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Ryokan custom ignites debate after visitors label it sexist

23 Comments
By Oona McGee, SoraNews24

In Japan, nothing transports you back in time to a bygone era like a stay at a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Often found in rural areas, this type of accommodation typically features tatami mat rooms, communal baths and dining areas, and yukata outfits, which visitors wear during their stay while being served by owners and staff in traditional clothing.

During mealtimes, guests are treated to sumptuous meals, which are often laid out on a traditional low table before they arrive, with things like tea, soup and rice served upon arrival. One of the many traditions guests encounter while staying at a Japanese inn is the fact that at mealtimes, they’ll usually be given a large portion of rice in a tub with a lid, called an ohitsu, which is placed beside the table with a shamoji rice paddle for serving, so that the diners can eat as much rice as they like throughout the course of the meal.

While it might seem like the ohitsu adds a nice touch to the meal, it’s actually become the subject of intense debate online recently, as the ohitsu is usually placed next to the woman at the table when she’s with a male partner, as it’s assumed she’ll be the one serving him rice during the meal.

While the traditional role of women as housewives still persists throughout a lot of rural areas in Japan, attitudes are changing, and some people are now questioning whether or not the custom of placing the ohitsu beside women dining with husbands or boyfriends should continue.

Twitter user @otakukonyakusya recently brought the "ohitsu problem” to everyone’s attention with this tweet, where she explains that on a recent stay at a ryokan with her husband, no matter whether she sat in the kamiza position (Japanese seating position usually reserved for the most senior member of a group, furthest away from the door) or the shimoza position (Japanese seating position reserved for the least senior member of a group, closest to the door), the ohitsu was always placed beside her every time. According to @otakukonyakusya, she says she was fine with it, but she’s worried about how this will go over with foreign tourists. She is concerned and she really wants the practice of placing the ohitsu next to the woman to stop.

Seeing as she and her husband changed their seating positions as an experiment to see where the ohitsu would be placed, the placement of the ohitsu appears to have nothing to do with the seating position, which has prompted many online commenters to label the custom as sexist. 

The topic has sparked intense debate online, with some women saying this was annoying sexist behaviour, while others said it didn’t bother them in the slightest. Other women said they wanted to serve rice to their husbands.

ne comment that stood out came from a ryokan staff worker, who said that it’s not necessarily about the ohitsu but the shamoji serving spoon that comes with it, which they’re taught shouldn’t be placed near the male guest when he is dining with a woman. If they fail to do this, some guests have been known to lose their temper, which is the reasoning behind its placement.

One of our very own Japanese-language reporters, who used to work at an upscale restaurant, also backs up this claim by saying that he was taught to always place the ohitsu and shamoji next to the female diner.

In among all the hundreds of comments left online, some people pointed out that a happy solution to the problem would be to simply place the rice tub and serving spoon in between the male and female guests. This certainly sounds like a good way to solve the ohitsu problem, as both guests would be able to serve themselves individually and not have to request, or wait to receive, an extra serving from their other half.

Still, that approach wouldn’t necessarily appeal to couples who choose to stick to their traditional roles, so perhaps a gentle question from the server to the guest about placement preferences would be the ideal solution.

The one thing sorely missing from the debate was a voice of opinion from foreign tourists who have actually experienced this custom themselves. So let us know your thoughts about the ohitsu problem – does it bother you or do you think it’s a Japanese custom that doesn’t need to be changed?

Source: My Game News Flash

Read more stories from SoraNews24.

-- 5 tips for staying healthy while traveling in Japan this winter!

-- Learn all about enjoying a traditional Japanese-style ryokan inn from this nine-minute video!

-- Survey reveals the most popular time to slip into a yukata at a traditional Japanese inn

© SoraNews24

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

23 Comments
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As a foreign tourist in Japan I would hope to experience life as is there. If the ohitsu and shamoji are placed close to the woman, so be it. If we take offence it is only our problem. And if we feel that we don't like how it's positioned we can just change the position of it ourselves.

If Japanese people want to change this custom, it's their prerogative. But for foreigners to come in and complain about it would be simply disrespectful.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

Agreed, ever seen a full western place setting?

Various forks, knives and spoons each are supposed to be used for various courses, ditto for glasses.

Japanese got it easy as Hashi are the norm, downside all foods need to be pre-cut so you can pickup with Hashi.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

This is becoming so ridiculous. You can't do a single goddamn thing in this world anymore without worrying if it's racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. I want to go back to the time before these spoiled kids who complain about every little stupid thing started making the world so goddamn problematic.

5 ( +9 / -4 )

A storm in a teacup.

The world is going to hell in a wheelbarrow, and we're bothered about where the rice pot goes??!?

8 ( +10 / -2 )

I'm not going to Japan and force them to speak English or change their customs. I made many mistakes when I was there and I am learning how to fit in.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Being open and not trying tow enforce your standards goes a long way.

Pity few can do it and expect holiday places are the same as back home.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

the shamoji serving spoon that comes with it, which they’re taught shouldn’t be placed near the male guest when he is dining with a woman. If they fail to do this, some guests have been known to lose their temper, which is the reasoning behind its placement.

It isn't sexist at all, but THESE (above quote) kind of guests are on the opposite site of the spectrum and are equally annoying. I'd hate to have dinner with either!

3 ( +4 / -1 )

@Rodrigo - you are so right Buddy !

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

“Twitter user @otakukonyakusya recently brought the "ohitsu problem” to everyone’s attention with this tweet,”

Another simpleton, attention-seeking Twitter user claiming there is a “problem” where there is none.

The tweet that this twit posted did not bring the imagined “ohitsu problem” to everyone’s attention - I only read about it just now.

As reflected in the comments above, foreign tourists who come to Japan and stay in ryokan, do so to experience some of the traditional customs of the country, not to analyse or compare them with those of their home countries, or test them for political correctness.

Perhaps Twitter users are the exception to this.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

I agree with the all the above. We should focus on serious issues that impact women such as glass ceilings, wage gaps, sexual harassment and so on. To complain about something as stupid as this does a disservice to all who are fighting for equality. It makes them look silly.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

This is funny because last year my Japanese boyfriend and I did exactly the same experiment when we stayed at Shirahone onsen. We changed our seat and still, the rice bowl went to my side. The services of the onsen was great except that sexist shamoji. I was not upset though, I just immediately placed the rice bowl next to my boyfriend and her smiled and served.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

This isn’t such a huge problem in itself and for those it bothers could be easily dealt with in a polite fashion. However it is an extension of the same mentality that says female office workers only will make and serve tea to their fellow workers, men of the household will never set foot in a supermarket to do shopping, nor in the kitchen at home to cook or cleanup, nor will they get their own slippers out, get their own bath towel off the shelf, do the laundry, layout their clothing, and on and on in the strictly defined roles by gender. Encountering such once or twice on a vacation trip may be quaint but living with it day in and day out is another thing entirely.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

OMG! A spoon!

Sexist PIG!!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I serve my wife and she serves me. What’s the big deal.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

A lot of fuss over nothing and, these people -

"If they fail to do this, some guests have been known to lose their temper,"

need a slap.
1 ( +1 / -0 )

People these days get way easily upset also true for online.

Anything I don't like needs to be shared and get played up so I can feel good and justified

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@pacint - done

1 ( +1 / -0 )

These cultural traditions should not be disturbed by outside influences. Ryokan staff can become confused sometimes when the husband is a cross dresser. However no problem for each guest to have their own ohitsu rice container if requested in advance. with non gender specific hamoji rice paddle included.  Sumo guests sometimes require extra large ohitsu vessel even when traveling alone. Ryokan must anticipate this and have their in house Geisha lend a hand with serving extra helpings of goan . Hospitality first and always respect tradition

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

We need to frame this discussion as a Japanese issue, not limited to foreign visitors' perceptions.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

My Country, My Rules. If you dont like it, dont go. Stay away from Japan. You are not welcome.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Aya ShimadaToday  02:36 am JST

“We need to frame this discussion as a Japanese issue, not limited to foreign visitors' perceptions.”

Here? The article is mostly about a discussion in Japanese by Japanese people. And specifically says the voice of foreign tourists is missing from that discussion. And specifically asks foreigners to give their opinion. (Although I think on this site they may be more likely to hear from foreign residents, not tourists.)

1 ( +1 / -0 )

When in Rome.....

One usually travels to Japan to experience the culture- not insert theirs. Such a shallow person should stay home in their country and not waste our time with something so trivial.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Ryokan staff can become confused sometimes when the husband is a cross dresser.

What?

Ryokan must anticipate this and have their in house Geisha lend a hand with serving extra helpings of goan

In house geisha, you say?

goan?

I understand that you're not a native English speaker, but that's about all I understand from your comment.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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