Last week, a Japanese restaurant chain, Freshness Burger, released their latest product which caused quite a stir in the media.
These "liberation wrappers" as they are called, consist of a picture of the lower half of a female face with a closed mouth. It doubles as burger holder and a face mask so that women can enjoy their burgers without appearing to be sloppy. Having ochobo or a small and modest mouth is considered attractive for Japanese women.
Unsurprisingly, media pundits were quick to jump in on the puns. BuzzFeed compiled a series of GIFs to introduce the concept, while Perez Hilton described the liberation wrappers as "creepy." By turning the product into a source of entertainment, as something weird and silly to chuckle at, these responses oversimplify issues related to cultural norms, as well as expectations of feminine beauty.
An article from Bustle raised the question of female empowerment, concluding how it was "sad" that liberation for Japanese women had to entail "literally hiding themselves from view." I would also prefer to chomp on a burger with my mouth wide open in public — but only if I was in America. I’m not sure if I would feel comfortable eating this way in Japan, not because I believe in having ochobo but simply because I don’t want to seem rude in a different social setting.
I grew up attending American schools in five Asian countries. Whenever I go back to visit, I instinctively shift to having better manners before my plane lands in Seoul or Taipei — for example, talking softer or trying not to make overt sexual references. I’ll even carry an umbrella when it’s sunny or hold up the peace sign while having my picture taken — something that I probably would not do in New York. So I would probably use the liberation wrapper to eat burgers if I lived in Japan, just as I used a fork and knife to cut my burger when I lived in London.
There are probably certain objects or fads in Western culture that people from other cultures might find puzzling — for example, the instruction manuals in restaurants on how to use chopsticks, or tan in a can, since fair skin is usually prized in Asian cultures. But we don’t see BuzzFeed publishing GIFs about those products.
For someone who has been living with an in-built cultural on/off switch all her life, what’s bizarre is not the liberation wrapper itself but how the media turned it into such a laughable spectacle. Even the English-language press in Japan seemed to confirm gender and racial stereotypes. Liberation wrappers may seem "absurd and a little bit backwards to people in the West," Ida Torres wrote in the Japan Daily Press, but it’s a reality for Japanese women to "adhere to some of these cultural norms."
It is problematic to start with the premise that a woman covering her mouth while eating is evidence of repression. We are dealing with different cultural standards here. The liberation wrapper makes perfect sense in a culture where politeness in paramount in everyday social interactions. For instance, sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl is considered to be rude. Moreover, as I learned from my Japanese aunt, slurping your noodles means that it is tasty. If diners are eating quietly, then the chef should be worried since that means that the food is not good.
Politeness also extends beyond manners, encompassing being orderly, clean, and respectful. The subways and streets in Japan are impeccably neat. There was a Japanese school next to my school in Taipei and we used to make fun of the students for having to scrub the windows and clean the toilets.
Female beauty standards are also different. Fashion and makeup are integral parts in achieving bi (beauty) and kawaii (cuteness).
Women from all cultures are expected to conform to certain standards, and sexism exists in all of them. Challenging cultural norms and imagining yourself in a different social setting would be a more useful way to begin a dialogue about female empowerment than laughing over the silliness of the liberation wrappers.