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BIG SIGHT PUTS FOCUS ON SOCIETY

Sleazy snappers turn eco-show sour

by Stephen Hesse

Originally this column was going to be about Eco-products 2005, a trade show held at Tokyo Big Sight earlier this month. But as you’ll see, I got seriously sidetracked and my focus shifted more or less entirely.

The show, advertised as the largest eco-related exhibition in Japan, showcased 500 companies and organizations and was sponsored by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), the Japan Environmental Association for Industry (JEMAI) and the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei). It was also supported by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Sure enough, at the exhibition there were eco-products galore, a whole gamut of goodies whose proclaimed environmental benefits ranged from the considerable to the negligible.

There were hybrid cars, biodegradable cleaners, clothes made from PET bottle plastics, building supplies made from recycled materials, and purported eco-plastics, eco-oils, eco-electricity, eco-tires and even eco-toilet seats. Wall to wall across a convention hall the size of several football fields, there were booths of different sizes set up side by side.

There was even a small area of tables for non-governmental and non-profit organizations. I later calculated that more than 70 NGOs and NPOs took part, totaling some 15 percent of the show’s participants. Unfortunately, they were squeezed into just 5 percent of the exhibition space.

I assume, of course, that the organizers gave them the space for free. Still, though, I couldn’t shake the image of all these civil society groups corralled into a veritable NGO/NPO ghetto. It was a vivid image of how NGOs and NPOs are too often sidelined in Japan.

But the NGOs and NPOs were attracting people, the atmosphere in the hall was festive, and there was a steady stream of visitors. Groups of schoolchildren collecting brochures, families out for the day and young couples, more interested in each other than the booths, were all strolling the hall.

It was while I was people-watching that my day turned sour.

At many of the exhibits there were young women handing out brochures and inviting visitors to fill out questionnaires in exchange for gifts, such as plastic carrier bags. Some were dressed in slacks and jackets, others wore mini skirts, vinyl outfits and precarious high heels. Except for their shrill voices, they were friendly and cheerful — even if completely unnecessary.

Then it began to dawn on me that many of these women were spending much of their time posing for photographs. All across the hall, men with expensive cameras and big lenses were darting here and there taking photos.

And not just casual snapshots. These men, some with sheepish grins, others with grim and oily expressions, often stood within a meter or less of the women, zooming in on their faces, clothes and limbs. Often they would crouch down to floor level to take shots of the women in mini skirts. Oblivious to the show, these men were exclusively focused on the women.

Clearly many of the women were uncomfortable with the closeness and persistence of the photographers, but they were being paid to smile, so they did — sometimes enduring numerous shots taken from within bad-breath range.

The adults in the hall seemed unfazed by the photographers, but many of the children were intrigued with the cameras and the “models.”

To a child or adolescent, it must have looked exciting, taking pictures and being photographed. But for me, it brought on a rush of discomfort that prompted psycho-social musings: What messages are these situations sending to children about how to treat women?

Being a father, and watching the children at the exhibit, I couldn’t help wondering why the mainstream businesses, sponsors and government supporters encouraged or at least condoned this objectification of women, especially in such an educational, family setting?

Maybe I’m oversensitive; maybe not.

Anyone who watches television or reads a newspaper knows that Japanese girls and women are suffering a wave of molestations, assaults and killings.

In my “safe” suburban neighborhood west of Tokyo, several young girls have recently been followed and one was molested. Fearful parents now gather elementary school children together in groups to walk them to and from school.

When a foreign man apparently admitted to killing a young girl in Hiroshima, voices in the governmen t immediately called for a committee to mull over the dangers posed by foreigners. Elsewhere across the country, on a daily basis, girls and women are being harassed and abused in homes, schools and on streets and in trains and subways. Has an emergency meeting been called yet to discuss sex crimes and the objectification of women?

I’m afraid I have far more questions than answers concerning this victimization. But when I walk to the station in the morning, and mothers with groups of schoolchildren look at me nervously until I smile and say “good morning,” it is clear that Japan is in the grip of a deeply troubling trend.

And as for the politicians hunkered around tables trying to figure out why women are not marrying and having kids, perhaps they should consider what Japan looks like from the perspective of a woman in her 20s. Me? I’d be planning to stay single or emigrate.

On the train home after writing a draft of this column, I sat next to a normal-looking gray-haired man reading a magazine. All was normal except that his magazine was a comic brimming with pictures of doe-eyed girls with huge pneumatic breasts being molested by equally doe-eyed young men.

No wonder sleazy photographers don’t raise an eyebrow.

In the spirit of the season, though, I’ll give my fellow passenger the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps he was a psychiatrist doing research — and perhaps his comic was printed on 70 percent post-consumer recycled paper using 100 percent soy-base ink.

Yeah, right.