Before coming to Japan, I was warned of a possibly stringent view of gender roles here. While preparing for the JET interview I came across strange questions online, apparently often asked of American applicants. For example, if you were in the staffroom and all the female teachers began preparing tea for all the male teachers, and they asked you to join them, how would you react? This question proportedly weeds out the feminist applicants, those who will be rejected because it's suspected they'll shove their culturally insensitive ideas of gender equality down the poor Japanese people's throats. According to the online advice about JET interviews, it's best to suppress your inner feminist for their duration, if you really want to go to Japan.
You can probably extrapolate from my position on JET, that I was never asked this question.
In my staffroom, thankfully everyone makes tea for themselves. The cultural conflict with regard to gender roles has only arisen on several occasions. Questions about my parents were along the lines of: What does your father do? Does your mother work outside the home? While discussing teachers' extra curricular responsibilities at school, I learnt that males generally shoulder more of the burden of club activities because females have more household chores to attend to. One teacher asked me what the balance of genders in my university math course was, and seemed suprised to learn that it was roughly 50/50.
Then there's grammar. The already tough essay marking scheme is made more complicated when I mark students' use of 'he' as the ungendered third person singular pronoun as wrong. I'm aware that they were probably taught this by the JTEs. I'm even aware that there is no genuine ungendered third person singular pronoun to use instead, so I cross out 'he' and write 'they'. I'm patiently awaiting the moment when a JTE notices this and questions me about it. But even this is only the tip of the iceberg of my aggressive cultural insensitivity!
I've immensely enjoy raising gender issues during lessons. I'm convinced that it's crucial to broadening the students' minds. To my utter dismay, I find that unless I assign their seats, the classroom is divided down the middle, boys on one side, girls on the other. I appreciate that secondary school is a difficult time for kids, and they're pretty awkward. This could reasonably result in their staying within their group of friends, not in boys and girls consistently avoiding one another. Maybe I'm biased, because in my old co-ed school we formed mostly mixed-gender groups of friends naturally.
Of course, the fact that I'm teaching debating facilitates it all. I assigned some students speeches on feminism and was pretty impressed with the results. Women should be paid the same as men. Parents shouldn't dissuade boys from crying because it's girly. On the other hand, (and I had to assist the student to think of single bad point) feminism runs the risk of ignoring the real differences between the sexes.
The agree or disagree game was even more productive. Boys and girls should wear the same school uniform. Do you agree or disagree? I can't help but paint the uniforms as a villian in the tale of the separation of male and female at my school. It's a marker of difference. The girls wear a navy skirt, blazer and bow tie, while the boys wear a black military style jacket and trousers. (The military jackets still kind of freak me out. It's like they're little educational soldiers.) Ok so many schools around the world have different uniforms for boys and girls, but for me the final nail in the coffin of the school's uniform policy is that they're even different colours. I mean it's just adding needless further difference. Why not have everyone wear the trouser suit and make them different colours? At least that way we could avoid the classic skirt/trousers, passive/active role implications.
What did the students have to say? They all disagreed. Boys and girls shouldn't have the same school uniform. The whys were difficult for them to articulate. It's always doubly difficult for the students when we engage in interesting analysis of an issue. First, they need to account for their opinions, justify themselves to themselves in Japanese. Second, they need to express their chain of reasoning in English. The popular why was, 'because boys and girls are differnt, so different clothes suit them'.
At this point I asked for a show of hands by the girls who usually wore skirts outside school. A single student raised her hand. So why do you wear trousers when they don't suit you? Our class schedule didn't permit further probing just then, but I was satisfied that they'd actually thought about the issue for the first time.
I'm pretty excited about our next class, in which we're holding half a BP debate on the motion, 'TTHB boys and girls should wear the same school uniform'!