Japan Has a Cute Problem

How the pink apron keeps women down.

Sophie Knight
Published in
3 min readDec 11, 2014

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By Sophie Knight

When Japanese scientist Haruko Obokata published a groundbreaking research paper on stem cells earlier this year, the media were thrilled — but not because of her work. They were more interested in the traditional Japanese housewife’s apron that she wore, instead of the lab coat you might have expected.

Obokata’s dress choice was savvy. The apron, a symbol of domesticity, made her obvious intelligence more palatable in Japan, where being “cute”, or kawaii is the only social currency women have.

Japan’s reverence for kawaii, and its close association with femininity, demands that women speak in a high, singsong voice, that they use childlike gestures and expressions, and that they never, ever challenge a man. Those who go against the grain by exhibiting ambition, brains or strong opinions are disparaged for being too “aggressive.”

So, Obokata’s apron deflected attention from her scientific prowess, and thanks to the media’s efforts, became a woman who just happened to be a scientist: a Barbie with a pipette.

To be kawaii is to be vulnerable, weak and powerless. “Cute” is the opposite of capable. Sure, it’s easy to like — seeing cute things ignite our protective instincts and trigger the release of endorphins, which is why we spend so many hours watching furry baby animals rolling around helplessly on YouTube. But cute is hard to respect.

As a result, Japan treats its women abysmally. Ranked 105 out of 136 countries for gender equality by the World Economic Forum, the country is constantly reminded by economists and foreign commentators like the IMF’s Christine Lagarde that the low proportion of women in the workforce, specifically executive positions, has contributed to its two-decade economic malaise.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is optimistic that his “Womenomics” project will spur more women to join the workforce and rise to more senior positions. But merely building more nurseries and forcing companies to report on their number of female directors won’t unravel the deeply sexist attitudes about how women should act and what social roles they are capable of playing.

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Sophie Knight
Matter
Writer for

Freelance writer and journalist in Amsterdam. Anthro background, interested in urbanity, culture, race, and climate change. Fluent in Japanese and Dutch.