In last week’s column, I wrote about the refreshing lack of a racial angle in the media coverage of the so-called “balloon boy” incident. Just as we were going to press though, I came across an article on the ABC News Website that places a large amount of the blame for the incident on Japanese culture, by bringing up one of the most enduring stereotypes about Asians.
The “balloon boy,” Falcon Heene’s, mother, Mayumi is a Japanese national. In the article, family friend Barbara Slusser — and by extension ABC for not mitigating her comments with an alternate perspective — says that Mayumi’s “Japanese background has kept her in a subservient relationship with her husband and three boys.”
Slusser goes on to state, “she’s from Japan. She told me stories about her life in Japan with her father. He was very overbearing and abusive.”
“It’s a cultural thing, [her husband Richard Heene] leveraged that knowledge,” another family friend Scott Stevens said in the article.
Defending against this kind of stereotyping is a tricky. For one, I’m not an expert on Japanese culture by any means. Second, there are legitimate issues of gender inequality in Japan and violence and abuse of women that would be undermined by simply saying, “in terms of gender, Japan is about the same as the U.S.”
In many ways, things are worse in Japan, spousal abuse is criminalized less strongly and victims are often told by friends, family and authority to endure the violent mistreatment. On TV, a male character can slap a woman and still be considered the hero of the show.
But at the same time, America has a cartoonish view of sexism in Asia. A common misconception is that in Japanese culture women are regarded as inferior to men, regardless of their other social positions. In the ABC article, Slusser says that the Heene kids run wild in the household because they are all male and their mother “considers herself less than… them.”
In the West’s fantasy version of Asia, male children boss around mothers, aunts and older sisters because they are female. Same thing for rape and spousal abuse: the man thinks of himself as superior to womankind and therefore justified in beating up any woman any time he feels like it.
And while it is true that Japan is a male-dominated society, just as ours is, sexism and misogyny is just as nuanced there as it is here. While slapping a woman in certain situations might be more socially acceptable in Japan than United States, I don’t think the same may be said for beating and/or psychologically dominating/abusing a partner.
Studies show that abusive relationships run on the same psychological engine pretty much worldwide. According to Women’s eNews, in both the United States and Japan, roughly a third of all the women murdered are murdered by their husbands.
The cultural difference is not as much in the causes of the abuse, but in the response.
A woman in Japan might be told to bear abuse in a marriage, but she is probably not told, “a man can beat you up anytime he wants because he is superior.” Instead they get, “your family unit is worth preserving and to sacrifice for that is commendable.” I believe it has more to do with the value placed on gaman and martyrdom.
As for adult women being bossed around by male children, I’ve never seen any evidence of that happening widely in Japan. If anything, a Japanese housewife appears to have more power in the home than a traditional American one.
“In any East Asian culture you will find that women have a very tangible power within the household” Griffith University professor Sandra Buckely writes in “Broken Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminism.” Buckley continues, “Japanese women look at the low status attributed to the domestic labor of housewives in North America and feel that this amounts to a denigration of a fundamental social role — whether it is performed by a man or a woman.”
She writes that, far from feeling that they are more powerful than their mothers, many Japanese sons seek the approval of their mothers so much that “it almost seems that the strongest motivation is to please the mother rather than individual success.”
Wives usually have final say over most decisions concerning the household, including finances. Japanese husbands often hand their entire paycheck over to their wives, who come up with a budget and then give the husband a daily allowance.
All of this is far from the image that ABC paints of Japanese mothers being powerless to all males.
The article condemns the husband Richard, as the jerk he is for buying into stereotypes about Japanese women, but at the same time does nothing to dispel those stereotypes, and in that way, the article does more harm than good. The perpetuating stereotypes may cause some to look down on Japanese culture and others to seek an Asian partner in hopes she will be submissive. In the article, it explains that Mayumi’s father abused her and, instead of blaming her willingness to take abuse on her father, it puts the blame on Japanese culture as a whole.
Regardless, the stereotype may help Mayumi. She has gotten her own legal representation separate from her husband and, after the abuse she’s suffered at his hands I hope she at least divorces him. Perhaps she can leverage America’s image of Japan for her own sake, at the expense of the rest of us.
Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He currently edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s magazine.