Street of Woman,Road of Men

Saitama now has its very own multiplex cinema. As anyone who has heard of Kurosawa (or at least Godzilla) knows, movies have been an important part of Japanese culture for decades. The multiplex, however, is a very recent development. The one here in Saitama was opened by Warner Brothers just a few months ago.

One of the promotions they’re using to lure customers inside is a weekly “Ladies’ Night” during which women can see a show for a relatively cheap 1,000 yen (US$8.60 or 7.57 Euros) instead of the usual 1,800 yen (US$15.50 or 13.63 Euros).

Not being eligible for this discount myself, I had forgotten all about it until one night a few weeks ago when I was walking down the street and found myself in the midst of a large crowd that had apparently just gotten out of a movie. I often walk on this particular street at night and usually find it dark and deserted. It felt odd to suddenly be sharing it with hundreds of people.

There was something else about the crowd that was a little odd, though it took me a moment to put my finger on it. They were all women. I looked to my right. Women. I looked to my left. Women. I looked up the street and down the block. Women, women everywhere! There was only one man present. Me.

For there to be many ladies present on Ladies・Night was not remarkable, but for there to be ONLY ladies was a little weird. Where were the men in these women’s lives? Didn’t they have husbands, brothers, male friends? It was 9:30 at night, so there would have been plenty of time for the men to get home from work before the movie started.

And for that matter, why weren’t the women at work themselves?


This scene reminded me of another crowd that I had encountered on another day and another street. Last summer I was strolling along the Inner Moat of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, noting the similarities between that area and the Mall in Washington, DC. For example, both spots are green oases in the center of bustling national capitals. Physically, the white dome of the US Capitol Building looms over one end of the Mall just as the jagged pyramid of the Japanese Diet Building dominates the skyline near the moat. (The Palace itself is mostly hidden by trees.) On sunny days, both places are crowded with bureaucrats who have decided to spend their lunch hours jogging instead of eating. In Tokyo the crowd also includes a lot of business executives because there are numerous corporate headquarters nearby.

As my attention turned to the joggers themselves, though, the similarities between Tokyo and Washington quickly broke down. The Japanese joggers circle the moat in a counterclockwise direction, so on my clockwise stroll I’d estimate that I came face-to-face with about 200 of them in 15 minutes. Their high degree of uniformity gave me pause. This being Japan, a complete lack of racial diversity was not surprising, but it didn’t stop there. A handful of brave souls had ventured out in lycra, but almost everyone else had on the same basic outfit: a new-looking two-toned (usually dark) track suit with piping. These suits were all made of shiny high-tech fabric. The cheap-but-practical cotton sweats you might expect to see on US joggers were totally absent. There were only two basic haircuts in the entire crowd: flat-top and mop-top, although the mop-tops were more likely to have a touch of gray in them.

But the most remarkable similarity among the 200 or so jogging bureaucrats and executives I saw that day was this: of that number, exactly one was a woman. One.


The Japanese have a word for women like her: ko-iten, which means “one red dot.” This refers to the lone woman in an otherwise all-male environment or situation. When I was walking down the street near the movie theater, I had unwittingly become a kuro-iten, or “one black dot,” which refers to the lone man in a female milieu. Ko-iten is the more well-known of the two terms. Presumably, this is because traditional male preserves, such as business and politics, are more desirable and interesting than are female islands of privilege such as Ladies・Night at the multiplex.

Last week I was riding the train into Tokyo before sunrise when I looked around me and realized that every single one of the approximately 30 passengers in my car was a man. A week or two before that, I had brunch at a pancake house with a friend who described the place as a hangout for “middle-aged housewives.” I looked around and saw that every single customer in the restaurant appeared to fit that description — except us.

We’re all heard stories about Japanese salarymen who are strangers to their own families because of the excessive overtime they work. I’ve been tempted to dismiss these tales as exaggerated, but finding myself in the midst of mono-gender crowds so often lately has led me to wonder just how separate the worlds of Japanese men and Japanese women really are.


To delve into this question, I interviewed some Japanese adults on the question of “retirement divorce.” This is a phenomenon in which a married woman feels abandoned by a husband who routinely works late and on Saturdays. She eventually gets used to his absence, so when he retires and is suddenly home ALL THE TIME it comes as a bit of a shock. She may even realize that he has become a stranger over the years, and that she is not comfortable sharing her home with a stranger. Her space has been invaded. The marriage ends.

Two of the women I asked about this phenomenon reacted to the idea with such enthusiasm that I began to worry that they might be contemplating it themselves, so I changed the subject. A third woman said that she had never heard of such a thing and didn’t believe it could happen. I decided to tread lightly with her, too.

A man I interviewed attributed retirement divorce to the fact that women are “clever” enough to wait until their husbands have just received a big retirement bonus. They hit him while he is relatively rich.

The same man also told me, though, that men often get what is coming to them because they do nothing to maintain the quality of their marriage. For example, he said, many men never say “I love you” after their wedding day.

Well, if not “I love you,” then what DO they say? According to one popular stereotype, a tired man coming home from work has three little words for his wife: “Furo. Meshi. Neru.” That is, “Bath. Dinner. Sleep.” A rather perfunctory set of demands. Like most stereotypes, this is — I hope — exaggerated, but one woman I spoke to said that her husband is even worse. According to her, when he gets home he is so tired that SHE is the one to say “Furo? Meshi? Neru?” and he will nod or shake his head in reply. He spends his Sundays lying on the floor in front of the TV, as motionless as a cocoon.

Another woman’s retired husband still visits his old office two days a week, and those are the days she likes best because she doesn’t have to make his lunch. I suggested that maybe he should make her lunch once in a while when he was home all day. She gave me a charming smile to show that she appreciated my foreign sense of humor.


Conventional wisdom says that one way couples can keep their marriages vital by going on dates like they did in the days of their courtship. Why not a trip to the movies? This brings us right back to the multiplex.

Looking at the posters on display outside of the theater this week, there are a variety of choices. The Chinese actor who plays the title role in “The First Emperor” glares fiercely out at passerby with a larger-than-life scowl. The poster for “The Truman Show” features a close-up of Jim Carey’s innocently sleeping face. George Clooney dominates his “Out of Sight” poster in a dark, tough-guy profile.

Then there’s the Japanese movie “Shomuni,” about a quartet of ladies in tight skirts and high heels. The actresses who share the lead in that film appear on their movie poster only from the waist down.

On second thought, maybe a dinner date would be a better idea.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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