'No, they like to wear skirts... they're girls!”' In Japan, there was no feminist revolution and no bras were burned.

In Shutting out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, by Michael Zellinger, (which was also required reading for the three exchange students before they could qualify for the exchange – it's still overdue at the Vancouver library), Sarah found clues to understanding the cultural veneer.

The book describes the hikikomori, which translates as pulling away, being confined. These self-imposed societal outcasts withdraw from community life because of an inability or unwillingness to conform. The author attributes the condition as akin to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the societal bullying to conform. He also claims that the hikikomori subjects he interviewed had developed a strong sense of self (honne) that was out of step with the accepted public facade (tatemae).

“Teachers don't stop the bullying ... teachers just turn that back. They would prefer that everyone conforms ... they will push the things out of them that will make them stand out and cause them problems later,” says Sarah. Those individuals who do manage to fit in find themselves relegated to a unified standards of behaviour, responsibility and beauty. It was immediately apparent in the almost-all-girls school.

Sarah marveled at the high-fashion of her schoolmates, and, while she tried to fit in as best she could by buying certain clothes in the kawaii [cute] style, she and her fellow exchange partners often found themselves slightly left of center. “In Japan, women are still very oppressed compared to other cultures.”

The girls' style of walking pigeon-toed is a subject of much debate and was a major curiosity for the Cap students. Some say it is a cultural affectation, seen as cute and feminine, and some say it is a genetic deformity. Others claim it has to do with sitting in a traditional seiza style. One thing was certain, that this bow-legged, pigeon-toed stance was the norm at her school.

These are the girls everyone chases: Peace signs, pigtails, big eyes ... everyone looks like anime characters.” This anime style has ancient roots, going back to the early 11th century to what some say is the oldest novel ever recorded, The Tale of Genji. It can be compared to Shakespeare in influence, and though it recounts a dramatic tale of aristocratic life, its language also describes women by the color of their clothing and men by their function – a tradition that persists today.



“Everyone likes young girls, but it's amazing jumping on the train and seeing all men dressed in business suits and all girls dressed as school girls.” This image of the school girl and the businessman are archetypal forms in Japan, and for Sarah it was inescapable. From the used panty vending machines on the streets of Tokyo to the signs which warned against groping school girls on crowded subways, she was presented with a very vivid depiction of gender roles, and of a culture fascinated by youth.

Pointing to a photo of a shirtless, seemingly pubescent boy band called Saigo No Yakusoku in the Omotesando Station in the Tokyo subway, Sarah marvels at the way in which images of youth and innocence are consumed. Behind the picture is a mob of women and girls, cooing and sighing while snapping endless photos on their cellphones and cameras. They are one of the most popular bands in Japan, akin to the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync. The picture demonstrates the qualities most in demand by both sexes and all age groups. “Girls see them and are like, oh my god... you don't have the same showing of sexuality [in Japan].”
In Harajuku, “where all the 20 somethings go to be the coolest and hippest,” both sexes are on display, though the scene is distorted somewhat by Gwen Stefani's popularization of the area. It's all Lolitas, cosplay, cyber-punk, rockabilly, “mu-mus, big sweaters, short skirts ... bunnies.” Though it's primarily a fashion and shopping district, those who play dress up represent a marginalized, though still conformist, creativity.

Once again, she was looking for these qualities due to her Cap-prescribed readings. In Shutting Out The Sun, Zellinger claims that all of Japanese culture is experiencing a latent infantilism due to its defeat in World World II. The loss resulted in a great cultural shame and increased demands on society. Children born after the war were placed under intense pressure to rebuild the economy, pride and infrastructure of the country, which led to modern 'cram' schools and elevated social responsibilities. Thus, there was no time for childhood in the post-war climate, and so art and fashion rose as an expression of that lost youth. According to Zellinger, it manifests as wide-spread infantilism, or fascination with childhood imagery and role-playing. This lost generation, which is now parenting the students that Sarah and the Cap students encountered, still place incredible aesthetic constraints on the emerging generation, but the standards are shifting.

Sarah describes one sign that she saw in the subway, depicting a young girl putting glittery make-up on in a bathroom, while an old lady peered in at her, snarling, “because you're not supposed to put make-up on in public.” The sign said, “Please do it at home.” To her, it meant: Old people don't like it, so don't do it. The faces of the older generation are drawn in cartoon style with round, staring eyes, reminding people of the respectful way in which they should approach the older generation, while also suggesting that they are always being watched and evaluated. The men experience this pressure as well, through signs which show cartoons of scattered beer cans and drunken men on the trains; all the while, the older generation looks on and the message remains – “Please do it at home.”

This social pressure has a poster child, however, or rather, a poster princess. Crown Princess Masako was born the daughter of a diplomat, and educated at Harvard and Oxford. She was fluent in many languages and was employed by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she met Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, to name a few. Eventually she met the Crown Prince in Tokyo, and after a lengthy courtship, they married. Though she had a successful life as a diplomat, the old traditions of the Japanese Imperial family proved powerful. “The royal family didn't want her to be a public figure because she was a woman. She is a huge figure of female oppression, and was originally a symbol of female empowerment, but the royal family just locked her away.” She was expected to bear a son, a legal heir to the throne, but instead had a daughter, Princess Aiko. In 2005, the Prime Minister of Japan proposed that women be allowed the throne, in order to sustain the lineage. It is still contested, however. Princess Masako has been in hiding since 2002 due to emotional troubles, reminiscent of the hikikomori.

The Monastery

One of Sarah's last stops was at a traditional Zen monastery, just for one night. In her cold, elegant room with the tatomi mat on the floor, the one that would serve as a proper practitioner's entire world, used for meditating, eating and sleeping, she sat with her attendant monk, who was “very cute.”

“He gave me this children's book ... it's called Come and Play With Me.” The book told of a young girl who chased a grasshopper, trying to play with it. The grasshopper escaped from the brash girl, however, and this cycle went on with other animals, one after another. Finally, she sat down beside the water to watch the ripples fade. As she grew silent, the animals began to creep around, slowly, until they rested against her.

“When you sit still, things happen; don't try to chase it and grasp it,” Sarah explains. “In our culture, we are taught to learn and always progress and attain things.” The monks instruction for her own meditation session was “at first to be passive, to let it happen, and don't focus too much...”

She thought it was good advice. It stayed with her throughout her last days of the trip.


Her biggest lesson, somewhat ruefully wrought, was “forgetting about myself and my own needs and my own individuality. I really learned that in a big, big way because I held onto that so much.” Though she wrestled with her own conflicting judgments about her experience, she had peered through many of the stereotypes that had marred her initial impressions.

“It was a useful thing for me, because I got over myself and saw how petty that was. There were certain times that you need to stand up for things, but there was this expectation of sharing our own culture as well.”

She found the only way to really understand the way that Japan worked was to embrace it.

“People wanted to know about you. We met a few girls who tried to [understand] our culture, knowing you're outgoing and outspoken, so [they tried to emulate that]. Sometimes it was awkward and cute; they were trying to be 'honest', like we do in our culture,” she laughs at the memory of one particular friend.

“Even though I knew hugs weren't allowed, I thought, this is the final goodbye and you're really special and it was like she thought: 'Okay, I know that they do this and I know how to do this so I'm going to just go for it and [smoosh].' You could see, for her, it was awkward and exciting. But then I hugged her friend and she didn't know what to do and then I apologized to her and said 'I'm really sorry, but this is just what we do in our culture when we say goodbye and we're not going to see each other for a long time.'”

Sarah plans to continue studying Japanese at UBC and hopes to visit Japan again very soon. She also hopes to return her course books to the library someday. For more information on the Japan Award at Capilano U, see

// Kevin Murray

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