NEW YORK – After decades of researching women and gender issues in Japan, retired American professor Joyce Gelb was not shocked by the male Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly members who harassed one of their female colleagues in June, but she hopes the incident will spark much-needed change.
“It could be a very positive catalyst for a future sort of consequences for people who behave this way, unless it is quickly forgotten,” the City College of New York’s professor emeritus said during a recent interview.
The academic, who also taught at Japanese universities, was referring to the June 18 incident in which some assemblymen heckled Ayaka Shiomura as she asked questions about maternity support.
The 36-year-old Your Party lawmaker was subjected to taunts such as “You should get married first” and “Can’t you have babies?” followed by laughter.
It took five days before a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, Akihiro Suzuki, came forward to apologize for his comment. The assembly’s steering committee was told in July that no other sexual harassment heckling was confirmed based on hearings by the LDP and other groups of assembly members.
“It is not so unusual in Japan for such comments to be made,” Gelb noted, citing other high-profile cases involving blunders by prime ministers and other public figures. “It is not exactly totally unexpected.”
Gaffes cited by Gelb included the one by health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa, who declared that women are “baby-making machines,” and that of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who described women who delay having children as selfish. What set the recent case apart was that the men specifically targeted Shiomura, Gelb said.
While the case drew worldwide attention and even generated an Internet petition — signed by more than 90,000 people — that called for identifying and punishing the hecklers, Gelb found it “a bit surprising” that women’s groups did not seem to take up the cause more prominently.
“It (the petition) is proactive and it is very good, but it does not alter the situation of women in general because it is kind of a symbolic case,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of long-term impact it will have.”
Gelb pointed out that factors in the United States, such as strong women leaders in Congress, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and a plethora of women’s organizations are in place to quickly respond to injustices in ways that are different from Japan.
“I think there is a core of women who are willing to speak out,” she noted.
A “catalytic issue” for the United States, according to Gelb, happened in 1991 when Anita Hill, an attorney, accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. The highly publicized case spotlighted sexual harassment in new ways and resulted in more women entering politics.
Even though progress has been made in the United States, Gelb highlighted numerous instances where women are still discriminated against.
She pointed out how Wendy Davis, a contender for governor of Texas, has been called “abortion Barbie” and how former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has not escaped criticism, even for her thighs.
“I think there is some sense that there is a need still for concern about the behavior of male colleagues (in the U.S.),” she added, but believes that if the Tokyo Assembly case happened in the United States, the reaction would have been different. “In the U.S., (Suzuki) might have had to resign,” Gelb explained.
While the incident caused a stir, she is unsure changes will be instituted even as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promotes efforts to have women take up at least 30 percent of leadership positions in the entire spectrum of society by 2020.
Gelb is doubtful of that goal, especially when she looks at Abe’s record of dealing with the contentious issue of World War II era “comfort women” — the euphemistic term used for women, mostly Asian, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army.
“I think that anything could happen so I don’t take (Abe’s pledge) very seriously,” she explained, noting that the long- term goal is far off.
Beyond Japan, she pointed to successful examples of quota systems that worked in places like the Nordic countries and Taiwan, where special efforts to maximize women’s representation have paid off.
“You have to change the society, which is totally gender biased from top to bottom,” she added.