Japan’s status quo crumbles with an apology to a woman



On June 23, a middle-aged male Japanese politician, dressed in the traditional dark suit and ’80s-retro haircut, walked in front of a waiting line of news cameras, to where a younger female politician waited. As the cameras flashed, he apologized to the woman, and bowed deeply; she looked on gravely.

To a naive Western observer, this scene might look like just another day in the byzantine, hidebound world of Japanese politics. But I’ve been watching Japanese politics and civil society for more than a decade now, and when I saw Akihiro Suzuki bow to Ayaka Shiomura, I caught my breath. I knew what I was seeing was big. Epochal, even.

The background: On June 18, Assemblywoman Shiomura, who belongs to a small minority party, was speaking to the Tokyo city assembly about the need for programs to support working women — a point that has been a main theme of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration. While she was speaking, someone from Abe’s dominant Liberal Democratic Party yelled: “You should get married!” and “Can’t you even bear a child?”

Shiomura, visibly disturbed, finished her speech, after which she returned to her seat and began to cry. After the incident, Shiomura and other opposition politicians requested that the LDP find and punish the heckler, but party officials responded that they didn’t know the identity of the heckler, and hence could do nothing.

In the Japan of the 1990s or early 2000s, that probably would have been the end of the issue. But not this time. Soon, the story was all over the Japanese news, and complaints began pouring in. Petitions appeared and circulated, demanding that the offenders be found and forced to apologize (about 100,000 people signed). A network of feminist groups, led by Change.org, made the issue a rallying point.

A few days later, the LDP caved, identifying Akihiro Suzuki as the man responsible for at least some of the heckling. The historic apology followed soon after. But that didn’t stop an angry man from egging Suzuki’s house!

This incident is only a symbol, but it points to a larger underlying trend — the metamorphosis of Japanese women from a subservient caste, valued only for their delicate beauty and homemaking skills, to full-fledged equal members of society. Abe, of course, is making a name as the chief booster of women’s economic equality, but it turns out that he’s jumping on a trend that’s been building for a while.

Working-age women’s employment has been climbing steadily since the early 2000s, and is now higher than in the U.S. Slowly, Japanese companies are hiring more female managers and executives, and Japanese voters are electing more female politicians.

Meanwhile, social change is happening as well. Popular TV shows now depict women as tough, smart lawyers. Child pornography — which exploits large numbers of teenage girls — was finally banned this month. The man who egged the sexist politician’s house is an example of a growing trend of “white knighting” (men standing up for women who are being bullied in public) in a country more traditionally known for train groping.

All change is generational; some older, conservative Japanese men still view women as inferiors, to be bullied and humiliated at will (much like in the U.S.). Just a couple of weeks after the Shiomura incident, a female politician in Osaka was heckled in a similar incident. Japan still lags far behind most other rich nations in gender equality.

But there are two forces driving social change in Japan. The first is the changing of the guard. As Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Foundation has noted, the 76er generation — Japan’s equivalent of America’s Generation X — is far more liberal in its outlook than the older baby boomers. Feminists such as Mariko Bando, Chizuko Ueno, and Akie Abe (yes, the prime minister’s wife!) have gained national celebrity, and a new generation, such as writer Renge Jibu and activists Asako Osaki and Emmy Suzuki-Harris, are gaining in prominence as well.

Meanwhile, younger male executives, politicians and academics are also talking much more openly about the need for women’s equality.

The second force is economic, and here Abe becomes the central figure. Abe’s reforms include moves toward shareholder capitalism, free trade, lower corporate taxes, and deregulation — a sort of delayed Reagan-Thatcher revolution. Those measures, even if partly successful, will put pressure on Japanese companies to hire women (who offer more productivity per dollar than men), to reform the rigid labor systems that are biased against working mothers, and to ditch the expensive drinking sessions that preserve the “boys’ club” mentality.

Many Westerners and Japanese people alike tend to view Japan as an ancient, unchanging samurai culture, bound eternally in traditional feudal values. But Japan is turning out to be much more like Europe and America — a place capable of social as well as economic progress, a place capable of reinventing itself through both evolution and revolution.

Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University

  • Steve Jackman

    The author of this article clearly has not been following this news closely, since he seems to have missed some key points in his story.

    Suzuki’s obligatory and staged apology to Shiomura is meaningless, since it is the routine kabuki theatre you see in Japan everyday. It does nothing to address the underlying problem of sexism and sexual harassment in Japan. As the article by Masami Ito in The Japan Times shows, sexual harassment and sexism are common occurances in Japanese local assemblies, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. This incident is just the tip of the iceberg. Suzuki’s public apology to Shiomura was orchestrated to quickly cover-up this incident and sweep the dirt under the rug, since it was getting so much press coverage overseas (too bad the author of this article fell for it so readily).

    Does Noah not realize that Suzuki was far from alone in this and that several members of the Tokyo assembly were responsible for Shiomura’s sexist heckling? Yet, no one else has come forward, other than using Suzuki as the scapegoat. Press has also reported that almost all members of the assembly from the ruling LDP and Tokyo’s governor joined in the laughter as the sexist heckling continued and Shiomura tried to tearfully continue her speech. In spite of this, not a single assembly member has been punished in any way.

    The petition by change.org was in response to the fact that the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly even refused to accept Shiomura’s petition to hold the hecklers accountable, since she could not identify the hecklers by name within three days of the incident, as required by assembly rules. Suzuki was asked by Japanese press within this period if he was one of the hecklers, but he lied by denying that he had anything to do with it. This tactic helped him avoid being censured by the assembly, since he only came clean after the three day deadline had elapsed. Basically, members of the Tokyo assembly have circled the wagons and are involved in an ongoing conspiracy to hide the identities of the perpetrators who they were sitting next to during their dispicable behavior.

    As for women’s participation in the Japanese workplace, numbers alone do not tell the entire story. Their participation rate may be relatively high, but the quality of the jobs they are in is extremely low, since they are overwhelmingly concentrated in temporary low paying unskilled service jobs with no job security or advancement opportunities. Living in Japan, I almost never see women in management or leadership positions. The Japanese workplace is an extremely hostile place for women and foreign workers. Japanese society and the microcosm of its workplace are rife with sexual and racial discrimination, bullying and harassment against women and racial minorities. This will continue to hold Japan back.

    In spite of Abe’s smoke and mirrors campaign, things are very much business-as-usual in Japan. In fact, sexism, racism, discrimination, insularity and xenophobia have been on the rise since Abe’s nationalist and conservative government took office.

  • Steve Jackman

    A lot of stupidity happens on what passes for Japanese TV shows, so let’s not even go there.

    The point is that this is not just about Shiomura only. As the artcle in The Japan Times by Masami Ito, dated, June 24, 2014, under the heading, “Harassment Rife in Local Assemblies” shows, sexism and sexual harassment are commonplace in Japanese local assemblies, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly.

    Are you going to dig up dirt on these other assembly women too who’ve alledged the sexual harassment against them?

    • Tando

      Those who see women in Japan only as victims are ignorant of what is going on here.The problem has a lot to do with ossified outdated rolemodels on both sides of the gender divide. Men are the breadwinners, women stay at home and take care of household and kids. I have often experienced that women interpret this to their advantage. Men are still educated to perform in this system first in school then in teir jobs. Women have much more leeway. My wife and I worked both and took care of our kid both. But for the full time housewife friends of my wife I was kind of a looser because if I wasn´t, why would she have to work. Women who had not secured a husband with a salary big enough so they could stay at home used to refer to themselfs as “looser dogs(makeinu)”. My wife told me that Japanese women prefer to go out with their friends rather than their husbands. Have you tried to go to a playgroup with your kid on a regular weekday as guy as I did. There are no other fathers. They wouldn´t go there even if they could because it doesn´t conform to the norm. One middle aged homemaker without kids explained to me that it was them who enabled their husbands to perform in their job. “What came first the hen or the egg” she told me. When the time for his retirement came, she feared to loose her freedom and encouraged him very much to stay in the job. Although I can see that many women persue their own career there is an abundant number, who see in their husbands not a partner but rather the income that he provides. Here we are back at Shiomuras behaviour, because reducing men to a source of income seems to be perfectly OK. That said I would like to emphasize that a concerted effort by men and women is necessary to change the status quo. 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.

  • A.J. Sutter

    Only someone capable of such an Orientalist and patronizing remark about “the metamorphosis of Japanese women from a subservient caste, valued only for their delicate beauty and homemaking skills, to full-fledged equal members of society” could believe the apology was “epochal.”

    That “metamorphosis” has been going on for a VERY long time. Japan’s 1946 constitution has an equal rights provision, unlike America’s. The percentage of Japanese women in the workforce has fluctuated between 45%-49% for more than 40 years. It was higher than the US rate in the early 1970s, higher than in the Netherlands and Germany until ca. 1995, and in 2010 it was still way higher than in Italy (at least, according to Eurostat and US Bureau of Labor Statistics). Yet when was the last time anyone talked about Italian women’s “delicate beauty and homemaking skills”?

    Far from being epochal, the apology was merely a cynical way of saving face for the other hecklers from the Prime Minister’s party, who had shouted even worse remarks. A shocking aspect of the incident was how *young* the offender/fall guy was. When he was in elementary school short pants, already about 48% of Japanese women were working. But he’s hardly alone: earlier this week Asahi carried a story about assemblywomen in Osaka who have been bullied by their colleagues *for having* children — suggesting a disgusting “heads I win, tails you lose” misogyny among Japan’s political classes.

    As for Abe “making a name as the chief booster of women’s economic equality, but it turns out that he’s jumping on a trend that’s been building for a while”: yes, but he’s interested only in making a name. His proposals for 3-year maternity leave actually will set back the cause of women’s equality. My wife, who after a career of 20+ years as a Tokyo sarariiman is now an entrepreneur, says the obvious: if the 3-year requirement became applicable to her company, she’d simply not hire women. Abe’s plan is meaningless unless companies lighten the burden on Japanese men, and also pay men and women enough to marry (median wages continue to fall). What Abe and the LDP are after is women’s votes, not actually doing anything for women.

    And apropos of Ronald Reagan, it’s voodoo economics to believe that “shareholder capitalism, free trade, lower corporate taxes, and deregulation” will “put pressure” on companies to hire women, ignoring for the moment the other damage those things will do to those who actually live in Japan. Recent labor reports show that while hiring of women has gone up, *full-time permanent* employment of women has *declined* thanks to Abenomics. (And BTW, shareholder capitalism even in the US puts pressure on companies to fire people, not hire them or boost their pay.) Reading through the Government’s new growth strategy and LDP’s economic proposal from past few weeks, it’s striking how the subtext is that everything having to do with children belongs primarily in the sphere of women, rather than couples. The role of men in Japan has to be re-thought no less than the role of women. One 40-something manager I know at a large company here recently told me proudly that he “took the whole afternoon off” when his first child was born several weeks earlier. The anachronistic reference to “expensive drinking sessions” may show the author is stuck in the Bubble Era (they were already obsolete at the big Japanese company I worked at in the early 2000’s), but it’s true that other medieval attitudes endure.

    It’s doubtful that breathless cheerleading for Abe — especially by non-residents who ignore his not-so-democratic politics and who don’t have to suffer the consequences of his policies — will help bring Japan into the 21st Century. That said, I do appreciate someone living in New York taking the time to enlighten us JT readers living in Japan that, contrary to what we might have thought, “it turns out” that people in Japan have been advocating a better deal for women “for a while.”

  • Upageya

    “Japan’s status quo crumbles with an apology to a woman”

    What is this supposed to be, a joke?

    Why is it that so many insults to human intelligence are published in this paper?

    If you ever look for an editor who can separate the garbage from reasonable opinions, let me know——

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Drivel that would be am embarrassment in a high school student newspaper.

  • GIJ

    When I want to read an authoritative voice on gender issues in Japan, naturally I turn to an American finance professor working at a university on Long Island. Smith has certainly decided that subtlety will not characterize his Japan Times columns, but he ought to try and reduce the number of ridiculous clichés per article, if possible.

    It would be nice if people commenting on gender issues in Japan could remember (or at least learn) that the “June and Ward Cleaver” type couples you often encounter in that country are a consequence of a deliberate choice made by Japanese political and economic leaders in circa 1955 to adopt the *American* model of female homemaker and male breadwinner that was the standard in the United States at that time. We’re not talking about some ancient, unchanging way of doing things in Japan that dates from the Nara Period or earlier.

    Critics of Japan’s gender relations should realize that the system they abhor is largely derivative of norms and ideas imported from the United States after World War II, and defenders of the status quo in Japan who feel that the country needs to keep its “traditional” ways in the face of pressure from white Westerners with a colonial mentality ought to realize that those ways are not really traditional at all. As somebody once so aptly put it, Japan is (or maybe was) more like America in the 1950s than America was, and there’s a reason for that.