Interview with Kat, “Seeing Society as an Outsider”

Interviewer:Kanako Yamana

  • Please introduce yourself.

Yeah, so I’m Kat as you know. I have been living in Japan for nearly five years. Before that, I lived in London also for nearly five years. And before that, I was just in Germany as I’m German. And in terms of what I’m doing – that is an interesting and good question. I ask myself that on a daily. I have a degree in creative writing and Japanese culture. Nevertheless, I’m not really able to communicate in Japanese, but I am learning Japanese or at least trying to. I work as a freelance translator, translating English content to German content. Also, I write and hopefully I will be able to write a first draft of the novel this year. Actually, I wanted to finish it last year, but I was dealing with COVID. The pandemic didn’t do much good to my creativity.


  • Do you mind if I asked you what the novel is about?

It has something to do with my experience of moving to Japan, you know, being foreign and isolated. It draws a lot of inspiration from real-life experience. I want to put in some elements of magical realism, mixing in some Japanese folk tales about ghosts.


  • So, it’s related to your life, but it’s not quite the same.?

Basically, the negative version of what could have happened because we moved here without any knowledge about Japan. We just landed here as there was a job for James. That was the main motivator because we were stuck in London financially. Also, one of the questions that I’m trying to tackle is what is your price? You know, everyone has a price tag. We borrowed a lot of money from someone who helped us to move over. The person was very generous and kind. But we didn’t know the person, there was no prior connection and I always wondered why did they do it? And what do you owe a person that lends you a huge chunk of money?


  • I see. I like to read that when you finish everything.

James has jokingly said I’m not allowed to write it in English. It is as I said heavily influenced by people that I have met. So someone could recognize themselves. And while I understand James’ point for me the person on the page is a fictional character but nevertheless, I guess the real person would see it a little bit differently.


  • So, James was the reason that brought you to Japan?

Yes, that’s the main reason. As I said, we were stuck in London. There was no going anywhere. James is the one with higher education with his Ph.D., probably with the bigger career trajectory and he wasn’t able to secure a job that would fit his education. I mean, why should he work as a bookseller when he got a Ph.D. and a teaching degree? And as we all know we need money to survive. When he lucked out getting the job, I wasn’t very happy in my bookselling job. I felt stuck and because of the financial situation, I was quite depressed and couldn’t work creatively. So we said: “Okay, let’s do this. Let’s move to Japan.”  But it was never a life goal to live in Japan. I wasn’t obsessed with manga culture or anything related to it. I just came here because it sounded like a good idea.


  • So, before you came to Japan, you’ve never studied Japanese or known anything about Japan?

No, not really. I knew the basics somewhat, whatever the basics mean. I knew Japan existed, I knew they had an emperor. I knew there were in the Second World War. But I only watched a handful of Anime and had read a couple of manga. I had read books by Japanese authors, but that was it. Living in Japan wasn’t really on my list of things to do.


  • What is your impression so far?

Well, I think you do need to take into account my personal life, which has changed quite drastically. London is a great city but if you don’t have the cash to live in it it is suffocating. Here we certainly moved up the income ladder and that makes life certainly more comfortable, although the situation is still precarious to a certain extent. But way less so than it was in London. Also, you need to take into account the way I work, you know, there’s very little contact to Japanese society. I go to the shops, I speak to you, I go to concerts but I don’t work in a company. So, for me, Japan is in a sense amazing, as it changed my life for the better. But then if you start to look around there are of course issues in Japanese society, as well as they are in every society. And that maybe brings us to the topic of feminism. If I think for example about this admission scandal at the university, you know, where the girls wanted to study medicine, and then the university marks their entrance exams down because of some old fashioned role models … that says a lot about ideas of gender in society. I also didn’t know about how badly Koreans have been treated in Japan. Overall I wasn’t really aware of the negative sides of Japanese society. But overall I think I’m a little bit of an outsider. Of course, I am already an outsider because I’m Gaijin (Foreigner).  But I’m also further out of society and reap more benefits of that than other people, maybe who need to work within the Japanese working culture.

I don’t know if that makes sense.


  • Yeah, that makes sense. So, in a daily basis, you don’t see any problems like gender issues?

No, but that is just because of my role and how I live. I mean, of course, I could talk about gender issues. I’m somewhat dependent on James and that is a very traditional role of living with a partner. But it also allows me to pursue what I want to do. So, it’s a trade-off for me. On the one hand, I don’t have a stable job, I don’t have the security that comes with it. But on the other hand, I can also do what I want to do in my life. That’s quite nice.

But thinking about gender issues in Japan I think there might be a few I notice. I find the sexualization of young girls weird. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I see them in their cute little uniforms that they have to wear to school, regardless of the weather, regardless if it’s cold or not cold.

Then these Meido cafe’s … I haven’t been there but I once discussed with a friend these cafés. And he says there is nothing sexual about Meido cafés. But you know these girls are still cute. They still serve men, although not just men go to Meido cafes. So there is this weird sexual tension or that’s at least how I perceive it.


  • Yeah, they are not maybe giving the sexual service, but they’re obviously objectified as cute young girls.

Yes. And you have these problems like Chikan. That makes you really uncomfortable. And Japan’s solution is to have women carriages. Okay, let’s just get the women in one carriage but then you know, you don’t really change anything in the society and the structure within. You are treating a symptom but do nothing about the cause.


  • How about in Germany or London where you used to live, in terms of using sexuality as a business,

I guess, it’s not exclusive to Japan to objectify women. If we think about advertisement: sex sells. But in Japan there’s sometimes this element of youth that plays into it like maids are not old maids but young maids, of course. Then you have this idea of women being all cute and pure, I don’t think necessarily, that you do have that in the West that much. Although youth is idealized but perhaps with less emphasis on the pure aspect. But groping happens unfortunately in London and Germany as well but it doesn’t seem to be quite like the Chikan problem. One of the things that irritated me when I came here – you take a picture with your Japanese handy and it makes a click sound. And I heard they did this, so people cannot shoot up under young girls’ skirts. And then you just think what the fuck? Is that such a big issue in Japan?

  • Do you think the Japanese gender issue is more connected to pedophilia?

I don’t want to necessarily say that it has something to do with pedophilia. But I do think there’s something about being innocent and young and cute. That seems to be quite attractive to men.


  • So, when was the first time you recognize the issue of gender in your life?

Quite early on, if I’m thinking about it. My family in that sense is more conservative and traditional. My mum was born in the 50s. And girls needed to be cute. She also had an idea of how girls should behave and what girls should do. And I was a happy girl. But I didn’t just want to play with Barbies. I wanted to play with He-Man too. I didn’t just want to wear dresses and became quite reluctant to these ideas as a kid. I didn’t want to know how to do housework, I didn’t want to have long hair. I wanted to wear trousers, cut my hair short and play football. But I felt that wasn’t what my mum wanted me to be. So I pushed back and I became a tomboy.


  • So, when was the moment that you realized those issues are gender issues?

I think that that came later when I started to go to school as a teenager. You dig in and out of theories, not on a deep level, I wasn’t reading Simone de Beauvoir. But you hear words like feminism and in Germany, there is one very famous feminist called Alice Schwarzer. She was friends with Simone de Beauvoir. She really pushed feminist issues in German society, for example, abortion issues. And I found her really cool, I thought that’s great. And then I went to university, so I went to reading circles and I read Judith Butler, discussed feminism with other students. I was also part of a punk scene and the punk scene was leftist. Within this punk scene, you had the subculture of Riot girrrrls. You know in the scene there are lots of guys. But riot girrrls sing about women’s issues and you see girls making music and that’s important because you realize it’s not just boy’s fun. So I guess these were the formative years of my ideas when it comes to feminism.


  • I see. So since then, you call yourself a feminist.

Yeah. And I think, everyone should. I remember that when I went to school and I was calling myself feminist, there were girls in my class that said: “Oh, there’s no need for this label.” Because they somewhat got complacent because it’s not the 1950s but the 1990s and there are perhaps more opportunities for girls now. And while I understand that people don’t necessarily want to label themselves, I think it’s important to label yourself feminist to talk about the ideas that are connected to it.


  • Have you ever dealt with any difficulties or sufferings related to gender inequality?

There are various points in my life where I think you could talk about inequalities and gender issues. What I didn’t understand when we came here was you needed to say who is head of the household. It’s like, what? What’s that all about? The head of the household? That seems so outdated to me.

Then, of course, you have guys grabbing you clubs. I don’t know if that is a thing here. But you know in Germany, you used to go to the club, and sometimes people will just grab your ass. And thinking about being a teenager – so my best friend and I were on a train platform waiting for the train. A guy was standing there massaging his penis. Of course, we giggled but then he asked us: “If we want it now or not”. I think a lot of women can tell you stories about being objectified or getting unwanted attention from men.

But I think the one really big issue is connected to reproduction. This is the one thing where we need feminism. I am thinking along the line of “Can you get a safe abortion?” These are really, really important issues. And I’m honest now with you, I had an abortion, you know. I realized I don’t want to have a kid, a little bit late, but I realized I don’t want to have it. There was no room for a kid in my life. And getting an abortion in the UK is fairly easy and the NHS, The Health Service, pays for it which is great. But you do realize how important these kinds of institutions are and that you have access to them and that the hurdle to access these institutions is not high. So this is one of the biggest things for me, I think.


  • Do you know, in Japan, if anyone would like to get an abortion, women have to get a signature of the partner on the application. Like, what happened if someone got raped?

Here in Japan? The signature is needed? Oh, that’s terrible. That is absolutely terrible. I do understand to a certain extent that the partner might want to have a say in it. I mean there are two people involved in the creation process of a child. But everything that comes with pregnancy like the changes in women’s bodies that’s really up to women if they want an abortion or not.


And, I’ve seen some studies talking about how women feel after an abortion. Because there is this idea that women need to feel terrible and bad.  But honestly, I felt great after my abortion. I guess because I wasn’t really thinking about the religious question: When does a human become a human? For me, it was far more distressing to wait for the procedure than having the actual procedure. I was so happy when I left the clinic.


  • That is true. There are so many narratives that make us feel guilty to have an abortion.

Yeah, I’m not debating that there are women who feel sad. And for them, it’s not the right choice. But don’t tell me how I should feel. For me, it was the best choice.


  • Yeah, that is so true. Like everything about giving birth and raising a child and all kinds of reproductive things, there are strong myths for the women like women should feel or do in certain ways.

It’s one of the key issues of reproduction and reproduction rights, because to a certain extent that is what makes women women. I know it’s not quite as easy because we have transgender women and women that can’t conceive children… But I do think that reproduction issues are very important.


  • When you face any problems of gender? Do you have anyone to talk with about those issues?

I talk with James about gender issues, of course. Sometimes he has a different perspective on things, which is just normal. It’s also healthy. I’m shifting slightly topics, but if I think about racism, for example, not everything is racism, just because I might perceive it like that. A famous example is: You go into a train carriage and people move away from you because you’re foreign. And if you have a bad day, you might think, “Oh, this is racism,” but maybe they just needed to get off the next station and they already stood up. They might not think about what you’re thinking. So, I think in that sense it’s quite healthy sometimes to talk with someone who has a different viewpoint on gender issues.


  • It’s good to have a partner, you can share what happened to you any time.

I think so. When I meet friends, we also talk about feminism. My friend Lizzie challenged herself to only read female authors in 2020. So we have been reading together female authors last year and then we skyped and talked about the books. So we talked about, for example, Kim Jiyoung, born in 1982, a Korean book, that made feminism a talking point in Korea. We also read Pachinko which is a family saga about Koreans moving to Japan which also highlights issues of feminism.


  • Do you have any role models?

I think Alice Schwarzer, the German feminist, is cool. She is controversial but she did a lot for feminism in Germany. She is still publishing a magazine called “Emma” which I read when I was in university. Some people do not like Schwarzer’s ideas because she really sees the Hijab as a symbol of oppression, which again is a difficult discussion to have and where I find that I often shift my viewpoint. It’s the same with transgender or porn issues. Alice Schwarzer is a second-wave feminist and I think lots of younger feminists or third-wave feminists are intersectional. I guess, I stand somewhere in the middle. I am bored by now to hear that if you don’t shave your legs you reached the new height of liberation. Or that WAP by Cardi B. does so much for women empowerment. I think lots of people mix up female empowerment with individualism. They see it as an excuse to do what they want, which of course is great but sometimes you need to ask yourself if other people in society are benefitting from what you do? If you make money by stripping that’s all cool, but what about the women that are objectified and are forced into prostitution? Do you do them any favor if you feel empowered by showing your cleavage? As I said these are difficult discussions and I struggle to find coherent answers as well. Lastly, I just want to mention that as a kid I was quite obsessed with Rosa Luxemburg, she was a left revolutionary in Germany. She was executed. I thought it was cool that she was a woman rocking the boat so to speak. One famous quote of hers is “Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters”. There is a new biography coming out as a paperback that I look forward to reading.


  • What is your plan for your future?

For myself, of course, it’s finishing the draft. In terms of society, I guess I do not have any … Is this bad? I guess it is bad. Because I feel a little bit like an outsider and I am quite happy about my outsider status. I do not necessarily think that Japanese society is my target society. I feel I am detached from Japanese society. I don’t feel this is my position to speak about society. Of course with my close friends, I would talk about feminism or if I teach somewhere I would use female authors’ books, introducing ideas that I would think contribute to a just and fair society but I am not in the position right now.