During a Sept. 9 debate with the other candidates for Liberal Democratic Party president, eventual winner Yoshihide Suga said he would allow national health insurance coverage for infertility treatments in order to help households have more children. Japan’s birthrate has been low for decades, and the government is yet to come up with any measure to raise it. Some couples say they are unable to have children due to physiological issues, and infertility treatment is presently not covered by insurance, so Suga’s gambit makes some sense, but it doesn’t address the main problem, which is economical.
The government knows this and has tried to make it easier for women to balance working lives and motherhood with programs like funding day care services, but even these measures have fallen short.
In the South Korean movie, “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982,” based on the international bestseller by Cho Nam-joo and opening in Japan on Oct. 9, the titular character, a homemaker and mother of a 2-year-old girl, struggles with dissociative episodes in which she briefly becomes other people in her life. Her husband, Dae-hyeon, urges her to see a therapist, and at one point breaks down in front of her, despairing that Ji-young’s condition is his fault because he has not done enough to help her raise their daughter and maintain their comfortable Seoul apartment. Ji-young looks at him and wonders why he feels he has to “help” her. After all, this is his home, too. That toddler is his daughter, too.
Dae-hyeon, though well-meaning, misconstrues his wife’s condition and the circumstances from which it arose. However invested he is in his marriage and family, he still inherently believes that some things are the province of women, that his role is essentially that of provider and supporter. He is willing to take paternity leave for a year so that she can go back to work, but this decision is framed as a concession.
South Korea’s fertility rate is even lower than Japan’s, and while politics is not the theme of Cho’s story, her interrogation of Korean social norms reveal that the problem is too entrenched for public policy solutions. The title is more than descriptive. Kim Ji-young (a common South Korean name) belongs to the first generation of women who would attend university and enter the workforce ostensibly on an equal footing with men, but the traditions that govern family life never adapted to these changes, despite government programs devised to address the needs of two-income households.
Ji-young’s mother, who cheers when her daughter is hired by an advertising agency right out of college, gave up her own dream of becoming a school teacher in order to help put her two older brothers through university. When Ji-young takes maternity leave to have a child she wasn’t planning to have but which her in-laws strongly desire, she crumbles under the combined weight of filial obligation and stalled personal fulfillment. She later quits her job because it’s easier emotionally, but the tension remains.
The story incorporates sexual harassment and other social problems but not gratuitously. Cho shows how all these elements combine to create what is basically a schizophrenic cohort of women — told they are empowered, even privileged, they nevertheless see evidence to the contrary in their everyday existence. Statistics bear this out. South Korean women earned about 67 percent of what their male counterparts made in 2019, the worst ratio in the developed world.
That statistic is only slightly better in Japan, where former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” scheme increased women’s participation in the workforce but failed to significantly boost their income, mainly because many toil in irregular jobs due, in part, to tax laws and other outdated policies premised on the assumption that men are breadwinners and heads of household. Getting more women into government and other leadership positions would help correct this imbalance, and much reporting has covered Japan’s poor performance in that regard.
But even the media understands that little can be done as long as cultural norms are built into a social structure that delineates gender roles. In such an environment, the authorities can hardly be expected to work toward greater diversity, since they are part and parcel of this structure. The social narrative must change.
In a Sept. 11 column in the Asahi Shimbun, Ritsumeikan University associate professor Tomohiko Nezu articulated this dilemma. Nezu cites an April 2 declaration by the Asahi Shimbun that said it would double its portion of women in managerial positions and increase the number of women-written opinion pieces to at least 40 percent by 2030.
Nezu finds this declaration heartening, because “the media has a huge influence on (the public’s) perception of society.” Diversity in the press — in both the assigning and reporting of stories — is not just desirable from the standpoint of fairness. When only men choose stories and decide how to cover them, the news is invariably colored by their sensibility.
Nezu mentions a recent program produced by public broadcaster NHK about the influence of Tsuneo Watanabe, the editor-in-chief of Japan’s biggest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, on postwar Japan and points out that the only female voice heard during the entire documentary is that of the narrator. If at least half of the editorial decisions at major media companies were being made by women, how would coverage of such controversial issues as the low birthrate change? What about elective separate names for married couples? Or even the Japanese military’s brothels during World War II?
At a Sept. 12 news conference with the LDP presidential candidates, Shigeru Ishiba, who came in last in the election, demonstrated that he at least understood this situation. A reporter mentioned quotas for women, and Ishiba replied that the assembled press should look at its own house. Why weren’t women asking questions at this event? Each of the other two candidates for LDP president has three sons. Ishiba has two daughters. Sometimes, experience and empathy make all the difference in the world.