Recent recommendations issued to Japan by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women sparked a sharp response from Tokyo.

The U.N. body touched on several politically sensitive issues, including that of the so-called “comfort women” forced to serve troops during World War II. Below, we look at what the committee does and the accusations it leveled at Japan.

What is the committee?

The committee monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which was adopted at the 34th United Nations General Assembly in 1979.

In total 189 countries have signed the convention. Japan joined in 1985.

The committee consists of 23 independent experts on women’s issues who convene about three times a year to track progress by member states in meeting the convention’s requirements.

The committee is chaired by Japanese women’s rights lawyer Yoko Hayashi, who was elected to the post in February last year.

What is the reviews process?

About six or seven states party to the convention are reviewed every time the committee meets. At the session that took place between Feb. 15 to March 4, the committee examined eight countries, including Japan.

Party states are obliged to submit a report every four years. The country under review must answer preliminary questions in writing before it attends the committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. A task force within the committee is set up to review each country, and the committee produces a final report based on the discussion.

What was said about Japan?

The committee did recognize Japan’s efforts toward better working conditions for women, but it urged the nation to make changes in several areas, especially those related to parenthood.

For one, the committee pointed out that the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Act forced persons with disabilities into sterilization. It said approximately 16,500 cases of sterilization were conducted without consent, noting that Japan made no efforts to compensate victims — and nor did it apologize. The report recommended that Japan conduct a study on the forced sterilizations and prosecute and punish those who conducted them.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights also pointed to this issue back in 1998, but Tokyo has taken no action to remedy it, as the program was allowed under the law of the time.

Tomoko Yonezu, a member of DPI Women’s Network Japan, which advocates for the rights of women with disabilities, said the recommendation represents pressure on the Japanese government and is a big step forward.

“Some women with disabilities are still asked if they really want to have babies and are even advised to have abortions,” said Yonezu, 67, who suffered from polio. “Some Japanese people still harbor a bias against disabled people, and think they should not have children.”

The U.N. body also expressed concerns that Japan prohibits women from remarrying immediately after divorce, but not men. The Supreme Court last December ruled that the six-month ban is unconstitutional. In the wake of that decision, women still must wait 100 days to remarry.

The U.N. also urged Japan to amend the Maternal Protection Act to “ensure the legality of abortion.” Under the current law, abortion can only be conducted with spousal consent, even if the pregnancy is a result of rape, or if the economic or physical conditions would gravely endanger the mother’s health. The U.N. urged Japan to remove the requirement of spousal consent and ensure that abortion can be allowed in case of serious fetal impairment.

How did the government react?

The recommendation this year touched on several politically sensitive areas.

Especially controversial were the commission’s comments on the agreement reached between Tokyo and Seoul last December over comfort women: It criticized the deal for not fully adopting a “victim-centered approach.”

The report went on to say that some of the victims died “without obtaining an official unequivocal recognition of responsibility” from Japan for the “serious human rights violations that they suffered,” and urged Japan to “provide full and effective redress and reparation, including compensation, satisfaction, official apologies and rehabilitative services.”

Under the bilateral accord, Seoul is to set up a foundation to which Tokyo will provide ¥1 billion in a fund for surviving victims. Additionally, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse” to all the women.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that the U.N. criticism is “deplorable and unacceptable.” He also holds that the concluding observations are far from the perception of the international community, and said the criticism missed the point.

A high-ranking government official said Japan had worked hard to build consensus around the issue. He added, he suspects that the mention of the comfort women was politically motivated, as the task force that reviewed Japan was headed by Xiaoqaio Zou, a Chinese committee member.

Tokyo was also unnerved by the committee’s initial intention to criticize the 1947 Imperial Household Law, which only allows a male to succeed the Chrysanthemum throne. The government lodged a protest with the committee, which later removed the criticism.

Abe on Monday restated criticism of the matter, saying the Imperial household system, rooted in the county’s history and traditions, has long been supported by the public.

“It is obvious that (the law) does not intent to discriminate against women,” Abe said at a meeting of an Upper House committee. He said the move by the U.N. committee was “totally inappropriate.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.