Commentary / Japan

Gender equality and the mass media

by Toko Shirakawa

Japan’s position in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality ranking receded from 111th in 2016 to 114th this year. Instead of shaking off the disreputable honor of being called an underdeveloped country in terms of women’s role in society, we seem to be sinking even further. Japan is indeed making efforts; A law has been established to promote more active roles for women in government and businesses, and a company that previously had no women in management positions suddenly appointed more than 10 female employees as section chiefs. Still, Japan is not catching up with other countries where changes are taking place much faster.

Why is gender equality not making more rapid progress in Japan?

The labor minister of Sweden, which is deemed a leader in gender equality, once told me that the momentum for women taking up more active roles in the country built up in the 1970s after the abolition in 1972 of a system that jointly taxed married couples and introduction of individual-based taxation. The influence of tax reform is huge. In Japan, meanwhile, abolition of the spousal deduction scheme in income taxation has long been discussed but never implemented.

An official of the Swedish Embassy also remarked that while the government establishes the system, it’s the mass media that plays a major role in building the social mold. To be frank, the Japanese media’s understanding of gender equality is far too insufficient. Mass media in this country remains a male-dominated community. When I once attended a gathering of the top executives of major media outlets, I saw only one woman.

A typical scene on a news program broadcast by a Japanese TV station may tell the story. A male anchorman takes the center stage, accompanied by young female announcer in an assistant role. A woman who works at a TV station said she feels ashamed whenever such scenes at her company are on display alongside the images from TV news programs of major broadcasters overseas. She also said she was once asked why it is only male newscasters who are featured in special programs reporting on major disasters.

Japan is known worldwide as a major producer of anime. In most of the popular anime programs for children, the mother is often portrayed as a housewife with no job. There are no scenes of her commuting to work.

There are rumors that the long-running animated series “Sazae-san” may finally come to an end. For decades since broadcast of the series started in 1969, “Sazae-san” captivated large numbers of Japanese families at 6:30 p.m. every Sunday. Sazae-san, the main character of the anime, is a housewife with a 3-year-old son who lives in a house where three generations live together. Japanese loved the series so much — even the term “Sazae-san syndrome” was coined to refer to the gloomy sentiment you feel when the weekend is over (because the weekly broadcast of the program was deemed to spell the end of the weekend). Despite her enviable environment, however, Sazae-san never had a job.

Was that because Sazae-san’s story is set up in the old-day Japan (with 2020 marking the 100th birthday of the original comic series’ late author)? However, the setup of the mother character as a housewife with no job is also seen in more recent popular anime like “Crayon Shin-chan” and “Yokai Watch.” A friend of mine who has a career-track job — and is the mother of twin boys — says she tries to show here sons that she and her husband equally share the housework. One day, she asked one of the sons to be ready to cook when he grows up — and was surprised to hear him reply that he would rather have his wife do the cooking. When she asked why, she found that he has been influenced by the “Yokai Watch” anime. Such is the “education” that children are getting subconsciously from watching anime on TV.

Earlier, I organized a roundtable discussion for my book on work-style reforms by inviting women with children who work for major media organizations. What I learned from them was that they are being habitually exposed to verbal, sexual, power and maternity harassment by their colleagues and superiors — one of the participants said she was told that since she is a reporter, she should not give birth to too many children. It appears that their employers do not even recognize that some women raise children while working as reporters. The industry’s perception of the job is so rigid that reporters are deemed a failure if they can’t work 24 hours a day or women who had children are rated “class-B” reporters.

I was told that the shortage of nursery schools for children in this country had long been rejected as a topic of news report — until the blog post “Die Japan!” by an angry mother who was unable to secure day care services for her child was widely taken up and shed light on the problem. One of the reporters said she had pleaded with her company for years to cover the issue in its news program — only to be turned down by male editors. A male employee of Google Japan who read the book expressed horror that such people control the dispatch of information that will have major social impact.

How would such a mass media treat the problem of sexual violence against women? The issue can create quite an uncomfortable scene for some.

Charges accusing Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful movie producers in Hollywood, of sexually harassing actresses and staff for many years have triggered the #MeToo social media movement, in which people — both men and women — come forward to complain about the sexual harassment and violence that they have experienced.

I saw a news/variety program on TV that took up that topic, and the male emcee of the program, as well as others in the studio, seemed unable to make clear-cut arguments. Among the guests, a man with powerful influence in the entertainment industry spoke up and dominated the discussions — he was speaking to the effect that men are not always to blame, and that some women approach men with honey traps. It almost sounded like he was claiming that men with power are targeted and are therefore victims.

Those people do not seem to know the principle of sexual consent. Even if a man and a woman dine and drink together, the party who wants to go further will have to attain the other’s consent. Now, a group of young Japanese women is holding a crowdfunding campaign (camp-fire.jp/projects/view/46642) to spread the concept of sexual consent among university students.

A book titled “Tchikan” was published in France based on a confession by a young Japanese woman on her experience of being subjected to groping on commuter trains in Japan. The reason the book’s title is rendered in Japanese is that there is no equivalent word in French. In France, people reportedly refer to such an act on public transport as sexual violence. I would like to suggest that Japanese TV and newspapers start by calling those acts sexual violence — before “chikan” gets established as a term referring exclusively to what’s happening in Japan, just like the word “karōshi” is used to describe death from overwork.

Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.

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