Commentary / Japan

Closing Japan's gender gap: The role of women in media

by Toko Shirakawa

The final days of 2019 saw a series of events of significance for women in Japan. Journalist Shiori Ito, who had gone public charging sexual assault by a former Washington bureau chief of a TV broadcaster, won the damages suit against the man. Japan was ranked 121st — its worst on record — in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index. Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) signed an agreement to support Thirty Precent Club Japan, a group of business executives committed to having women occupy 30 percent of the seats on their board. In 2020, we must endeavor to improve Japan’s gender gap standing — which is indeed shameful for an advanced country.

Promoting a young woman to an important position in this country is often accompanied by comments questioning her reliability or capability as leader. The news that a 34-year-old woman became prime minister in Finland — and all the leaders of the parties in her ruling coalition were young women — was greeted in Japan by many negative comments on Twitter.

But how would Japan’s own landscape appear to government officials or businesspersons in other countries? I’m afraid that many people overseas may be apprehensive whether it’s all right to keep this country in the hands of those elderly men in key positions.

The Japanese may have become so accustomed to the situation to feel anything extraordinary about it, but in Japan, either in business or in politics, the more homogeneous people tend to become the higher position they take — they are mostly men, of senior age and have experienced similar career paths. This will likely look unusual for people in other advanced nations.

Japan is certainly making various efforts to resolve its gender gap. One example is a symposium organized late last year by the Cabinet Office’s Gender Equality Bureau concerning women in the media industry. Women reporters from Asia-Pacific countries such as China, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand joined their counterparts here as they took part in the symposium and workshops.

During a panel discussion, a member of a Japanese mass media organization said the question of men or women is irrelevant in the media industry. But freelance journalist Renge Jibu pointed out that the sheer number of women in the media is too small compared with men, urging the industry to work harder to increase women in the sector.

It is often said that the media job does not distinguish between men and women. However, women account for only 20 percent of people who work at major media organizations — both in newspapers and TV broadcasters. They account for a mere 5 percent of those in management positions in the industry. Women in media are discriminated against first by being women, and then in the way they work once they have children.

Their 20 percent share is relevant because it means they fall short of the 30 percent threshold — which is deemed necessary to trigger changes. In an interview with Huffington Post, Shin Ki-young, an associate professor of Ochanomizu University’s Institute for Gender Studies, says, “If there is one woman among 10 men, she is treated as a doll. If there are two, they are made to estrange each other. If there are three, they can become true selves. If the ratio of women reaches the 30 percent level, a change will definitely come. A bit more effort will take us to that point.”

Women reporters in one workshop lamented that they are overwhelmed with the routine — that they are too busy with daily work and wonder if anything would change with the articles they write or programs they make. Still, they say that things have certainly changed since they first joined the organizations — for two reasons, digitalization and work-style reforms.

One of the reporters said, “As the number of digitalized articles has increased, readers’ reactions to long articles and articles on subjects that used to be rarely taken up have become visualized. The assumption that readers will not read such articles has turned out to be groundless. In the past, it was the mass media that graded the value of news. Today readers grade the value of news.”

It appears that the work-style reforms are proceeding, either in good or bad ways. The reporters said they are “recommended” to work more efficiently, they no longer need to follow the news sources from early morning to late at nights, they stopped working both Saturdays and Sundays and taking turns in weekend shifts, and they can now take long holidays without feeling guilty. Some expressed concern, however, that young reporters may not have enough time to be properly trained for the job.

No matter which country you work in, young women reporters tend to struggle in a male-centric environment. But they should realize that women play all the more significant roles in a male-centric society.

When a politician from Sweden, ranked 5th in the WEF’s gender gap index, once visited Japan, he said that tax reforms instituted 40 years ago contributed to making his country a gender-equal society. But he then added that while the government makes policies and systems, it is the media’s role to change the culture and social atmosphere of a country.

Then it dawned on me — that Japan may lag far behind other industrialized countries in the gender gap index because its media industry is trapped in the male-centric homogeneity. Subsequent hearings on women in mass media led me to believe that Japan’s media industry faces the risk of homogeneity.

Take the issue of the shortage of nursery schools as an example. It is an issue that working mothers in the media have long argued is a social challenge that carries strong news value. But their proposal to take up the issue have often been rejected by the senior male editors. Men who have spent long hours on the job while leaving their wives to care for their children must have found it unusual for mothers to work by leaving their children in day care services. Until an anonymous blogger’s comment “My child was turned down by a nursery school. Japan must die!” became a major social topic, the shortage of day care services was not given big coverage by major media organizations.

I once asked a Cabinet minister what constitutes public opinion for a politician. That’s what appears in newspapers and on TV, he answered. If editors and producers in the media had the good news sense to take up the shortage of nursery schools much earlier, I believe that progress on the issue would have been made five years earlier.

There will emerge a gap between public sentiments and the media’s perception of issues — like it did over the problem of the nursery school shortage — if the media industry is occupied by homogeneous manpower — most likely men who think they can dedicate 24 hours of their time to their job. The media’s sensitivity to treat news as news becomes dull, and that, as a consequence, affects the government’s policy priorities.

This problem has something to do with Japan’s #MeToo issue. It was BBC that first gave a big treatment to the case of Shiori Ito. It was the overseas media that gave in-depth reporting on her victory in her damages suit, but the coverage of major domestic media organizations of the case was quite subdued — even though it was a landmark case in the history of sex crimes in Japan. It has been said that the #MeToo movement would not take off in this country, but isn’t that a problem on the part of the people reporting on the issue?

The women working in the media industry in Japan, despite their 20 percent minority status, should try not to join the homogeneous majority but seek to listen to diverse viewpoints of people — in particular those that are often left unheard. They should report to readers and viewers what they think is wrong. I want them not to be swept by the tide but seek to dig holes through the bedrock of homogeneity. They may be busy following the routine, or may despair of the lack of freedom on how to work. But women are indeed a precious presence in the world of media. Progress in the efforts to close the gender gap in Japan depends a lot of what they report.

Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and an 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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