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The forgotten DPJ promise on women's rights

by Philip Brasor

In the weeks since the Democratic Party of Japan secured a majority in the Lower House, the new DPJ members of that institution have apparently been told to keep their mouths shut when they’re around the media.

DPJ honcho Ichiro Ozawa, who was in charge of strategy for the election, remembers the PR fallout following the landslide wins for “Koizumi’s children” in the 2005 election. The Liberal Democratic Party newcomers knew nothing about governing except what then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told them, and once he decided he no longer had any use for them, he abandoned them as easily as he did that son he hasn’t seen since he divorced his wife. Only about 10 percent are still in office.

It’s understandable then that Ozawa doesn’t like the similar-sounding media term “Ozawa’s girls,” referring to the 26 DPJ women who gained office. Already, Mieko Tanaka has been outed by the press as a former “sex-industry writer” who once did a nude scene in a movie, as well as Kumiko Hayakawa of Tokyo, who posed in a bathing suit for a photo spread in Friday magazine. Neither of these women deny their colorful pasts but they’re not elaborating on them either.

The media can be expected to make the most of these “scandals,” as weekly Aera calls them, since that’s what they like to do best. Many pundits saw Ozawa’s strategy as a cynical scheme to use pretty faces to gain votes, but it did result in there being more women in the Diet than ever before.

Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that these minimal gains will satisfy the United Nations, which has repeatedly put Japan on notice for its lack of wherewithal in advancing equality between the sexes, and not just in politics.

Though Japan signed the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985, it has yet to ratify it. The LDP never clearly stated its objections to the convention, but in an essay that appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun last July, Yoko Sakamoto, who heads a network of groups that wants to revise the Civil Code, said that more conservative LDP members assumed that ratifying the convention would mean that the U.N. could “interfere” in Japan’s laws, in particular the one that stipulates married couples must have the same name, since it is one of the laws the CEDAW has said should be changed, most recently in August. The CEDAW has no authority to change any member country’s laws, but it says something about the mind-set of Japanese politicians that they are taking no chances. To them, allowing a woman to have a different name than her husband’s is the beginning of the end of the Japanese family.

It seems a lot of people such as Sakamoto have high hopes now that the DPJ is the ruling party, since the DPJ has submitted its own bill to revise the Civil Code numerous times in the past. The proposed revisions included not only allowing married couples to maintain separate surnames if they so choose, but also eliminating distinctions in inheritance between legitimate and illegitimate children and changing the sanction against women remarrying less than 300 days after a divorce has been finalized.

Those high hopes may be misplaced. The DPJ did not include Civil Code revisions in its manifesto. In the past, when the DPJ submitted its Civil Code bill, it did so in league with other opposition parties, like the Social Democrats, whose leader, attorney Mizuho Fukushima, was at the forefront of the movement to change the Civil Code as long ago as the 1980s. The bill never passed because of resistance from the ruling LDP, but it did make it through the Upper House after the DPJ took it over only to stall in the legal-affairs committee, where it died from lack of attention.

DPJ supporters of the bill told the Asahi Shimbun they were disappointed it wasn’t incorporated into the manifesto. “Citizens care about this issue,” one anonymous member said, “and it doesn’t cost any money.” However, another said, “The reason we submitted that bill was because we were the opposition party.” In other words, the DPJ was supporting Civil Code revision only for the sake of form, safe in the knowledge that it would never pass with the LDP in power.

According to Kinyobi magazine, some DPJ members are just as opposed to revising the Civil Code as anyone in the LDP is, and when the DPJ leaders realized they were set to take over the government they shelved the revision plan for the sake of party unity. In July, Kinyobi sent questionnaires to 111 DPJ lawmakers and candidates. Forty-four responded, and while none clearly stated they were against revising the code, several wrote comments like, “it is difficult to say yes or no,” and “It’s OK to change the remarriage rule, but we need to talk more about the others.” The magazine also pointed out that 13 DPJ lawmakers attached their names to the infamous “The Facts” advertisement that ran in the Washington Post in June 2007 denying that the Japanese military kept sex slaves during World War II.

In answer to Kinyobi’s questionnaire, Yukio Hatoyama, now the prime minister, said he supported the Civil Code revision, which may be why he appointed Fukushima to be minister for, among other things, gender equality. Some commentators, including former Livedoor CEO Takafumi Horie, believe that Fukushima was given “insignificant” portfolios because the DPJ needed to throw a bone to its coalition partner, but if any Cabinet minister has a personal stake in the task to which she’s been assigned it’s Fukushima. She and her longtime live-in partner, who have a daughter together, have never registered their union because by doing so they submit to laws that discriminate against women. The media has never tried to make a “scandal” out of this, but maybe they should. Given the reluctance of the DPJ to address the issue, she could use all the help she can get.