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Japanese women see themselves in S. Korean feminist film 'Kim Ji-young: Born 1982'

Posters for the movie "Kim Ji-young: Born 1982" are seen in a movie theater in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Oct. 16, 2020. (Mainichi/Natsuki Nishi)

TOKYO -- "Kim Ji-young: Born 1982," a movie based on the bestselling South Korean novel with the same title that illustrates struggles that women in Japan's neighboring country face, is capturing the hearts of Japanese women who sympathize with the story's main character Kim Ji-young, as they too live in a male-dominated society similar to the world depicted in the movie.

    The book, which sold over 1.3 million copies in South Korea, has been translated into multiple languages, and in Japan, it has sold some 210,000 copies since the Japanese version became available in 2018. The movie adaptation just hit theaters in Japan on Oct. 9.

    Kim Ji-young lives with her husband and a young daughter in a suburb of Seoul. Growing up, she was not valued by her family as much as her younger brother was because she was a girl. The story is about her struggles as a woman in South Korea in every stage of life; from her childhood days to marriage, leaving the workforce when she became a mother and then becoming swamped with the pressure of child rearing.

    A still image from "Kim Ji-young: Born 1982" (c) 2020 LOTTE ENTERTAINMENT All Rights Reserved

    On the first weekend after the movie's release in Japan, this Mainichi Shimbun reporter spotted a "Ji-young generation" woman, 40, at a movie theater in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward.

    "There were just way too many scenes I could relate to," the resident of the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Kawasaki told the Mainichi after seeing the movie, with her eyes still red from crying. She continued, "Japan and South Korea share similar customs like going to see your parents at their home during the Bon summer holiday and New Year holiday period. People in my mother's generation, those in their 60s and 70s, push outdated rules like 'women should leave work at least for three years after they have a child.'"

    The woman's husband, who watched the movie with her, is a third-generation "Zainichi" Korean (a Korean resident in Japan). He said he had taken notice of the story as the original book became a huge hit both in South Korea and Japan.

    A still image from "Kim Ji-young: Born 1982" (c) 2020 LOTTE ENTERTAINMENT All Rights Reserved

    "I thought in this day and age, men should share the burden that women have taken," the husband said. But when he tried to continue by saying, "My parents are relatively modern-minded," the woman stepped in, saying, "Your father once bitterly said, 'My son works outside the home and still does dishes and other chores at home.'" In the movie, Ji-young's mother-in-law makes a similar comment.

    The story leaves the audience with a huge impression from the remarks made by the men in Ji-young's life. Professor Toshiyuki Tanaka at Taisho University in Tokyo who specializes in men's studies said he saw the reality of Ji-young and her husband as a couple when he asks her where his blue shirt is.

    "The husband wants to help out Ji-young and appears caring, but this particular scene exposed that chores around the house like refilling detergent and cleaning dirty places were all done by Ji-young," Tanaka pointed out.

    Japan and South Korea share similar issues involving married couples, such as the deep-rooted idea of gender roles where men work outside and women stay home as well as a gender pay gap. In 2019, South Korea ranked 108th in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index, while Japan was further down at 121st. Japan showed particularly striking gender inequality in the economic and political areas. According to a survey published by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry last month, 70.9% of mid- and small-sized companies in the country were against making men's parental leave mandatory over manpower shortages and other reasons.

    While these figures suggest serious problems, Akiko Matsuo, head of "etc. books Inc.," a publisher specializing in books and magazines on feminism, points out that what issues are at hand "hasn't clicked" with many people in Japan, women or men. She added, "When I was in my 20s, my male boss would pat me on my head and say, 'Good job (for working as much as her male colleagues),' just for doing my job. Such a thing is never said to a male worker. Since I got married, my husband and I have been sharing the housework, but people tell me to 'feel grateful to your husband (for pitching in),' and it gives me mixed feelings." Referring to other couples she knows, "In more cases women are the ones who are faced with having to make choices in life, as in whether to choose a family or career."

    Matsuo concluded, "The (Kim Ji-young) story visualized gender discrimination integrated into everyday life. It allows women to see that their struggles are not their fault but exist because of the social structure they live in."

    (Japanese original by Mei Nammo, City News Department)

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