The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly’s move last week to effectively close the book on the issue of the sexist jeering of a female assembly member raises doubts as to whether the assembly is taking the issue seriously or merely wants to lay the blame on the one assemblyman who grudgingly came forward and apologized for making at least some of the taunts.
The assembly closed its June session last Wednesday after voting down a resolution calling for the identification of the members who hurled sexist taunts at Ayaka Shiomura, a member of Your Party. During a plenary session debate on June 18, when Shiomura was asking questions about the metropolitan government’s policies on maternity support measures for women, her attackers taunted her, shouting “You should get married first” and “Can’t you have babies?” According to Shiomura, it sounded like the jeers came from more than one assembly member. As she was taken aback by the taunts, laughter spread among the members.
The issue came to light after Shiomura spoke to reporters and tweeted about it the following day, resulting in widespread condemnation of the sexist taunts. It was also taken up by media overseas.
Subsequent reports indicated that many female members of other local assemblies have also been subjected to sexist jeers or even outright harassment when they speak before the male-dominated audiences, but they often suffer in silence.
Noisy jeers against politicians from rival camps are indeed a common scene during debates in the Diet as well as in prefectural and municipal assemblies. But sexist taunts at the metropolitan assembly were particularly repugnant as they appeared to expose male politicians’ lingering prejudice against women even as they call for greater support of women’s social participation. The Abe administration says women playing a greater role in the economy is key to Japan’s economic growth, and has set a target of having women fill 30 percent of leading positions in various sectors of society.
Akihiro Suzuki — the assemblyman who belatedly admitted making the “get married first” remark several days after the issue was widely taken up by the media and following repeated denials — belonged to the Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. That fact must have been very embarrassing for the administration. Suzuki’s subsequent resignation from the party came as no surprise.
What stood out was the assembly’s slow response to the issue. Assembly chairman Toshiaki Yoshino rebuffed a request from Shiomura to identify and punish the hecklers. The resolution calling for identifying the rest of the hecklers was defeated due to opposition from LDP members, who make up the largest force in the assembly. The assembly instead adopted another resolution — submitted jointly by the ruling and opposition parties — that called for efforts to “restore people’s trust in the assembly.” Yoshino also urged all members to try to maintain the order and dignity of the assembly.
Your Party has said it would ask for experts’ voice analysis of the recording of the June 18 session of the assembly to identify the hecklers. But whether the hecklers are eventually identified or not, the assembly has missed an opportunity to show that it takes sexual harassment seriously. Instead, it has relegated the issue to one of “order and dignity” — as if the problem was merely bad manners by noisy hecklers.