It’s assumed that the heckling of Tokyo assembly member Ayaka Shiomura by some of her male colleagues on June 18 became a major news story in Japan only after the foreign press picked it up as an example of intractable Japanese sexism. The situation is more nuanced than how Western media described it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t appreciated by Japanese media.
Nevertheless, the news conference held on June 23 by Akihiro Suzuki, the Liberal Democratic Party member who admitted to making one of the disparaging comments, suggests that the point of the scandal may have been lost on some local reporters. Whatever it was that Suzuki yelled during Shiomura’s speech about the difficulties women face having children these days, the accepted version is, “Why don’t you get married soon?”, and while he now says he regrets the remark he insists it was uttered in the spirit of concern over the issue of “delayed marriage and the falling birthrate.” His presentation may have been crude, but his intentions were pure.
But reporters were only interested in tripping him up. Some knew Suzuki was one of the hecklers and confronted him early on in order to give him a chance to confess, but at the time he denied it was him and compounded the lie by agreeing that whoever it was should resign from the assembly. At the news conference they asked him if he was prepared to put his money where his mouth had been several days earlier, and he dodged the question by reasserting his commitment to doing whatever it was he said he’d do when he was first elected to the Tokyo assembly. The coverage suggested that Shiomura was less the target of abject sexism than a victim of the kind of juvenile taunts you hear when a girl insists on joining an organization the boys think is exclusively theirs. The difference may be academic, but Suzuki claims he got caught up in the adolescent excitement and had no desire to hurt Shiomura’s feelings.
In that regard, the news conference offered the reporters present an opportunity to ask about ingrained attitudes toward women, but those concerns are better left to editorial writers and pundits. As usual, what mattered more were political machinations. At a different news conference, Osamu Yoshiwara, the chief secretary of the Tokyo assembly’s LDP contingent, was asked why he didn’t out Suzuki right away since he was sitting so close to him, and he said he didn’t know it was Suzuki because he was asleep at the time. Suzuki didn’t confess until five days after the incident, and according to assembly rules a member cannot be censured for “talking out of turn” if the request for censure is submitted more than three days after the problem statement was uttered. Shiomura tried to file a censure request June 20, two days after the heckling but it was rejected because she didn’t name anyone. Tokyo Shimbun thinks the LDP kept Suzuki quiet until the three days were up in order to avoid censure, which might have had deeper repercussions since the party pledged to boost women’s “options” during last year’s election campaign. Moreover, the Tokyo assembly is now discussing an anti-bullying bill, whose purport the heckling clearly contradicted. Some commentators think the remarks directed at Shiomura sprung from a feeling of “arrogance” on the part of the LDP, who won all 59 seats they vied for.
But Tokyo Shimbun was also the only media outlet to make the distinction between “sexual harassment” (sekuhara) and “sexism” (seisabetsu). Most media characterized the heckling as the former, which implies an isolated incident, whereas what it really indicated was a mind-set, and one the mass media share with politicians. Shiomura used to be a TV personality who occasionally appeared on the talk show “Much Ado About Love,” where comedian Sanma Akashiya grilled young women on their romantic experiences. Like most comedians, Sanma gets a pass for his casually blatant sexism. Whatever her stance as a politician now, the media see Shiomura as a member of their club, whose bylaws allow for sexist behavior if it’s presented as entertainment. Last December, a weekly magazine reported that Shiomura had an affair with a married colleague, which she denies, and it isn’t difficult to imagine the LDP hecklers had that story in mind. It’s all in the game.
And it’s a game that can get ugly. Some commentators think that yaji (heckling) is an important part of the parliamentary process, but they also believe it’s become debased in recent years. Since the Shiomura incident several female politicians from local assemblies have come forward to say that putting up with sexist jibes is part of their job, a revelation that has seemingly shocked the media. On TV Asahi’s news show “Morning Bird,” actress-commentator Miho Takagi, who is the same age as Suzuki, said she grew up in an environment “where women were encouraged to participate more in society.” To her, Suzuki’s rationalization was unbelievable. Takagi’s credulity is at least partly understandable, but what about reporters who cover local lawmakers regularly? Why did it require overseas attention to make them see what was right in front of their eyes?
Yaji is more vulgar than the kind of heckling you hear in the British Parliament, but some apologists will say at least it doesn’t intensify into brawling, which sometimes happens in other countries’ legislatures. Perhaps it should. A little uncivil back-and-forth may be just what these men need. Had Shiomura immediately told her detractors to grow up, would it have made a difference? Political sexism has never been challenged in this way before, as proved by Suzuki’s clueless defensiveness. Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, a documented male chauvinist who was observed laughing at the heckling of Shiomura, was himself a TV personality once and a regular on the political variety show “TV Tackle,” where his main adversary was women’s studies professor Yoko Tajima, whom he serially insulted as an unattractive middle-aged woman. In politics you can’t be as honest with your feelings as you can in show biz, but sometimes you forget.