Ending Japan’s sexism requires men to lean in, too



Ayaka Shiomura’s tears show why Shinzo Abe’s talk of empowering Japan’s women is still more hot air than policy.

The Tokyo assemblywoman two days ago urged colleagues to budget assistance for women struggling to balance work and child rearing, and to offer funding for fertility treatments — sage advice one would think in a fast-aging nation where pets now outnumber children. The response from male members of Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party? Sexist jeers. “You’re the one who needs to get married,” shouted one member, reports said. “Can’t you even bear a child,” yelled another.

Truth is, Abe’s embrace of the “Womenomics” concept championed by Goldman Sachs economist Kathy Matsui is window dressing, not reality. His proposals to increase access to day care, extend maternity leave to three years and encourage companies to name female board members lacks imagination and teeth. It’s more a best-practices guide for CEOs than a workable plan to harness Japan’s most-untapped resource.

But Wednesday’s sorry spectacle, one that reduced Shiomura to tears, demonstrates why Japan faces such an uphill climb in empowering half of its 126 million people. Policy changes are just one part Abe’s challenge. The bigger one is attitudinal.

The verbal pile-on following Shiomura’s speech came from the section where members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party sit. That prompted the secretary-general of Your Party, of which she is a member, to lodge a protest to the LDP over a scene that a female lawmaker from a third party called “monstrous sexual harassment.” Yet the LDP has a long and sordid track record of sexist remarks.

Hakuo Yanagisawa is a case in point. He was health minister during Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2007 when he described women as “baby-making machines.” And there’s sexist-in-chief Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister who’s heading the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizing committee. In 2003, as I’ve discussed in a previous column, Mori called career women who put off childbirth selfish and challenged whether they should be eligible for pensions. In 2009, while in a tough local-election race with a 33-year-old female travel agent, Mori warned voters not to be won over by her “nice body” and “sexiness.”

On Feb. 10, I explored a pattern of inopportune comments from Yoichi Masuzoe, Tokyo’s newish governor. They include whether humans who menstruate are fit for public office and deriding female lawmakers as “middle-aged hags.” This history of misogynistic rants didn’t stop Abe from endorsing and campaigning for Masuzoe this year — or letting Mori be the global face of Tokyo 2020. And people call Abe a feminist?

Abe should toughen his policies and even consider imposing quotas on the number of female executives. After all, studies from McKinsey and the World Economic Forum show that companies that tap female talent tend to be more innovative, productive and profitable. Abe also should prod and incentivize companies to give men as well as women more flexible work schedules, so they’ll have more time to spend with their families — or to start one.

But as Shiomura’s tears demonstrate, the real challenge will be convincing a deeply paternalistic society to stop living in the past. In such a top-down political and business culture, it’s up to Abe both to have a national dialogue about the costs of sexism and to raise the level of discourse in Tokyo — starting with his own party. It’s time for the gray-haired men who run Japan to lean in, too.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.

  • kyushuphil

    Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

    In such a top-down culture, it is absolutely not necessary to rely on Abe, or anyone at the top. That only preserves the top-down culture.

    If students in schools do more writing — more essays, more “zui-hitsu” — teachers can guide them in the arts and skills of wider quoting. And when students learn to look more humanly at others, to see more through the experience of others, they will get rid of — outgrow — the stupid sexism that stays built into the status quo.

    It’s that simple. Don’t continue to wait for old men, like Abe. Change the schools.

    • Warren Lauzon

      To paraphrase an old saying – “2,000 years of tradition unmarred by progress”.

  • Steve Jackman

    The problem is that most Japanese men don’t want to end sexism and racism in Japan. Sexism and racism gives them power and privilege in Japan, which they rather enjoy. Ending sexism and racism would mean that they would have to compete with women and foreigners on an even playing field, which they certainly do not want to do.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned living and working in Japan all these years, it is that most Japanese men absolutely hate competition or challenge from women and foreigners. I think this is rooted in their own insecurities and fear of losing to a woman or a foreigner, both of whom they clearly feel to be inferior to Japanese men. This is why they use sexism and racism as a shield to hide behind like cowards and to discredit anyone who’s not a Japanese male. Unfortunately for these Japanese men, they’re only hurting themsleves by limiting competition, since one tends to get intellectually fat and lazy by living in an insular world devoid of competitive forces.

    This scenario has already played out in Japanese industry, which became uncompetitive because it shunned competitive forces in its home market of Japan by shutting out foreign competitors using tariff and non-tariff barriers. Japanese men need to understand that competition keeps one sharp and on one’s toes, whereas, lack of competition makes one dull.

    • “If there’s one thing I’ve learned living and working in Japan all these years, it is that most Japanese men absolutely hate competition or challenge from women and foreigners. I think this is rooted in their own insecurities and fear of losing to a woman or a foreigner, both of whom they clearly feel to be inferior to Japanese men. ”

      This is not specific to Japan, although it is more pervasive.

      Men from around the world derive an important part of their own identity from the supposed weakness of their partner, or women in general. It allows the man to feel needed and useful. The unstated fear in his mind is “Who would I be, without someone to look after and care for?”. Removing this would mean he would have to become more, value himself more selfishly, to self-actualize instead of taking the easiest road of viewing others as weak and inserting his own “strength” to fill the void — while the real strength that could of been his, goes disowned.

      However, it takes two to engage in this process: he can’t maintain this illusion unless his partner is willing to — she too exchanges an aspect of her self-esteem for him become her worker bee. “How could I cope if I had to do this alone, by myself?” is her unstated fear. She quells this fear by securing the resource of his disowned strength, and co-dependency becomes normalized in the culture.

      Men and women are both sacrificing their proper stature out of fear.

      • Warren Lauzon

        I think it is pretty much all about fear, even though few will admit it. When I lived in Japan, I actually saw a Japanese man quit because one of his female co-workers kept getting better results.

        “… “How could I cope if I had to do this alone, by myself?” is her unstated fear…”

        I see this a lot in Korean dramas – it even has a name on some of the drama blogs – “the ottoke effect” (ottoke 어떻게 is commonly translated as “what do I do”).
        The key thing to note is that phrase is used 99% ONLY by women. I have not heard a similar Japanese phrase, but I think the attitude is even more deeply engrained in Japan than in Korea.

  • Tando

    A concerted effort by men and women here in Japan is necessary to change the status quo. The equation men are sexists and women are the victims is a bit too simple. Role expectations are ossified on both sides of the gender gap. The majority of men here are toiling in their jobs to support their families. And they are groomed to function in the system from childhood on. A Japanese saying goes: “Teishu wa genki de rusu ga ii(亭主は元気で留守が良い)” We wish our family head good health (to earn more money) but it is better when he is not at home. Women on the other hand are very picky in choosing their future partners with a good salary one of the decisive factors. Now there are so called “Ikumen”(Men who get involved in child raising), but 10 years ago I had to face criticism from fulltime housewifes, because I did things like taking our daughter to the play group on my day off during the week. Oh I forgot to say that my wife was working as well at the time. The situation in Japan is very diversified. The traditional role model of men being the sole breadwinners and women staying at home does not work anymore. But the education system, the Job market, society as a whole and its represetatives the politicians seem to be ignorant of this truth.

    • Warren Lauzon

      You are correct, of course. While it is easy to blame men, the fact that most women in Japan fully accept their role is the other side of the equation, and makes it so hard to change. “…Role expectations are ossified on both sides of the gender gap..” is very true, and “ossified” is probably the best term to use.
      Even though I have been back in the US for many years now, I still watch a lot of Japanese TV dramas. One recent one about a female detective that had just been promoted “to show we are not sexist” had a character in the show make the remark “There are more female cops in TV shows than in the actual police force…”

  • As I have said before:

    The whole reason “the status of women” has become an issue in Japan is because of the economy.

    When Abe seeks to change the system to “get more women into the workplace” it has nothing to do with any sense of egalitarianism or enforced equality (not that those are good things), it has everything to do with creating more taxpayers and reaping more taxes to attempt to solve the spiraling problem of spending and debt — without addressing the problem by actually cutting spending and reducing debt, which will have to happen in a major way no matter how many women are working. Politicians are saying what they have to say to achieve the goals they wish to achieve; that is all.

    It is the same rhetoric when it comes to immigration and “outsiders”, except no one has any problem with would-be immigrants getting bad-mouthed. There is enough of a feminist bent in the public sphere to cause politicians who believe otherwise to feign sympathy in order to collect a double illusion of virtue: “We understand, we’re in your corner, ladies.” — double because they don’t believe it, and because actual equality is equality of rights, meaning: equality of the rights of individuals, not systematized pandering for group privileges.

    Still, to both women and foreigners, the message, explicit or guised is: We want your labor and your productivity, and then when the time comes, GTFO, and let’s have things go back to the way they were.

    Perhaps one day Japan can come to grips with the fact that “the way things were” is the reason for the the way things are.

    People in the West talk like that too, they talk about “the good old days”. But the “good old days” were never good. They simply set the stage for today’s problems.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Perhaps Mr. Pesek could tell us what percentage of Bloomberg executives are women, what percentage of its columnists are women, and what percentage of its male employees take child care leave. Also, what is the ratio of female to male earnings at Bloomberg. I would presume that a news service that carries as many articles about the sorry status of women in Japan must have achieved virtually perfect gender equality, right?

    • Steve Jackman

      Last time I checked, Bloomberg was not a country, nor its own culture. I like Pesek and hope that someday he becomes the CEO of Bloomberg, but for now, I don’t think he has any say in the way Bloomber News is run. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe he just works there.

    • Warren Lauzon

      What you are doing is basically a false argument. Rather than address the actual topic or issue in the article, you revert to the “well what about..” tactic.

      • Earl Kinmonth

        The difference between Japan and the US in terms of indicators pertaining to the status of women is actually quite small. And on some Japan is far ahead of the US, particularly those pertaining to the health of mothers and children. The US is way behind the northern European countries on just about every indicator pertaining to women. US commentators should concentrate on getting the US up to Scandinavian levels. That would set a good example for Japan. The real issue is should American media and American commentators be critical of Japan when there is so much to be done in the US. The fact that the Japanese media is making such a big issue of this is clear evidence that that do not need white guys to tell them there is a problem.

      • Warren Lauzon

        I don’t think there is much reason for the US to be proud of it’s health care system, but that is not the same issue as gender equality. “Yes, you will only ever be an office tea serving drone, but we offer great health care”.

      • Earl Kinmonth

        Look at the stats on gender equality for the US. They’re not good. Some women prefer to be “tea serving drone(s)” because you can go home at 1700 or 1800. Surveys show that relatively few women (under 20%) actually want “gender equality” if it means “working like a man.” Discrimination exists but it is not the sole explanation. Read up on the the mayor of Yokohama. She got to the top of several major companies with only a high school education. Look at the founder of DeNA. She’s not serving tea; she owns a major company. And, the lady who got the jeers. If she was stuck in a company serving tea, she would not have been in the Tokyo government. If you are not a woman who gets pregnant, it is probably impossible for you to understand that the higher quality of care available in Japan is a component of gender equality.

      • Warren Lauzon

        I am not saying that Japanese women cannot succeed in Japan, I am saying it is much more difficult than in most Western countries. But one reason for that is that many of the male Japanese drones still have the idea that time at workplace = higher production and better advancement (and is highly “encouraged” by upper management). When I worked at a US company in Japan, several Japanese told me that it was prized as a workplace because they got to home before 8 or 9PM.

      • Earl Kinmonth

        I have been talking about this issue in my lectures to Japanese students for more than a decade. At long last, Japanese are starting to recognize this time wasting practice that puts a special burden on women. One of the advantages of being in Japanese academia rather than Japanese private sector employment is that I do not have to deal with this issue. Here I am in basic agreement with you.

      • One Bloomberg journalist writing a story about an issue in Japan is not representative of the entire USA.

        Japan and the USA have an exceptionally close relationship, so the events or actions in one country will affect the other. There is much BOTH countries need to do, not just the US as you say.

  • Yes, unfortunately in most Western countries employers are not able to ask certain questions in the interview process by law, as they are viewed to be “discriminatory”, which leads to these situations.

    An anonymous alleged quote of “I’m not having any pregnant b-tches working for me” is an news goldmine, as such bravado clears a path to believe one need not ask any further questions. However, I wonder if anyone can suppress their own conditioned outrage long enough to wonder why the person uttering that statement has come to believe that.

  • JB

    I have been living in Japan for a while and this type of incident is rampant and accepted in the Japanese culture, for both men and women of all ages. No matter how much media attention this news is going to get, nothing much is going to change. First, it is too much of a conformed society and big on “respecting their elders”. The politicians who did this might get reprimanded just for show but no real change is going to happen in the near future because there are lot of people in this country who feel they were justified to ask those questions and they surely don’t believe women should juggling babies and a career at the same time. I mean, who would take care of the old people and also the men if the women went to work and make more money than them? They need a big security blanket. And for the women here, I am not saying all or majority, but there are MANY who are not interested in working. Why? Because no matter how hard they work and how good they are at your job, they will be subjected to slaving to their male bosses such as making tea for the rest of their careers or him looking down on them because they are unmarried from the age of 28. Oh, and forget about continuing to work if they do get married. Not just the boss, but the HR of the company would heckle them to quit because they would be a liability if they ever get pregnant.

    If you haven’t heard of this, I am not exaggerating. This is how it is here in most places, even in Tokyo. One clear evidence is the non-existent of Japanese women in Forbes’ list of the most 100 powerful women in the world. There are almost 10 from China, 3 from India, and even 1 strong candidate, their very own president, from their infamous sexist neighbor, South Korea.

    If you ask me, womenomics is just a side project in tackling the real problems the society is facing for their massive birth rate decline and insufficient work force to support their big aging population and to build their 2020 Olympics. If Japan wants to get real, they need to motivate their younger generation to make the change, like a less extreme version of a Cultural Revolution in China. A grass-root social reform to mobilize the younger generation to think and lay ahead a future for themselves. But that, in my unusual pessimism, is just a big fantasy.

    • Warren Lauzon

      I definitely agree. I lived in Japan for many years, from the late 70’s to the early 90’s, and saw what you described many times. For a time it seemed like it was changing, but judging from what has happened since I left, it was either only a surface change or has reverted. Yet most Japanese prefer to bury their head in the sand – even though almost every measure of demographics is against them. If they don’t start using women much more effectively, they simply will not have the workforce they need.
      And while South Korea is in many ways similar in attitude, South Korea seems capable of change, while Japan seems stuck in an 1800’s time warp. But you cannot really blame just the old fogeys in power – the fact that so many Japanese women willingly accept their role is what bothers me the most.

  • Warren Lauzon

    Japan has long been one of the most sexist nations on earth, but over the past decade or so they actually seem to have taken several steps backwards. The problem in Japan is that much of it is “covert” – they have all the right rules and laws, but they are all ignored in real life. Three or four years ago a (semi-documentary) movie was made about a Japanese woman that had a degree in robotics engineering and had graduated 2nd in her class. When hired by one of the big Japanese companies, she quickly discovered that it was a window dressing position, and in fact ended up as a “tea server” for her male counterparts. She quit and now (the real life person) works in Silicon Valley for a company competing against the very one she quit…

  • Warren Lauzon

    The supposed discrimination in the link does not compare in any way to the situation in Japan. A few isolated incidents such as they describe (and of which most were never proven) is not even close to the discrimination towards women in Japan (and to a large extent South Korea). You can find hundreds of over the top comments by Japanese politicians and industry execs with a few Google searches – almost any of which would have resulted in someone getting fired or dis-elected in the USA and Euro countries. What you are doing is comparing something like burning the rice on the stove to a house burning down.

  • itoshima2012

    I would say it also requires the media to stop banging about the ” Japanese demographic Armageddon” …….. we have one child and we are constantly really constantly pestered why we don’t have another one or possibly an other 2 because people are bombarded every day by the media on the fact that we’ll die out…. unless we keep breeding like rabbits (usually the Japanese part) or open the doors to millions of foreigners (usually the gaijins) – Jesus Christ we are 120 million in this country, I mean, with all the technology and outsourcing and globalized manufacturing when will the media stop talking about this NON PROBLEM, no we’re not dying out, no we don’t need another million of foreigners a year!! Actually it’s the other way round, we’re over 7 billion on this planet and that’s the REAL problem! Not that we’re to little for fxxxx sake!

    I said this because all this BS puts a lot of pressure on women and they have to constantly listen to the politicians stupid remarks on breeding breeding like no tomorrow!

  • akelo

    Who wants to have sex with men if they behave like that?
    Of course, only a small proportion of Japanese men behave like those heckling lawmakers. Most shocking is that no-one attempts to silence the hecklers during the speech. Japan clearly needs their own version of former Australian PM Julia Gillard.

  • yyj72

    “What’s wrong with being sexy?” – Nigel Tufnel

  • Warren Lauzon

    That is at least partly true. While it is easy to blame only the men, there are two sides (genders) to this issue. And one could make the argument that many Japanese women are even more sexist towards non-traditional Japanese women are than men.

  • Bagaboo

    One weird thing I found in Japan is that when talking to kids, they’d sometimes talk about visiting their “grandma’s home”, not their “grandparents’ home”. I don’t understand why grandpa is left out. That’s one of the saddest things about Japan. Obviously not all households are like that, but there does seem to be this idea that the home is the mother’s home, not the family’s home. If I ever have a kid with a Japanese woman in Japan, there’s no way she’s taking my rights as a father away from me. Give me time with my kids, or I’ll take them with me and leave the country. I wouldn’t get divorced because the Japanese courts almost always give custody to the mother. Just one day, out of the blue while mom’s got some plans, take the kids straight to Narita and get on a plane.

    • fenaray

      My Canadian grandchildren also refer to my house as “Nana’s” house and they are insanely fond of their “Papa.” I’m not sure it’s a Japanese thing.

  • disqus_4NsfhsQIBv

    If a mere comment reduced her to tears, then she is too weak to be a leader and should step down. If she can be so shattered by mere words, what would she do if Japan were attacked by North Korea, or if there were another tsunami? (God forbid!) You don’t see male politicians crying when someone hurls verbal insults at them, but when it’s done to a woman, everything has to come to a grinding halt. This woman needs to shut the hell up and get back to work. She’s wasting the tax payer’s money!