National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Men still making houses as women try to leave home

by Michael Hoffman

Dogen Ogata’s name is known worldwide before he knows it himself. He’s 8 months old. One day last month, in all innocence, cradled in his mother’s arms, he attended a session of the Kumamoto municipal assembly.

Yuka Ogata, 42, is a member of the assembly. Dogen is not. The Washington Post described the scene as follows: “(Yuka) Ogata had hardly sat down before four men, including Chairman Yoshitomo Sawada, confronted her about bringing the baby into the chamber. A fifth man lingered behind them.”

The gangsterish overtones are surely hyperbolic. But five years into an administration promoting “womenomics” and urging women to “shine” — because, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe piously declared in 2014, “If women shine, Japan will shine more and more” — Ogata’s eviction (she later returned, having left the baby with a friend) highlighted something hollow at the core of the official feminism.

The family as an institution is in transition. Lawyer Naoko Shinoda summed it up in an Asahi Shimbun interview last month: “Raising children is (now) the responsibility of society as a whole.” Abe’s public utterances are rich in acknowledgement of this radical paradigm shift from family to “society.” He wants — the nation needs — women giving birth. He wants — the economy demands — women working. He can’t have both without day care. And so he champions day care. “We will do our utmost to cut waiting lists to zero so that people can both work and raise children,” he vowed last year.

The women’s weekly Josei Seven smells a rat. It’s hard not to. “Shining” has never come easily to Japanese women. Samurai culture gave them short shrift, peace little more. The women who “shone” in the post-civil-war Edo Period (1603-1868) were the pleasure-quarter courtesans — sex slaves, we’d call them today. The rest kept low profiles. As for the modernizing 19th and prewar 20th centuries, the best they could do for women was make of them “good wives, wise mothers.” Nursery, kitchen, bedroom — their goodness and wisdom could shine there. Men would take care of the rest.

Nursery, kitchen and bedroom are essentially where Beate Sirota Gordon found women in 1946 when, all of 22 years old, having grown up partly in Tokyo, she was tapped by the American-led postwar Occupation to help draft a democratic Constitution for the defeated nation.

Article 24 of the Constitution is largely her work. It reads: “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis. With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.”

This was beyond radical. It was shocking. “Mutual consent of both sexes.” “Individual dignity.” “Essential equality of the sexes.” The unit that mattered in traditional Japan had been not the individual but the family. A woman’s subordination was unquestioned: unmarried, she was ruled by her father; married, by her husband. No longer. In theory at least, if less so in practice, she became a full-fledged adult human being.

It’s hard — not impossible, however — to see in this anything other than a step forward, from bondage to freedom, from injustice to justice. In fact, there smolders here and there in the body politic an undying resentment of the “individualism,” which the Occupation, flush with victory and deaf and blind to the “beautiful customs” of the native culture, foisted on Japan. Symbolizing democracy and liberty to most, but defeat, humiliation and national impotence to some, the Constitution no sooner became law than factions arose demanding its amendment, its Japanization.

Abe is heir to that tradition. The Constitution has never been amended. Abe makes no secret of his wish to go down in history as the one who amends it.

Attention focuses on the famous Article 9, under which “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” Liberals rally round it, conservatives revile it as a national emasculation. Under Abe it has already been “reinterpreted” almost out of existence. Would amendment give it the coup de grace?

And Article 24? Is it safe? Josei Seven fears not. Its headline reads, “Prime Minister Abe wants to strip gender equality from Japan’s Constitution.”

Does he? There is no proof that he does. He says he doesn’t. But the Liberal Democratic Party he leads — at least some prominent cliques within it — sees individualism as corrosive to national unity. Josei Seven quotes the late Kunio Hatoyama, minister of justice in Abe’s first administration (2007-08), as saying, “The worst flaw in Japan’s Constitution is not Article 9 but Article 24, which absolutely does not recognize the family.”

It doesn’t, if recognition accorded the individual is recognition withheld from the family. A draft constitutional revision the LDP issued in 2012, while briefly in opposition, addresses that supposed flaw. To Article 24 as it now stands, the draft would add: “A family shall be respected as a natural and basic unit of society and (family members) shall help each other.” Respect for the family is not controversial, unless it means respect for its despotic authority. Family members helping each other is similarly benign, unless it’s code for reversing the shift Shinoda indicated from family to society — and why mention it otherwise?

If the family is a “natural and basic unit of society,” the individual isn’t. If the individual is not — what then? Seven decades of postwar freedom are undone. Josei Seven quotes Sirota Gordon as saying, “If women don’t have human rights, Japan is not at peace.” The women she designed Article 24 to liberate could not vote, had their husbands chosen for them, were divorced at their husbands’ convenience but could not divorce at theirs and were liable to legal penalties for adultery, as their husbands were not.

Seventy years later, the Japanese family is in crisis. Individuals, increasingly, are opting out of it— as are couples, if “family” means the birth and rearing of children. Today, marriage and children are choices like any other. One weighs the pros and cons, the standpoint being personal rather than national. The state needs babies? Let it produce them — or at least finance their production, or make room for them in workplaces and political assemblies. Here, conservatives fear, are the bitter fruits of constitutionally fostered individualism: the state reduced to serving the individual who had once elevated himself by serving the state.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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