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Ando’s joy brings up an old taboo

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

The morning after TV Asahi’s evening news show “Hodo Station” ran an interview with figure skater Miki Ando on July 1, the media was buzzing over the revelation that Ando had given birth in April. The baby was not the ostensible reason for the interview, which focused on her athletic activities, and the way Ando referred to the event made it seem as if TV Asahi didn’t know about it beforehand, which is possible but difficult to believe. Ando may have done the interview at least partly to get the news of the birth out of the way before she starts training for a slot at the Sochi Olympics, and in that regard she was wise to choose “Hodo Station,” which is more discreet than the morning shows. In any case, she had to expect the reaction that followed since it was clear from the conversation that she is not married at present.

Most of the coverage has been centered on speculation of who the father is. Ando’s Facebook page and the Japan Skating Federation have reportedly been bombarded with derisive messages, which journalist Yoko Sakamoto, writing in Tokyo Shimbun, said could be expected because “Japanese people stress homogeneity” and resent anyone who is “different,” adding that such a “loud response would be unthinkable in any other country,” especially European ones, where out-of-wedlock births are “not uncommon.”

But if the usual group of moral gatekeepers has emerged to vilify Ando, a fair number of people have also taken issue with the attention being paid. The weekly magazine Bunshun announced in its email magazine a plan to conduct a survey. “Do you support Miki Ando’s giving birth?” was the proposed question, though what they really wanted to know was, “Do you support her giving birth to a baby out of wedlock?” Readers complained that the questionnaire was in bad taste, and Bunshun canceled it. Porn-paraphernalia entrepreneur and essayist Minori Kitahara told Tokyo Shimbun that the backlash was motivated by “women who wouldn’t put up with it,” adding that “men have to change, but women also have to speak out” on the issue of illegitimacy.

In that regard, the timing of Ando’s announcement is significant. This fall the Supreme Court will rule on at least two cases involving the constitutionality of discriminating against illegitimate children. Japan’s Civil Code stipulates that children born out of wedlock are entitled to half the inheritance that a legitimate child receives. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has called the law discriminatory, but the government has maintained that it is necessary to preserve the integrity of the family.

The plaintiff in one case is a woman in her 40s who recently gave a press conference in Tokyo after testifying in court. When she was born her father was living with her mother but still married to another woman, whom he had left, along with their children. He never returned to his other family, and when he died the woman only received half the legacy that the children of his marriage received, even though she lived with him for a longer period of time. She felt “as if I were being told that my life was worth half of someone else’s. It was a situation I didn’t choose.”

Her lawyers recommended arbitration behind closed doors, where these kinds of disputes usually take place, because “the law can’t be helped,” but she insisted on fighting the matter in court, where it would receive public attention. She said that the law regarding illegitimacy is a “relic of the past.” In response, her father’s legitimate offspring released a statement saying that “our happy family was destroyed” when he took up with another woman and that they “struggled to survive,” so the law should support them. “We oppose the equal treatment of illegitimate children.”

As this exchange illustrates, the basis of the contention is more emotional than it is monetary or legalistic, which is why pundits are saying that the Supreme Court will find in favor of the plaintiff. In 1993 the Tokyo High Court ruled that the Inheritance Law was unconstitutional. The petty bench of the Supreme Court later overturned that decision, but only by a ruling of 3-2. In 2010, an inheritance case involving illegitimate offspring reached the grand bench of the Supreme Court for the first time, and legal experts expected it to knock down the petty bench precedent, but the involved parties settled before a verdict was reached. The cause for concern regarding two of the current cases is that in both the parents died in 2001, so if the court finds the law unconstitutional it means it was unconstitutional retroactive to 2001, and any similar court cases or arbitration that took place since then can be reargued, thus causing, as Asahi Shimbun put it, “social turmoil,” not to mention judicial chaos.

The Ministry of Justice first proposed removing the illegitimacy provision from the Civil Code in the early 1990s, but conservatives have blocked any proposed legislation, usually by tying it to the issue of allowing separate names for married couples, another change they oppose. What has shifted in the meantime is public opinion. Though the illegitimacy rate in Japan is only 2.2 percent, that’s twice what it was 10 years ago. The bashing of Miki Ando is vocal and aggressive, but it represents a minority. As the Hokkaido Shimbun recently noted in an editorial, “social discrimination against children born out of wedlock is on the decline,” so the courts and government are bound to remove the legal stigma of illegitimacy, which is the by-product of what Kitahara once referred to as “Japanese men’s poor sex attitudes,” examples of which are Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s once-stated belief in the necessity of “comfort women” during World War II and former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara’s theory that North Korean abductee Megumi Yokota was probably some Pyongyang official’s mekake (concubine), a word that is also a relic of the past.