TWO CUBIC METERS OF MALE SPACE :Capsule Hotels and Other Impediments to Female Success

It used to be that the uniform of a Tokyo policewoman consisted of a jacket, a shirt, a hat, and a skirt. This summer it was announced that they now have the option of wearing pants. Why? According to the Daily Yomiuri, it is because the female police officers of the future “may be” required to chase criminals.

May be? What are they supposed to do if they see a criminal now?


Earlier this year I saw a puzzling headline in my morning newspaper. At first glance it didn’t even look like news: “Fourth Female Mayor Elected.”
The fourth female mayor of what? I read on out of mild curiosity as to which Japanese city had elected four different women as its mayor. The story was about some obscure burg in western Japan that I had never heard of, and the woman in question was not its fourth mayor, but its first. However, she was the fourth female mayor in ALL OF JAPAN. Ever.
I never cease to be amazed.


In terms of opportunity, Japan is a man’s country. The opportunity to arrest criminals, the opportunity to run a government, the opportunity to control a corporation, and the opportunity to urinate in the street are all male privileges — although it is the last that is most commonly acted upon by the rank and file. If a guy wants to be on top while living in a non-theocracy, he can’t do much better than Japan.

Or can he? It has been argued, and with a fair degree of reason, that a sexist social system is as harmful to men as it is to women. It is predominantly men who spend hours of their day, and years of their lives, packed like sardines into long-haul commuter trains. It is predominantly men who miss out on seeing their children grow up because they are never at home. It is predominantly men who are literally warehoused like surplus merchandise in “capsule hotels” after they work too late into the night. It is predominantly men who die of karoshi and job-stress suicide.

The flip side of sexism is that when one gender is belittled, the other is overburdened. But even this flip side has a flip side. Those capsule hotels, for instance. I’ve spent the night in two of them, and I was surprised to find that they were both actually nice places.


The price of a night in a capsule hotel seems to average about 3500 yen (33 dollars or 31 euros) — not bad for a night’s lodging in a big city. Customers pay at the counter on their way in and receive a towel, a locker key, and a yukata or set of pajamas. After securing their wallets, briefcases, or other valuables in the locker, it’s time to take a bath.

Though I can’t say if it’s typical, the New Leisure Center capsule hotel near Akabane station (in northeastern Tokyo) has an excellent bath. There are several different tubs with water of varying temperatures, and the coldest of them is fed by a large dragon’s head carved from granite. The water in the largest bath is a vibrant lime-green (infused with what, I don’t know) and a stone nymph sits on an island in its center. There’s a large sauna with a television in the wall, and the services of a legitimate masseuse are available for an additional fee.

The bath at the Capsule Inn near the east exit of Kawagoe station (in Saitama) is less spectacular. There are two tubs, hot and cold, and a TV-equipped sauna. One drawback of this bath is that the floor is made of a slick black stone that is treacherous when wet — which is always. It’s difficult to truly unwind when just walking across the room entails the risk of a slip and a skull fracture.

The baths at both places are connected to lavish dressing rooms. Long rows of marble sinks — probably fake marble — face wall-to-wall mirrors. Each sink has a chair, a hair dryer, and bottles of hair spray and hair tonic. Off to one side is an eerily glowing ultraviolet cabinet where shelves of hairbrushes and combs are supposedly sterilized continuously. Complimentary disposable razors and toothbrushes are also provided. This is truly the place for the lodger who shows up with nothing.

Finally, it is time to retire to a capsule. Here is where things get spartan. There are usually two tiers of capsules, and I prefer to take one on the top because I like the idea of climbing a ladder to go to bed. Each capsule is one meter high, one meter wide, and two meters long. A small mattress covers the entire floor. A radio, alarm clock, and reading light are set into the wall. A small TV is suspended from the ceiling. A blanket and a pillow are folded up at one end, and that’s it. There’s nothing else.

Not even a door. At first this omission surprised me. From the outside, a bank of capsules looks like a wall of microwave ovens, and I expected them to have doors that swung open in the same way. After climbing inside and seeing that the capsules are molded from one solid piece of plastic or fiberglass, I realized that a capsule with a door would probably suffocate its occupant. Both places had little curtains or blinds to provide visual privacy, but you’re probably out of luck if you neighbors snore.

Both of my capsules were surprisingly comfortable, and I slept like a baby. At the Capsule Inn I woke up like a baby, too, and spent a leisurely morning watching the Teletubbies on my little TV.

For me, even the second time, staying in a capsule hotel was a pleasant novelty. However, if I had a family waiting at home and had to stay there fairly often, the thrill would wear off in a hurry. Still, if you’re a Japanese company employee who is consumed by ambition, it’s nice to know that such places are available. They make it possible to work loads of overtime, and to do plenty of after-hours politicking while drinking with the boys. If you want to make it to the top, you’ll stay in a few capsule hotels on the way up.


Few women make it to the top.
The Daily Yomiuri recently reported that there are 40,111 executives in publicly traded Japanese companies, and that just 99 of them are women. (The term “executive” was not defined.) This works out to 0.25 percent, a negligible improvement over the 0.19 figure of two years ago. Of those 99 women, nearly a third were the founders of their own companies, or the family members of founders. In other words, these women had the gumption create jobs for themselves, but they are not people who were promoted because someone else recognized their value. Of the remainder, an undisclosed number were lawyers or accountants who actually worked as independent contractors for the companies that listed them.

Thus, it would be only the slightest exaggeration to say that Japanese companies never promote women to the highest positions.

Both of the capsule hotels I stayed in were all-male, and at one of them I saw a group of men who were apparently co-workers lounging in their yukatas, chatting and smoking long into the night. If these men had a female colleague, she probably had gone home immediately after rinsing out the office coffee pot. I wondered if this kind of situation — along with who knows how many other social structures — might have something to do with women’s failure to thrive in the Japanese corporate world. If a woman wanted to work very late, she would have nowhere to stay after the trains stopped running. If the boss had to assign an overtime project, would he give it to her? If the boss had to promote someone, wouldn’t he first consider the hard-working guys he’d gotten chummy with over a long history of late-night drinks?

When I asked a handful of Japanese people if there were capsule hotels that admitted women, I did hear about one — but only one. The more typical response boiled down to something like “Of course not. Why would there be?”

This goes a long towards explaining the feminine brain drain that Japan has unconcernedly suffered from for years. Talented Japanese women who study overseas often decide not to come home. A woman couldn’t work herself to death in this country even if she wanted to.

And that’s just not fair

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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