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Japan’s quiet #MeToo movement says everything

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As the #MeToo movement spans the globe, spinning a presidential bubble for Oprah Winfrey and putting spotlights on hidden corners of sexism, Japan is conspicuous for a relative silence, particularly where it matters most.

There have indeed been some vital demands for justice at ground level, particularly Shiori Ito. The freelance journalist went public with rape allegations last May, well before the Harvey Weinstein reckoning. Japanese women also have bombarded the Twittersphere with support for the movement, putting their nation in the #MeToo traffic Top 10.

But why the thunderous silence from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet, given a platform that pinned gender equality as a key metric? “Womenomics” is, after all, synonymous with the prime minister’s reform program as Abenomics enters its sixth year. Abe is largely mum on the urgent need to protect, empower and inspire women in the workplace, politics and entertainment. So is Seiko Noda, whom Abe tapped in August to drive better utilization of the female workforce to spur national growth and advance social progress.

“Abe is always grandstanding on womenomics, so here is a chance for him to chalk up a win for women in the workplace,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “Until the Diet passes laws with teeth, victims of debasing behavior have no real recourse to regain their dignity and make companies pay for their complicity.”

The trouble is that by one narrow measure — the number of women entering the labor force — Abenomics can claim success. The ratio of women between 15 to 64 in the workforce has increased by 1 percentage point or more in each year of Abe’s prime ministership, winning plaudits from the Brookings Institution in Washington. Yet corporate Japan is routing a disproportionate number of women into informal jobs that pay less and enjoy fewer protections. The more important metric: At the same moment last year that female participation hit 66 percent, women accounted for two-thirds of workers on irregular job statuses such as part-timers.

That mirror image is a big stain on Abe’s womenomics spin, one about which the World Economic Forum has no misgivings. In November, just as Abe shared a stage with Ivanka Trump (whose dad stands accused of sexual assault) at Tokyo’s World Assembly for Women, WEF slashed Japan’s gender-empowerment ranking to an all-time low. On Abe’s watch, Japan has gone from 98th place to 114th. Five-plus years into Abenomics, Japan still trails Saudi Arabia in the number of women in politics. Not one Nikkei 225 company is run by Japanese women.

When you ask leading empowerment voices about Japan’s most pressing needs, be they Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook or Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs, it’s role models. In top-down Japan, sadly, trailblazers often have to come from inspired governance. Abe, for example, has not entrusted a key Cabinet portfolio to a woman — foreign affairs, finance or chief Cabinet secretary.

Yuriko Koike surely deserves a shout-out here. Tokyo’s first female governor shocked the patriarchy in 2016 by beating the favored candidate of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, a nondescript 60-something man (of course!). Yet even Koike is treading carefully about getting on the #MeToo bandwagon.

If any developed nation needs a “lean in” moment, in the Sandberg sense, it’s Japan. America, and the West in general, surely has its problems. Facing his own torrent of allegations, President Donald Trump has aggressively avoided #MeToo. How often, though, does the OECD call out a Group of Seven economy for institutionalized sexism, as it has with Japan?

It’s a complex problem, one hard to separate from issues of culture, tradition and social mores. And admittedly, U.S. comparisons are dubious. When Ruth Benedict wrote of Japan’s “shame culture” versus America’s “guilt culture” in “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” she did so in 1946, 58 years before the advent of social media. The ubiquity of online defaming tools explains, in part, why Japan’s #MeToo moment has been a quieter affair.

“You don’t want to bring shame on your family or society by talking about having been the victim of sexual misconduct, so you say nothing,” explains Nancy Snow of Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. “But that silence implies consent and we must create an atmosphere that allows the victim to express that is linked to Japan’s overall betterment as a high-status member of global society.”

Japanese lawmakers need to embrace #MeToo as a human rights problem, one whose solutions would reap broader benefits — from the quality of leadership to economic innovation. The question, of course, is what might catalyze change? Snow argues it may take a high-profile and well-respected woman — or a group of women — to step forward and drive a Japanese movement from the grass-roots on up, creating a cathartic wave of activism.

Abe can help. Along with promoting women to top Cabinet roles, he can urge lawmakers to level playing fields and tighten gender protections. First, though, Mr. Womenomics should use the bully pulpit only a national leader can and cry “Japan too!”

Based in Tokyo, American journalist William Pesek is the author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”