TOKYO — It’s not just that Japanese women have a hard time leaning in. It also turns out that it’s even harder for Japanese men to lean out.
Or that’s a conclusion that could be drawn from the controversy over "Himozairu," a short-lived Japanese cartoon that revolved around unemployed young men who try to make themselves more attractive to professional women by teaching themselves how to do housework.
Akiko Higashimura, a well-known Japanese manga artist, has withdrawn her new series after only two installments, because of criticism that the comic was demeaning to men.
What did it do to put men down? It showed a bunch of guys in T-shirts learning how to do things like laundry, cooking and washing dishes. Together with a little tidying up of their own images, this transformed them into the kinds of men that career women would go for.
Now, in the West, there’s a robust discussion going on about gender roles and career. Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter, two professional American women who’ve put this conversation into the U.S. agenda, have their differences but both espouse the importance of having a supportive partner.
Three years after Slaughter wrote a magazine cover story entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” her husband, Princeton professor Andrew Moravcsik, wrote his own piece called “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First,” arguing that more men should be willing to take on the primary parenting role.
But here in Japan, where gender roles remain deeply ingrained, many women have trouble maintaining careers after having babies — sometimes because of the demands of child care and sometimes because of a phenomenon called “mata hara,” short for “maternity harassment,” at work.
Men are expected to get good stable jobs and work long hours moving slowly up the corporate or bureaucratic ladder.
So Higashimura’s suggestion that men with few skills might want to appeal to women with plenty of them was close to sacrilegious. Nevermind that the series was semi-biographical.
Higashimura based the cartoon on the experiences of her male assistant and other men around her, and the series was intended to describe “what actually occur to them after getting such training,” the Asahi Shimbun reported.
“But her work came under fire from critics who accused her of looking down on her assistant and other men,” the paper wrote.
Here's a video with a weird, computerized voiceover explaining the controversy.
Amid a torrent of criticism, Higashimura, a well-known cartoonist who won the Cartoon Grand Prize this year for her autobiographical manga “Blah-blah-blah,” voluntarily withdrew the series.
“I was thinking to draw about real events in this piece, so I decided that I wouldn't be able to keep producing without facing everyone's response. I'd like to take time off and think of the future,” she wrote on Twitter amid the brouhaha.
Manga cartoons are huge in Japan, with everyone from salarymen to school kids reading comic books on the subway or as they walk down the street.
The first two installments of “Himozairu” had been in the monthly Morning Two magazine. But when fans picked up the latest edition, they did not find the third chapter. Instead, they found an apology from the publisher, Kodansha, to readers who were looking forward to the chapter.
When it launched the manga in August, the magazine had described the manga as: "No money, not popular, no job. Because I'm useless at best, I'll become a himo! The curtain rises on Akiko Higashimura's himo-man training dojo!"
A himo is a man who doesn't work and who is financially dependent on the women he goes out with, the Anime News Network reported in a story about the controversy.
Fans like “dethpoptokyo” were not happy that Higashimura had caved into the critics and took to Twitter to complain.
It seems that in Japan, even as the government promotes “womenomics,” there's no room for women to even dream about a world where men might whip up dinner and pick up their own socks.