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.
As the strongest wave of feminism in decades sweeps through the West, Japan is well overdue a movement of its own. But worryingly, many Japanese women don’t seem to want to be empowered. Like Obokata, many embrace kawaii, playing dumb, clumsy and clueless to gain approval. A third of women aspire to be housewives. Over 70 percent quit their jobs when they have children.
Who can blame them, when they’re only trusted with making tea or answering the phone? In corporate Japan most women are treated like decorative robots. No wonder their ambitions atrophy.
Obokata hung up her apron in April: It turned out her research was disproven, and her papers were retracted. Her supervisor even, tragically, committed suicide to “take responsibility.” But while her fall from grace caused outrage and sadness in the wider scientific world, in Japan, it was easy to comprehend: Pretty girls shouldn’t mess with science.