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‘Drop dead, Japan!’ moms try to stay on message

by

Special To The Japan Times

Shiori Yamao is a University of Tokyo graduate, former public prosecutor, current Lower House lawmaker and mother. As a force for the opposition, she has been causing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe considerable grief over the past few months.

Yamao was the person who asked him during a debate session if he knew what working Japanese women were earning on average, obligating him to come up with a number on the spot that revealed his ignorance of how average families live. She also publicly schooled him on the meaning of the Constitution. What’s refreshing about her style is that not only does she not read from prepared texts, but she demands her interlocutor address what she is saying, meaning they can’t rely on their lines without looking feeble.

She did it again on Feb. 29 when she asked about that blog post that went viral, the one written by a Tokyo woman who vented her anger in a stream of invective after failing to secure a day care slot for her child, which means she may have to quit her job. Wielding a sign board with quotes from the blog printed on it, Yamao wondered if the prime minister had read it himself. Caught off-guard again, Abe tried to avoid answering the question by deriding the post, which he said could not be taken seriously since the author was anonymous. To make matters worse, he mistakenly used the word “health center” (hokenjo) instead of “nursery school” (hoikuen).

According to Nikkan Gendai, Abe later chewed out his staff for not apprising him of the blog post, and while he did eventually pledge to reduce the waiting list for day care slots to zero, it was too late for him to take back his original remarks, which made the ruling Liberal Democratic Party seem even more useless in the eyes of female voters, as shown by the women who gathered near the Diet building on March 5 to demonstrate their solidarity with the blog writer. Abe claimed his statement had been misconstrued, and for what it’s worth, the LDP did score a provisional victory by getting the Lower House to strike the large card from the record, saying the crude language contained therein was beyond the pale for such a respectable institution, where politicians nonetheless routinely interrupt speakers they don’t like with loud, petulant insults.

But in fact, it was the post’s coarse diction that made such a big impression. Other working mothers take to their blogs or Twitter with tales of hardship in their quest for a better work-life balance, but invariably their disappointment is couched in polite language that can’t help but make them sound resigned to their fate. The woman who submitted her enflamed polemic to Hatena’s popular Anonymous Diary was through with being discreet. Sick of the red tape and incensed by the official attitude of functionaries she had dealt with, she expressed her frustration perfectly in the title of her post: “Hoikuen Ochita Nihon Shine!” (I couldn’t get day care! Drop dead, Japan!)

More than the scandalizing choice of words (“Do you actually give a damn?!”), it was the woman’s tone that made the piece so forceful. “I don’t care about politicians having extra-marital affairs and paying bribes,” she wrote. “I don’t care about the billions they’re wasting on the Olympics. I certainly don’t care about a stupid emblem — but if they can pay a designer millions of yen they can surely spare some for day care.” She conveys disgust, not resignation: “Seriously, Japan, get it together. I just can’t take it any more.”

Her ire was directed as much at the media as it was at the government, but the press has been delighted to cover such unbridled angst. Some news outlets have managed to contact the woman, who is in her 30s. She has pointed out that she never expected the reaction the post received, but, in an obvious dig at Abe’s remark, wants people to pay attention to the message and not the messenger. She told Shukan Bunshun she “never watches Diet sessions on TV,” but the day care problem has been simmering for so long that she believes her feeling is shared by many other women. As for her language, she wrote as if speaking to herself. The Bunshun reporter mentioned that some commentators thought she failed to secure day care because “you talk like that.” She answered, “They tear me down without knowing my situation at all.”

Among the prominent figures who dismiss her complaints due to the way she presented them is LDP lawmaker Katsuei Hirasawa, who appeared on morning news shows and said he couldn’t accept her statements because of her rude tone. Columnist and apartheid apologist Ayako Sono, interviewed elsewhere, expressed her distaste with the choice of words, which were not “beautiful,” as if a more refined writing style might have convinced her that the woman had a point.

In contrast, some anonymous bloggers have paid tribute to the screed by using the same coarse diction to talk about other topics. One person even rewrote the post itself using polite language in an attempt to show how absurd it would be to try and articulate such feelings in a measured way.

The big question is whether the reaction will lead to action. Commentator Chiki Ogiue said that Abe’s pledge to reduce the waiting list is “politically significant” given the likelihood that he will call a general election soon. If he’s serious, he has his work cut out for him. Though day care is mainly a problem in Tokyo, that’s also where the media is concentrated. According to Tokyo Shimbun, 36 percent of people in 20 of the city’s 23 wards applying for day care have failed to get slots, and when Yamao’s party colleague, Renho, questioned Katsunobu Kato, minister in charge of women’s empowerment, as to why there was a shortage of day care personnel, he replied that while many people have credentials, not many want to work in the field.

At the time, he didn’t mention that it’s because the pay is notoriously low, but maybe he just didn’t know. Shiori Yamao should set him straight. It seems to be her job.

  • Paul Martin

    At last revolutionary actions that gaijin cannot be blamed for!

  • Philosopher

    I can understand why these mothers are frustrated. As the fathers probably are, too. How can Japanese parents be expected to work full-time jobs without day care for their children? 36% of Tokyo parents surveyed couldn’t get child care for their kids – that’s shocking! It’s hardly going to encourage them to have more, is it?

    The pay rates at child care facilities are appallingly low. With a degree in early childhood education, most staff only earn 3,000,000 yen a year. No bonuses. Often no pension fund payments or health insurance, either. Could it be that child care is considered women’s work that no-one thinks to pay – even professionally-qualified staff – more? Of the the two dozen child care workers I know in Tokyo, almost all of them live at home with their parents. None of them could afford to live by themselves. The rest of them are married to men who earn double or triple. Yes, they’re all women.

    As for the tone of their message not being polite enough, I’m appalled that their message is being discounted for the pettiest of reasons. These are angry people who have been ignored for a along time. Being polite didn’t get them any attention now being brusque is finally getting them somewhere. Tokyo parents, don’t let the politicians weasel out now. They’ve finally heard you! Tell them they need to act or you won’t vote for them.

  • Bernadette Soubirous

    Japanese mothers are the best….