The Sexist Abuse That Threatens to Shake the Nation

Politics Society

Recently the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly was the scene of a sexist heckling incident that has since blown up into a major political flap on a national scale. On June 18, Your Party assembly member Shiomura Ayaka was presenting questions to Tokyo Governor Masuzoe Yōichi. When she touched on the need for the metropolitan government to craft policy addressing women’s concerns, including infertility treatment, in the context of Japan’s declining childbirth rate and population, the catcalls started: “Why don’t you get married first?” “What’s the matter, are you barren?”

The jeers came from seats assigned to Liberal Democratic Party members of the chamber. On June 23, LDP member Suzuki Akihiro was named as one of the hecklers. That same day he admitted having shouted abuse during the session and met with Shiomura to apologize directly. He then offered to quit the LDP group in the assembly, although he did not go so far as to step down from his seat. The next day, June 24, Prime Minister and LDP President Abe Shinzō followed this up with his own apology to Asao Keiichirō, head of Your Party, in the National Diet.

Apology, but No Understanding

At first, the LDP organization in the Metropolitan Assembly showed little willingness to identify the hecklers. Suzuki himself denied that he had shouted at Shiomura. In the five days between the incident and his apology, criticism of the unnamed hecklers mounted, as did pressure for them to come forward and apologize.

If it’s the sort of thing that merits an apology, it shouldn’t be done in the first place, of course. But the way that the various parties have sought to handle this matter makes it clear that Suzuki, along with the others around him in the assembly organization, still lack a basic understanding of what the problem truly is. At the press conference where he publicly apologized, for instance, Suzuki stated: “Japan now faces a falling childbirth rate and the average age of marriage gets higher every year. I made my comment out of a desire to see more people get married earlier in life. I had no intent to slander Ms. Shiomura.”

I view this whole incident as indicative of a serious matter facing Japan: namely, that people in positions of authority don’t understand what the real problems are. Specifically, in this case, the politician’s thinking his jeers were not slanderous is the crux of the issue.

An Unawareness of Human Rights

This is a rather standard pattern seen for blunders of this kind in Japan. They are committed by men and women alike, always of a certain age or older. In recent years, the most serious example of these has been the cross-border uproar over the “comfort women” issue. This historical dispute between Japan and Korea pits people against one another in debate over whether the euphemistically named “comfort facilities” that Japan set up around East Asia during the war were officially managed houses of prostitution or institutionalized battlefield rape. I will not go into the details of this debate, which can be examined elsewhere. Here I will simply state that the facts of this history are not the true problem.

In 2007, during his first administration, Abe Shinzō was asked about his understanding of the “comfort women” issue. His reply that “there was coercion of these women in the broad sense [in terms of military contracts with these facilities for their services], but not in the narrow sense [of direct action by the military to force women into them]” touched off an international firestorm. His intent was to counter tenacious Korean claims that Japan’s imperial military had been directly involved in forcing women into sexual slavery with a claim that recruitment had taken place within a prostitution system that was legal during those years. But this brought Abe harsh disapproval from the international community—and from the United States in particular.

A look at nothing but the facts, as far as I know them to be true, shows that Abe’s statement was relatively sound. But as soon as his statement strayed into territory that felt like he saw no problem in “coercion in the broad sense,” the listeners could only hear him presenting human-rights violations as little more than matters of sexual relations. Building on this logic, he also appeared to be offering his tacit approval of officially managed prostitution systems.

A system like this—in other words, licensed prostitution—is, for women, a horrific marketplace for the buying and selling of human flesh. Recognition of this point remains shallow in Japan, though. In its past Japan gave formal approval to the system of prostitution, and the prime minister seemed to be stating that there was nothing wrong with this. Managed prostitution systems are publicly sanctioned human trafficking, and as such are emblematic of the trampling of women’s rights, a fact that remains whether or not the military is involved in it. Yes, in the past all human cultures saw women placed in this social role, but in the modern era we see this to be a discriminatory construct that must be rejected in all cases. Once people perceived the prime minister of Japan to be offering his approval, it left a scar on the Japanese image that has yet to be effaced—despite Japan’s leadership in this area, as one of the first Asian nations to outlaw licensed prostitution as early as 1958.

Japanese Ignorance of Gender Theory

There is an essay on gender that has been making waves in Japan recently. The critic who wrote it analyzed women’s issues through the prism of the popular Disney animated feature Frozen, negatively critiquing the way several high-profile Japanese women are currently living their lives. This essay actually leaped to prominence after it was rejected for publication in a certain well-known monthly magazine.

I read the piece to see why it had been turned down, but found it to be a fairly straightforward Jungian analysis of the movie’s narrative and psychology. To sum it up, it argued that the Frozen story—in which Elsa, the elder sister, must suppress her magical abilities for the sake of the younger sister Anna, flees to the mountains once she allows her power to run wild, and is finally made whole and welcomed back into society through her love for her younger sibling—actually presents a single personality in the form of the two sisters’ characters. The dark side of this personality is Elsa, who begins the film under the societal pressure to “act like a woman” (or girl) and then lets her power run free. Through her eventual reconciliation with Anna, the personality becomes whole. Structurally, this narrative is quite similar to that seen in A Wizard of Earthsea by the feminist author Ursula K. Le Guin.

There are rumors in publishing circles that this essay was viewed as problematic for its critical treatment of statements and actions by members of the imperial family or women close to those in political power. Only those involved know the truth about this. One thing I can say, though, is that writing about people in positions of authority from the perspective of oppressive traditional views of women is still taboo in today’s Japanese media landscape.

In Western societies, meanwhile, societal strictures about “acting like a woman” are generally seen as oppressive toward women, and forcing these rules onto women as a violation of human rights. This is a fundamental tenet of gender theory. In Japanese society, though, we see almost none of this acknowledged. Indeed, we hear cries that “women are meant to stay at home and bear children” in the very halls of power. And the problem goes beyond this: observers from overseas will look at Japan and see a country that has failed even to reject human trafficking, the worst violation of women’s human rights there is.

Are Our Values Truly Shared?

The present Abe administration, of course, has made needed corrections to its past mistakes. Both the prime minister and his chief cabinet secretary, when pressed on the “comfort women” issue, are careful to begin by clearly displaying a more enlightened stance on women’s rights issues.

This is a sign that international criticism to date has had an impact. Some years ago, when the security situation in East Asia was beginning to change dramatically, the term “values diplomacy” was commonly heard. But since Abe’s 2007 “comfort women” comment there has been little room for this. When a country is viewed as unresponsive to human rights concerns, it no longer matters that it is a democracy just like other nations: they will not bring themselves to talk about the values they share with it. In 2007, both Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Senator Hillary Clinton—key players in America’s foreign and security policy, Republican and Democrat alike—were furious at Abe’s remarks. This US response caused Japan’s diplomats no end of trouble.

The incident that took place this month in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly came at a very poor time. On June 20, just two days after the jeering, the administration submitted to the Diet a government panel’s report on its review of the 1993 Kōno Statement on the “comfort women” issue. Based on this report, the administration said it would not alter Japan’s position on the statement. Outside Abe’s central circle, though, supporters of his government in the ruling coalition and elsewhere continued to show that they see “comfort women” as nothing but a historical problem between Japan and Korea, repeatedly complaining about “the historical facts” of the matter. Again, though, for Japan, the biggest problem is not these historical facts. It is the larger picture of human rights issues, especially as they involve the United States.

The government panel that produced this report had an extremely delicate task. It had to defuse both the pressure from hardliners on the “comfort women” question in Japan and the criticism from the American side. Just before the panel was scheduled to wrap up this work and issue its findings, the government found itself tripped up by the same old brand of verbal blundering and ignorance of gender issues. One can imagine the maneuvering that must have taken place behind the scenes between the jeering in the Tokyo assembly and Suzuki’s apology some days later.

Apologies Will Not Be Enough

The apology has been offered, but this does not mean that we have seen the last of this kind of problem, of course. This can be seen from the very text of the apology, which makes it clear that the offending party does not think “You’re the one who needs to get married and have babies” is a slanderous thing to say.

The jeering was not a problem because it was slander, though. The core of the problem is that it was discriminatory. To force outdated values on a women holding public office is to hold her in contempt. That the apologizer does not recognize this means that the problem is still there. And this lack of recognition means many more “comfort women” statements and jeers to come.

We are likely to hear people in Japan—even women in positions of considerable authority—retort that these are matters of Japanese society’s own values, and other nations should not be butting in. If we go this route, though, we should not be surprised when those other nations come back with: “The concept of human rights is central to our society. Whether we can remain allied with a country that does not share this concept is something for us to decide based on our own values.” Shared values are a core ideology underpinning Japan’s alliances. I fear that the jeering in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly foreshadows a diplomatic crisis that could shake Japan.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 24, 2014. Banner photo: Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member Shiomura Ayaka sheds tears after being jeered. Courtesy Nikkan Sports/Aflo.)

human rights history gender comfort women discrimination Shiomura Ayaka Kono Statement