'Gender-free' hard to define, harder to sell

Vague concept morphs into anything-goes sex ed, elicits backlash

by Akemi Nakamura and Eriko Arita

Last year’s cancellation of lectures on human rights in Kokubunji, Tokyo, has pitted key feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno and free-speech advocates against conservatives in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government opposed to the use of “gender-free” — a term whose definition varies but somehow conjures up negative images.

Experts say the cancellation reflects a backlash by conservative Japanese against the changing roles of men and women.

The Kokubunji Municipal Government planned last summer to hold 10 lectures on human rights — a project sponsored by the metropolitan government — and chose Ueno, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Tokyo, to teach the course.

Metropolitan officials then pressured the western Tokyo suburb to ensure lecturers did not mention “gender-free” issues, according to both Tokyo and Kokubunji. The course was axed in August.

“I myself do not use the term gender-free, simply because it has not been adopted by most gender studies scholars in the international academic community,” Ueno told reporters Monday.

She said she has no objection to other people using whatever terms they deem appropriate for promoting gender equality, but she strongly objects to official agencies banning the use of any words in public, unless they are discriminatory or hate-generating expressions.

Since the mid-1990s in Japan, “gender-free,” which has been interchangeable with “gender equality,” carries the concept of being free from sexual differences in a social and cultural context.

But some quarters regard gender-free as a denial of the differences between males and females, and of traditional family values, and as a way to promote what they consider radical sex education.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party said it has received 3,500 reports of alleged “gender-free” activities that were deemed problematic.

According to the LDP’s Web site, schools have had fifth-graders of both sexes share the same sleeping quarters on trips and conducted sex education classes using dolls with sex organs, drawing complaints for being too radical. The Tokyo government also claimed teachers had male and female students undergo medical checkups together.

The metropolitan board of education announced in August 2004 that Tokyo would not use the term “gender-free” in its activities, claiming the concept is sometimes misused to ignore the fact that men and women are different.

The metropolitan government thus told Kokubunji that it would not sponsor the course if the city was not sure if Ueno would avoid the term, said Shinichi Egami of Tokyo’s Office of Education.

But Tetsuo Saito, director of the Kokubunji-run Honda Community Center who was in charge of planning the lectures, said he told metropolitan officials he believed Ueno would not take up “gender-free” because the theme was human rights.

Saito said he voluntarily dropped the course because Tokyo officials remained unconvinced that the concept would not be broached.

Ueno learned of the Tokyo officials’ comments regarding the cancellation in a Mainichi Shimbun report Jan. 10, and asked the metropolitan government three days later to explain why it judged she was an inappropriate choice to run the course.

On Friday, five women’s studies scholars submitted a written protest bearing 1,808 signatures to Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and other metropolitan officials over the cancellation, claiming the refusal infringes on freedom of speech.

“If such a stupid act (by the metro government) is accepted (in society), authorities may suppress scholars and intellectuals they don’t like based on their supposition and prejudice,” said Midori Wakakuwa, one of the experts and a professor emeritus at Chiba University.

Ishihara denied Friday that the metropolitan government refused to employ Ueno as a lecturer for the course but took a dim view of “gender-free.”

“Gender-free is ambiguous,” he said, and the concept has led to “excessive sex education conducted at schools that defies (common sense) and is grotesque. I cannot accept it.”

Experts see widespread misunderstanding of the gender-free concept.

Kaku Sechiyama, an assistant professor of gender issues at the University of Tokyo, said the concept has nothing to do with sex education, radical or otherwise.

Sechiyama is more concerned with the way local governments refuse to use the internationally accepted “gender” in lecture titles, he said.

When the government revised the 2000 action plan for equality of the sexes last month, conservative LDP members opposed using “gender” in it because the connotation has yet to be properly understood by the public.

The Cabinet approved the final version of the plan using the word with a footnote definition.

Experts said the current arguments over “gender-free” and “gender” reflect a backlash against promoting sexual equality.

Since the Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society was enacted in 1999, adherents to the patriarchal system have opposed the movement, Wakakuwa of Chiba University said.

Ueno said conservative Japanese may blame women, especially women’s studies scholars and feminist activists, for the collapse of family values and for Japan’s declining birthrate.

Akira Nakamura, a director at the Men’s Center, an Osaka-based citizens’ group focusing on men’s problems, said if certain terms cause controversy, people should first discuss them and their concepts before trying to exclude them.

Some men may think a gender-equal society may strip them of what they believe is their rightful powers, he said.

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