Awkwardly Sexist Signs on Japanese Trains

Japan is a little bit sexist. It’s not so obvious and in-your-face (like what I would witness from time to time in America), it’s more subtle. A recent study by the World Economic Forums  puts Japan at spot number 101 (at of the 135 countries surveyed) in gender equality. Japanese politicians are split on this issue.

On one hand, there is a declining birthrate (and marriage rate) putting the country at a crisis. As a result, some prefecture offices have begun printing and sending “Women’s Notebooks” that inform women about the dangers of putting off marriage (for the sake of their career, freedom, etc). These “Women’s Notebooks” are meant to encourage motherhood. They also claim that women who reject marriage for their career (or delay marriage) are very selfish people (source: my husband’s sister got one of these in the mail and showed it to us).

On the other hand, as I said before, Japan is a little bit sexist – especially in the workplace. One of the women surveyed said “In the workplace women have… higher working hours, face unacceptable sexual harassment, lack respect from male coworkers, are often never promoted, receive far lesser pay, and are expected to serve the men in the company.” When a woman gives birth, she is expected to take her full 3 years maternity leave; Japan believes that the child should be held and doted on by the mother for the first three years of their life. Even after the child is three years old, the mother is still expected to do basically all of the raising. Most of them never end up returning back to work. Knowing that having a child will permanently end your career is a major reason women have been choosing not to get married or have children.

As an American, of course a lot of my views are ethnocentric (especially towards what I consider “normal” – ie the Western way).

But enough with that.

I ride the train a lot. And on the train, I usually end up looking at some of the posters, since they are changed pretty regularly (at least once a month, sometimes more). Sometimes the Japanese trains signs are funny, sometimes they are a bit offensive and sexist. I saw all three of these recently- these are my top three Japanese train signs that I dislike:

3. Beware of Sexual Harassment:

Anti harassment (chikan) poster on a Tokyo train

The sign itself is not offensive. It has actually been proven to decrease train-wide sexual harassment, by asking passengers to be wary of sexual harassment AND report people who are touching women inappropriately on the trains.

The sign is good. But the fact that this sign is necessary, is a bit disturbing.

Japan also has Women-only trains. As the name suggests, these trains are only for women (and small children/very old men) during the crowded morning rush. While still crowded, these trains offer a sanctuary where women do not have to be crushed up against unknown, strange men who might touch them inappropriately. Instead they are pressed up against other women.

While this a great solution to a serious concern (Japan has a rampant problem with inappropriate touching on trains, by Chikan), it only alleviates the symptoms, not solving the original problem.  You can put women in a car so they are safe, but that doesn’t address the fact that nearly once a week, you read in the newspaper about some new pervert who got caught inappropriately touching a woman on the train or a man who got caught hiding faceup in a gutter and looking up women’s skirts near a women’s college (no joke, for more on the story, click here).

I am one of the only people in my friend group who has NOT been touched inappropriately by a chikan on a crowded train. I even have some adult male friends who were inappropriately touched as a small child by an older man on the train. Think about that for a little bit.

2. The Cure for Uncomfortable Work Shoes: Relaxing at Home

Sexist funny train signs Engrish Japan

Ignoring the fact that women face sexual harassment and a lack of respect in the workplace, there is the irrational expectation that women must look presentable all the time. This rears its ugly face in Japanese high heels. Or more specifically, the “rules” that ever Japanese woman must wear high heels to work (flats or “kitten heels” are a no-no).

I have an internship in Tokyo. I love my job; since it is a start-up company, they have much less rigid dress codes. While most of the women still wear high heels all day, they are not required too.

Other companies are not as lucky. In fact, the Japanese art of shukatsu (job hunting), women are required to wear a specific brand and style of high heels. Flat shoes (or lower heels) are not permitted; if you don’t wear the correct shoes, you will not get the job.

Some high heels are comfortable. The pumps that job hunting and freshman employees are required to wear are not. I dislike the fact that women are required to wear high heels all day, even at jobs that require a lot of standing/moving around. You can still look professional without the heels.

1. Superheros Can’t be Fat!

Sexist funny train signs Engrish Japan

This is one of my least favorite advertisement campaigns. Last summer they had four or five variations of this obese superhero plastered across trains in Japan. It is for a diet pill (of sorts, it’s actually a diet drink). It runs under the assumption that superheros can’t be fat.

One of the things that a lot of visiting foreigners will say is “Japanese women are so beautiful.” They are. Nearly every woman you pass on the street is thin, well put together, and has a nicely assembled face of makeup. One of the “pros” of Japan, I guess, is that there is one standard of beauty. Thin, pretty face, delicate. If you want to be “beautiful” there is a very real standard you can diet/plastic surgery yourself to look like.

Perfection has a face – and seems to be attainable. All you need is some self-control, dieting, and makeup.

Japanese media is filled with pictures of perfect women, with flawless skin, smooth hair, and skinny frames. There is very little variation of “perfect.” Everyone wants perfect. If you’re not perfect, you are judged.

At 5’6 and 120lbs, I am considered slightly underweight in America (but still in the healthy range). My Japanese doctor insists that I am a bit overweight, and it would be healthy for me to lose more weight.

I don’t want to.

I think that a whole range of body types are attractive – everyone is allowed to have their preferences.


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About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

33 Comments on Awkwardly Sexist Signs on Japanese Trains

  1. Dear god I can’t imagine what they’d think of me… at 5’4″ and 65kg (no idea what that is in lb) I barely scrape in as “average” by Australian standards…

  2. DUDE, am I the only one who saw the fat superheroine picture and got really excited?? Can she be real, please? That’s awesome. Forget the weight loss nonsense. This is my new favorite superheroine.

    • She’s an already existing character named Cutey Honey. Her old look is a bit curvier.

  3. sometimes you just need to stand your ground about not giving into the ‘socially acceptable norms of where you are now. Sit down and talk, make it clear that you cannot and will not stay at home to cook and clean. and that he should contribute. you are a team! god knows ive had several of those conversations haha

  4. Minnie Brandmann // 13 August, 2014 at 9:55 pm //

    I really share your opinion. I got so mad when I saw a show in tv where geinoujin men judged a woman because she was working all day long, the apartment wasn`t clean and there was no dinner prepaired and everyone was telling that women were supposed to cook, stay at home and clean the whole day, look beautiful and don`t talk too much after work `cause the men is tired and wants to rest.

    I`m 44kg with 158cm and my coworkers told me I was fat and that I should eat less. Also my boyfriend is complaining. Remember people in Germany who were complaining because I was too thin XD

    • Hi Minnie,

      I’m completely with you. When we first moved back to Japan, my husband and I used to fight all the time about housework. He would come home from work and be like “why are there dishes in the sink?” or “this is dirty” or “Why didn’t you do laundry?”
      I freelance full-time from home, sometimes I lock myself in the office before he leaves for work and don’t get out until he comes home. He had a difficult time accepting the fact that I’m not the same as his friend’s wives (who work 0-10 hours a week, part-time at a clothing store, sit at home all day and clean/cook).

      Some of our mutual friends have made comments on how I’m a bad wife, etc because I don’t do all the cooking/cleaning.
      It makes me so angry. Ugh.
      Thankfully my husband has changed his views since then. But still. This culture drives me CRAZY sometimes…

      • I know I’m chiming in on comments made six months ago, but both Minnie and Grace’s experiences feel so relevant to my own. I’m an American man married to a Japanese woman who is very open about her dislike for traditional Japanese gender roles. Fine by me, as I’m not a fan of them either. However, so strong is the power of those expectations, that she still feels the need to apologize when she feels she isn’t fulfilling them adequately. We’re a team, and try to work together when it comes to housekeeping, meal preparation, etc. Depending on the busyness of our work schedules, sometimes one of us has to bear more of the load, but I consider this normal for two people living together. What gets me, however, is how often I hear her “fessing up” to her female friends about how she’s “not a good wife”. Especially since we live in Japan, I think she still feels pressure to conform to the pervasive and somewhat insidious image of “the good wife”. (I apologize for using a lot of scare quotes, but I think they’re appropriate.)

        We could both stand to improve our cooking and house keeping abilities, but it’s a mutual effort, and not something she needs to shoulder alone, just because she happens to be a woman and a wife.

  5. Disgruntled // 26 June, 2014 at 1:58 pm //

    Fat people take up more space and in general require greater resource upkeep. Given scarcity in a limited world, it is arguably inconsiderate to be fat (or to choose to remain fat):

  6. Passerby // 11 May, 2014 at 12:23 am //

    If the relationship of men and women in the USA is so great, why do you have such a high depression rate among women, and such a high divorce rate, I understand your comments but please do not show your ethnocentrism. Each culture has its history and rules and I hate it when Americans who only have 200 years of culture start trying to force there way on everybody. In Japan Most women want to be the way they are, most women want to be housewives, etc. To pursue a career is not always the smart thing to do, Happiness can be decided by each individual and it doesnt seem like many American women are happy.

    • I’m not saying that wanting to be a housewife is wrong – I have a lot of Japanese female friends who are “husband hunting” right now because they want to quit their jobs. Working long hours isn’t for everyone – and it can make you pretty miserable (if you don’t LOVE to work).

      What I don’t like about Japan, though, is that they make it very, VERY difficult to be a female in the work place. If you want to quit, get married, and have a family, that’s totally fine. If you don’t want to quit when you get married/have kids, that should also be fine. In Japan, it’s very difficult to be a working woman with children. THAT’S what I find sexist.

    • Look here. The divorce rate amongst American’s is high. Has it crossed your mind that the same capitalism that you enjoy and embrace is your culture might lead to the same thing? Culture aside, how can you limit ambition and productivity of any person and NOT have a one sided argument. Walk in another’s shoes who attempts to understand your’s first. American women are victims to capitalism, and an idea of an object. I’m more than excited to see such animated women think for themselves, because hate it or love it culture continues to EVOLVE everywhere.

      Don’t worry Texas, Colorado has your back. (Even if you guys have trouble driving in the mountains.)

      She did something write (pun) with this blog, which is inspiration through experience to think for yourself.


    • I’m pretty sure depression rates are higher for men in the US. And whether you like it or not, Japan has a very sexist culture.

    • In all these blog posts I’ve read of Mrs. Mineta’s, she seems very much the veteran world traveler and extraordinarily considerate/accepting of other cultures. Nor does she boast about the United States, other than being a Texan – but having pride of your roots is nothing to feel shame for.

      In no way is what she wrote disrespectful, it was an observation and her opinion. I find it disheartening all the pressure for women to be perfect and “on” at all times, the women who want to be successful in their career shouldn’t be shamed or feel like merely a vessel. Nor should the women who want to become housewives should be shamed either. The culture where I am from is different, women who would rather stay with their children and not work are generally dismissed and looked down upon.

  7. Anonymous // 7 March, 2014 at 12:27 am //

    I’m Chinese and not Japanese but one thing I can say as a woman is that East Asian cultures are sexist as hell and all Asian women have to put up with a ton of sh*t from sexist, male-dominated, primitive cultural attitudes towards women. That is why outside of Asia Asian women avoid dating Asian men and why in Japan the marriage and birth rates are in decline. Asian women have been abused, kicked around, enslaved and treated like, dogs for millenia. That is why in the U.S. many of us date and marry outside the race.

  8. Sexism is an issue and I would see how the third advertisement may have been offensive, but I do think you are overdoing your part. Even if you don’t have to wear heels at work, many women enjoy wearing heels, because it makes them taller, more sophisticated, it helps with posture, etc. So I really think that it’s an exaggeration saying it’s sexist. And the first one? How is that sexist?

    • Katerina // 14 May, 2015 at 11:46 pm //

      Over a year late but anyways: it’s sexist because women HAVE TO wear heels even if they don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable or shouldn’t for health reasons. If they don’t they won’t get a job. Heels are fantastic, I love them, but it’s still sexist to make people wear a type of clothing or footwear that has extremely gendered connotations in order to find employment.

  9. In 15+ years in Japan this white man met many, many unhappy white women in Japan and 99.99 % of them left for all kinds of reasons (they said) but most of it probably could have been boiled down to sexism … the married gaijin women stay of course, and most of them are happy enough I suppose but they have a rough time and bouts of depression are not uncommon (they tell me) … if you are a gaijin woman and are going to stay long-term in Japan you will just have to cowboy-up and take it and don’t let it make you bitter …. the coping strategy of most if not all gaijin wives is to leave Japan for extended periods of time and leave the hardworking salaryman husband behind to fend for himself.

  10. Kathryn san // 7 December, 2013 at 9:27 am //

    I have worked in Japan for almost two years. This continues to occur here because the culture here is shame-based. Japanese people will go to extremes to avoid embarrassment, including embarrassing others. It is fascinating. However, it is also terribly frustrating, and this is a prime example why. The women will not react on the train. That would draw attention to them, and they do not want that. They would be so ashamed if everyone looked at them. Also, they are so incredibly polite and kind that they would not want to embarrass or shame anyone else, either. (I would hope that is not why they are staying quiet. I am merely pointing out how they are wired.). This is how they are raised. So I am not at all surprised that the women do not react. Of course, that is why the men continue to do it, because they know they can get away with it. Obviously, it is getting reported, and some are taking the issue seriously, or there would have been no posters made. This is a terrible problem that I don’t think will stop until the women react OUT LOUD on the train. Sadly, I do not think that will happen any time soon…

    • I can completely agree with that statement. It is incredibly frustrating – and it reminds me of something that happened in my first couple months in Tokyo. A drunk old man was on the train, running into everyone and being a problem. A young, college age guy tried to get him off the train (to sober up with the station attendant) and the old man slapped him. Then he got right back on the train, knocking over another woman.

      Two stops later, he threw up on three ladies sitting near him. It was awful.

      But even though everyone knew the old man needed to get off the train, no one said anything.

      Honestly, I don’t know what (if anything) could stop this from happening. I wish there was a silent alarm, security cameras, or something else that might deter chikan behavior without causing women to embarrass to single themselves out.

      Do you have any ideas?

  11. I feel you’re point about superheroes not being fat is far off.

    Superheroes represent the ideal perfect human being, flawless and always presentable. This is why male super heroes always have body builder bodies and hearthrope faces….in truth there isn’t any real difference of standar between someone like Wonder Woman and super man.

  12. Asssh…I hope for us gaijin woman is going to be a little different. I cant bear high heels even when I go clubbing for a few hours (since indeed my shoes kill me most of the time)
    Seriously !!!! One of the MOST MODERNIZED and futuristic country, but still they think in this way… Bah.
    I am leaving soon for Japan, but i am really hating a lot of thinks, already -.-

    • I wouldn’t worry about it… I mean living in Japan definitely makes me more self-conscious, but it is ok to not wear heels (and I NEVER wear heels out clubbing. Too much work).

      But yeah. Women in Tokyo wear high heels all the time. I don’t understand it.

  13. Your fiance sounds like the perfect man. :-)

  14. It already makes me sick to see women portrayed as sexual objects in media (films, video games, comics/manga and anime) but on top of that they treat women that way in Japan. The world needs feminists especially Japan. Japanese women do not realise that they are being treated as objects and slaves because they are brainwashed from a young age by parents, media, dolls, cartoons etc to look a certain way and that it is the norm. Women should be seen and treated like humans that have intelligence, independence, strength and high character. They shouldn’t be seen for their body, which results in sexism.

    There must be a way to make Japanese women aware of this through certain events or University talks in Japan for women. Not sure, just a thought.

    • Japan deeply needs feminists. It really does. It is depressing and frustrating to watch; I had a foreign friend do an internship for a couple weeks, only to quit when her coworkers continued to make inappropriate comments/hit on her (when she made it clear she wasn’t interested). The entire thing was eye opening (for her).

      Japan has a very specific standard of beauty – and I’ve seen too many people paint on their face and starve themselves trying to achieve it. I like diversity. I don’t buy into the “plastic doll” model… and wish more people diversified from the model (not to mention the price of clothes, makeup, surgery, etc). There was one “gender equality in politics” class at my Japanese university, but it was a joke. It didn’t go much into what women should do (demand rights, diverge from the “ideals”) – instead it just talked about notable women in politics (which, you know, is good, but…)

      • I feel really bad for your foreign friend. Those co-workers should be ashamed of themselves. I hope they realised it was wrong of them to behave in that way after they saw her quit. But it still shouldn’t even have got to that stage where she had to quit. In my opinion, women should come together at work and discuss different approaches to tackle this harassment/disrespect/inequality and then have a meeting with their manager/boss about it. There are plenty of ways to get this message through to male co-workers such as informational posters could be put up on how to treat women, or emails could be circulated with this information. Truthfully, Japanese men should know all this or least be taught this in school (which isn’t really something to be taught but it seems like they need it).

        Media must play a big part in this because anime is popular in Japan as it is everywhere else, but that’s Japan’s main entertainment on TV for all ages (including adults), right? And they show groping and women’s private bodily parts openly a lot in anime and treat it as humorous even though it is highly disrespectful, insulting and disgusting. I stopped watching anime because of that. It even put me off from ever even wanting to go to Japan for holiday.

        The thing is men want women to be obsessed with the way they look (“Beauty”). So, when women give in to this they lose more of their rights and equal status. The further they are from “Beauty” the more closer they are to intelligence and strength, thus gaining rights and equal status simultaneously; because they would achieve more in society and be recognised for their intelligence and not for their looks. I don’t think every man in the world or every Japanese man is like this (because I’m not, being a feminist and all), so there must be some who respect women for who they are and are disgusted of the disrespect shown to them.

        I’m not surprised that the gender equality class didn’t go in the right direction. I think men would want to avoid women asking for those rights and as you said diverge from their ideals. It seems like men want control over women. I think I know what kind of class given to them could help them open their eyes because in my religion equality plays a big part in it. Both Sikh men and women have same roles and status and Sikh women do not wear make-up, jewellery or shave. The reason is because we’re taught to look beyond ourselves and be concerned more for good actions (actions that benefit others and our soul). In our history, even had Sikh women fight in wars alongside Sikh men against oppression and we had Sikh women as leaders leading armies into battle too and making changes. Anyway, any class would do as long as it gives examples of feminist women from the past and now who played high roles in society. So, if Japanese women saw how much respect men can give to women and how big of a role women can play in society it might push them to strive for their rights and to live how they want to, instead of how men want them to.

        I have to admit though I do find it admirable that the Japanese women are avoiding marriage/children so that they can continue with their career. But if Japanese men do not like this then they are to blame. It’s not right for them to place the care of a child just on the woman as if the husband is incapable of taking care of the child. Women don’t exist to be this “plastic doll” model, or a housewife or a mother.

        Anyway, I think I rambled on a bit too much lol

        • I really agree with what you’ve said. It’s a well though out and relevant argument.
          My fiance is Japanese – dating (and agreeing to marry) me has brought a great deal of criticism from his friends. I’ve been dubbed as “too scary” or “too bossy” or “too intense” – like those are bad characteristics for a woman to have.
          I don’t understand or respect the docile nature a lot of Japanese women have. I think it is wonderful that Japan as a whole seems to put the society over the individual needs – but they should not simply abandon the individual needs of a person. And I do not like the fact that women seem to be at the bottom of society.

          I did feel awful for my foreign friend. The whole experience should not have happened. It’s times like these when I seriously wonder if I want to live in Japan…
          But my fiance respects women. He thinks housework should be split equally (and actually loves cooking and cleaning, so he does most of the domestic work). He does not mind being a stay-at-home dad. His friends from school and work tease him quite a bit, but I think we have been a positive influence on them.
          Having a women in charge is not “weird.”
          I think women in Japan need to learn that it is ok to be strong. It is acceptable to not follow the standard of “beauty” and it is admirable to strive for your best, with or without a man by your side. You shouldn’t have to pick between having a career or having kids (my mother has a PhD and works full time, my father did a lot of raising of the children).

          • It’s cool though if you did stay in Japan because you’re basically an example of how a woman should be like. So other Japanese women will see this and may adopt your character and lifestyle. No matter what, people will be learning from you even if they find you different. Your fiancé is pretty cool and it is actually rare to find people like that. It’s just weird though that his friends cannot understand different personalities, especially one that is strong and with an elevated ideal.

            Women should have a strong personality (not just men) but I understand if a woman is just shy because she’s not purposely behaving shyly. In Japan, it seems like the Japanese women think is feminine-like to act cute-ish, shy and subservient. I totally agree, having a woman in charge is awesome. You have nice and inspiring parents.

  15. It isn’t just a ‘little’ sexist, it’s very sexist. Promotions come very slow for women in the workplace even if they perform really well

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