‘Obachan’ group aims to jolt politics

Elderly women have fill of male dominance in all leadership avenues

by Michiko Munakata

Kyodo

Osaka, the epicenter of a political movement bent on change that has shaken the status quo, is home to another initiative to trumpet the unheard voices of women.

Since last fall, more than 1,000 middle-aged and older women, mainly from Osaka, have joined an online discussion group called All Japan Obachan Party.

“Obachan” is Japanese for a middle-aged or an elderly woman that invokes the image of an intrusive busybody.

Obachan Party members use a Facebook site discussing issues ranging from national security and nuclear power plants to a livelihood safety net.

Despite its name, the Obachan Party does not have formal status as a political party. They hope to influence government policies by presenting proposals from woman’s viewpoints instead of involving themselves directly in national politics.

“We are not thinking of running for elections and overthrowing the Abe government,” said Tomoko Saotome, a doctor who is a senior member of the group. “It is old-fashioned to fuss over ideologies such as left and right,” she said, noting her force is not bent on rejecting or ridiculing the opinions of others.

The group’s approach contrasts with charismatic Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s controversial reform initiative, which led to the creation of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party). The party, widely regarged as male-dominated, burst onto the national stage in the general election in December, albeit not to great success.

The Obachan Party was launched last November, when a swarm of women responded to a rallying cry from Mayumi Taniguchi, an associate professor at Osaka International University who vented her frustration at male-dominated politics in a Facebook comment.

“I’m tired of (old men) politics. Shall we launch an old women’s party?” she wrote, referring to the term “ossan,” or middle-aged and elderly man, with connotations of dullness.

By the end of January, around 1,600 middle-aged and elderly women from various backgrounds had joined the Obachan Party.

The group’s members have voiced skepticism about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s professed hope for women to play a more dynamic role in society. They pointed to the dearth of women in his Cabinet (there are only two) as well as in the Diet.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2012, Japan ranks 101st out of 135 rated countries in the world, falling from 98th the previous year, due to a continued decline in the percentage of women parliamentarians and their relatively low participation in the economic field.

Even the tiny group of women in the current Diet has not been spared criticism from the Obachan Party, with one member lampooning them as “ossan wearing the obachan mask.”

Members of the party are worried that the Abe government’s policies, whether on national security, the economy or social security, will be dictated by the law of the jungle at the expense of the needy and vulnerable.

“Now is not the time to look away from politics as something hard to understand,” Taniguchi said. “Women are thinking about politics in everyday life, as they ask themselves questions like ‘Why are there no jobs for our children?’ “

Taniguchi hopes that by providing a place for political discussions, her initiative will help women better express their opinions. “Participating in discussion will develop the ability to talk about politics in one’s own words,” she explained.

“To make (Japan) a pleasant country to live in, the points of view of nosy old women are necessary,” a party member in her 40s said.

The Obachan Party was recently surprised to receive interview offers from media organizations in other countries, including China and France. “Now, I’m hoping to build a global alliance and hold an obachan’s summit,” Taniguchi said. “Don’t underestimate the obachan.”