On Feb. 17, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized for a remark he made in response to a comment from opposition lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto during a Lower House Budget Committee meeting in the Diet. Tsujimoto was talking about what she perceived to be corruption in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Abe appeared to be annoyed by the comment, saying it was “meaningless.” The opposition demanded an apology and, while Abe did say he was sorry, he qualified his remorse by saying the outburst was a reaction to Tsujimoto’s “abuse.”

Tsujimoto has always been a forceful foil to the LDP, not so much because she is a member of the opposition but more because she’s a woman. Her aggressive debating style, as with those of other female opposition lawmakers such as Mizuho Fukushima and Shiori Yamao, seems to get under the skin of the LDP’s boys club in ways that the debating style of male opposition lawmakers does not. 

Women have long complained about this distinction. Men who are confrontational when they assert their views tend to be seen as assertive and forthright, while women who do the same thing are considered emotional. In Japan, the woman who best provokes this prejudice is Yoko Tajima, a women’s studies scholar who became a TV personality in the 1990s, mainly through her regular appearances on the TV Asahi political talk show “Beat Takeshi’s TV Tackle,” where she locked horns with male pundits. Tajima earned a reputation as an “angry feminist,” a label TV producers played up to boost ratings. Eventually, Tajima left the show as a regular and, although she still appears on TV, she’s mostly faded from the public’s consciousness. Her cultural residue has become that of a woman who exploited her scholarship for the sake of notoriety. When men called her a feminist they used the term derisively, and many avowed feminists didn’t take her seriously.

In the past several months, however, Tajima has enjoyed something of a resurgence. One of her books, written more than 20 years ago, is selling relatively well and she’s been the subject of increased media coverage. The impetus seems to have been a feature published last November in the literary periodical Etc. According to a Feb. 20 article in the Asahi Shimbun, two editors of the magazine, both in their late 30s, grew up watching Tajima on “TV Tackle.” 

In the introduction to the Etc feature, one of the editors, Mariko Yamauchi, wrote that “TV Tackle” generated laughs by pitting Tajima’s “sound arguments” against the male panelists’ patronizing logic and, as a result, Tajima came across as willful and obstinate, an image that became fixed. Yamauchi accepted this image until she started reading Tajima’s books and her opinion changed. 

As Yamauchi’s co-editor, Asako Yuzuki, told the Asahi Shimbun, prior to publishing the feature, which included appreciative comments from younger writers, she searched the internet and almost everything she found about Tajima was negative. Nevertheless, the resulting issue was so popular that Etc ran a second printing in January. 

Women’s studies scholar Teruko Inoue, who at 77 is a contemporary of Tajima, told the Asahi Shimbun that Tajima’s manufactured image may have had a negative impact on feminism among students at the time, but also thinks younger people now admire Tajima because she sticks to her opinions. 

The image was not lost on Tajima herself. As she explained during an interview on the Feb. 17 installment of the TBS radio show “Ogiue Chiki Session-22,” when she first started appearing on “TV Tackle” she would tape three-hour discussions about current affairs with host “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, and would always “win” the arguments. In their final edited form, however, the programs always gave Kitano the last word. She objected to this selective editing and threatened to quit, but didn’t — at least not right away. 

Having entered TV as the emcee for NHK’s English conversation class shortly after returning to Japan from the University of London, where she was a visiting scholar, she was still not media literate when she subsequently secured a stint as a kind of relationship counselor for the afternoon variety show “Waratte Iitomo!” in 1990. Unfamiliar with such programs, Tajima was mystified by the on-air behavior of the TV personalities. Everything she said was met with ridicule, which, of course, is the basic idea of comedian-driven variety shows. Nevertheless, she went from there to “TV Tackle” still believing her views were valued. She might have quit earlier if a mentor hadn’t told her she should use TV as a “loudspeaker” for her feminist views, even if only part of what she said got through.

But another reason she wasn’t taken seriously was that, as Yamauchi points out, Tajima’s feminism was informed by personal experience rather than formal learning. She developed her outlook by applying her childhood growing up with an abusive single mother to her chosen field of study, English literature. In her 1992 book “Ai to Iu Na no Shihai” (“Control in the Name of Love”), which was reprinted last fall, she describes how she learned about oppression by watching her mother suffer for being thrust into a role she resented but couldn’t escape. As Tajima explains on “Session-22,” the doctrinaire feminists of her generation came to the movement through a larger approach to socioeconomics: They were either Marxist or “ecological” feminists. Tajima’s feminism is personal, her anger reactive. She saw firsthand how the patriarchy destroyed her mother. It’s the diligence she exercises in interrogating her past that gives validity to her pronouncements, but her image has been tarnished by the dismissive attitudes of men who can’t stand the idea of being challenged by a woman, especially with such righteous force.

On “Session-22” Tajima insisted her feminism springs naturally from her need to be free, which is why financial independence is her first priority, a stance that made her something of a heretic. Yamauchi finds this attitude refreshing, because Tajima cares more about enjoying life than being understood.

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