In Abe’s Japan, a woman’s place is on the margins


On Dec. 16, Japan’s Supreme Court struck a blow for patriarchy by refusing to strike down the law requiring married couples to adopt one surname, a regulation that weighs disproportionately on women since in almost all cases they adopt their husband’s family name. For career women, this requirement burdens them in a way men are not, while for all couples the freedom to choose between a single surname, or maintain existing surnames, is denied for no compelling reason.

All of the women justices dissented, understanding exactly why the plaintiffs sought to overturn a law that infringes on their constitutional right to equal treatment. But since women only constitute 20 percent of the Supreme Court justices, the geriatric male majority prevailed. These Establishment men, appointed from a very small pool of candidates winnowed down over the years by the Justice Ministry to ensure that only status-quo conformists can become jurists, punted on the option of exercising their powers to review the constitutionality of the legislation, and instead stated that the Diet needs to act by changing the law.

But this is precisely why the female plaintiffs filed the lawsuit demanding the law be overturned and declared unconstitutional. The mostly geriatric male Diet has no problem with this law because they promote patriarchal family values. Recall that in his first spell as premier in 2006-07, current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cut welfare benefits for single mothers. This is because conservatives believe that they made a choice to become divorced and thus the state is under no obligation to help them out. No matter that some 80 percent of divorced women are working — some more than one job, because they typically hold low-paid nonregular jobs and only about 15 percent get any alimony. As a result, most of these working-poor moms live below the poverty line, which explains why over 16 percent of children in Japan are raised in poverty, exceeding the OECD average.

This patriarchal whacking of the vulnerable because they wouldn’t persevere in unhappy marriages saved the government a tiny fraction of the $13 billion it paid in 2012 alone to bail out Tepco, a firm that uprooted tens of thousands of families and destroyed communities with its recklessness at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Clearly it helps to be tied into the old boy network if you want to slurp at the trough of taxpayers’ money.

Every divorced woman I asked about the single-surname issue complained about all the time and effort involved in regaining their maiden names, with endless paperwork related to everything from bank accounts and credit cards to passports and pensions. These are bureaucratic hoops divorced men don’t have to jump through.

Since the Supreme Court has refused to allow freedom of surname choice, is there any real prospect for relief from the Diet? Not really, but much depends on PM Abe. He is good at grandstanding on “womenomics,” setting lofty targets for boosting women in the workforce and looking sincere when he speaks of how important it is to tap women’s talents to reinvigorate Japan, but he has fallen short on legislative action. He pops up at all sorts of womens’ conferences and symposia and says all the right things, emphasizing that he wants women to “shine.” But talk is cheap, especially when it turns out the slogans are just empty PR and the targets are slashed. When the government brags that it has boosted women’s labor-force participation rate, it doesn’t mention the fact that women constitute the majority of Japan’s growing precariat of poorly paid workers with no job security and dismal career prospects — precisely the area where Abenomics’ job growth is concentrated.

Following the Supreme Court surname decision, the Abe government betrayed its true colors by downsizing the lofty targets it once set for boosting women’s careers. Remember that “30 percent by 2020” headline? Abe once said he wanted to boost the percentage of female managers to nearly one-third from less than 10 percent, but as with the rest of Abenomics, he is hitting the reset button; now the targets have been slashed to 15 percent in the private sector and 7 percent for national bureaucrats, a nod to patriarchal realities that exposes Abe’s version of womenomics as a sham.

Abe also acknowledged that his original three arrows of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform are not rejuvenating the economy by casually unveiling a new quiver of arrows vaguely promising a 22 percent boost of nominal GDP, more subsidies targeting the low birthrate and more elderly care facilities — a ho-hum package that fell well short of being bold and innovative.

Rather than Junichiro Koizumi’s fighting slogans of “No pain, no gain” and “No sacred cows,” Abe is in campaign mode, playing Father Christmas, sprinkling handouts and offering sweeteners as he pivots from the “scary Abe,” who people fear will dispatch troops overseas into harm’s way, to the “fanfare Abe,” who will again promise to revive the economy and remind voters there is no alternative.

Yes, household income and consumption are stagnant, and hardly anyone polled says they are benefitting from Abenomics, but Team Abe is betting that the public will prefer an underachiever to any of the other misfits and no-hopers out there. A safe bet, which is why Abe may dissolve both houses of the Diet this summer and gamble that he can win big and, in doing so, then get on with constitutional revision.

Anyone interested in the details of Abe’s agenda should read David McNeill’s recent Japan Focus article about the reactionary organization Japan Conference in “Nippon Kaigi and the Radical Conservative Project to Take Back Japan.” About one-third of the Diet belong to this group and over 75 precent of Abe’s Cabinet ministers 2012-2016 are members, so it is hard to exaggerate its influence. It seeks to restore the Imperial Household to its former preeminence, cast off the postwar regime, renationalize the Yasukuni Shrine, promote patriotic and moral education, rewrite history textbooks to erase the unfortunate blemishes and revise the 1947 Constitution.

Abe is a special adviser and makes no bones about wanting to revise the Constitution, seeing it as a foreign imposition at odds with Japan’s customs and traditions. He understands, however, that a majority of Japanese voters embrace the charter and the values it embodies.

This is the challenge Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party face as they promote a social order that emphasizes duties over rights and patriarchy over gender equality. That is why it is unlikely Abe will propose legislation to allow couples freedom of choice in surnames: because his rhetorical posturing aside, the family values he believes in subordinate women.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.