Japanese Women Today

The All Japan Obachan Party: A Political Voice for Middle-Aged Women

Politics Society

Seventy years after women’s suffrage was first recognized in Japan, the number of female representatives in Japan’s National Diet is still stuck in the doldrums. Here Taniguchi Mayumi introduces the “second women’s suffrage movement” launched by obachan (middle-aged women), who have raised the flag of revolution against their male ossan counterparts through the new medium of Facebook.

Stuck in a Holding Pattern

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. That also happens to be the same number of years that have passed since Japanese women were granted suffrage and the right to run for national office in the House of Representatives. Japan’s first postwar lower house elections, held on April 10, 1946, saw the selection of Japan’s first female Diet members, with 39 women elected to office out of the total 466 representatives (a ratio of approximately 11.9%). That same year, following debate in the Ninetieth Imperial Diet (called into special session on May 16) and the passage of the Amended Constitution Bill on October 7, the present Constitution of Japan was promulgated on November 3 and took effect on May 3, 1947. Thus it was that Japan’s first female representatives took part in the establishment of the new Constitution, which included for the first time a clause on the equal rights of men and women.

Now, nearly 70 years on, the number of women representatives in the Lower House as of August 2015 still stood at just 45 out of 475 total members (approximately 10.5%). Of course, it isn’t possible to draw a direct comparison to conditions existing 69 years ago. Yet even so, looking only at that number and ratio of female members in the Lower House, it would at least seem that there has been virtually no improvement at all. So does that mean there has been no progress in political participation by women in Japan?

Ossan Everywhere!

It started back in September 2012. Whenever I flicked on the television those days, the airwaves were awash with the elections playing out for the presidencies of the then ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the major opposition force, the Liberal Democratic Party. Every one of the candidates was male. At just about the same time, here in Osaka, the Osaka Restoration Association led by Mayor Hashimoto Tōru had just announced its Ishin Hassaku eight-point plan—which would become its party platform in Japan’s next general election—and changed its name to the Japan Restoration Party as it reinvented itself as a national political entity. Again, everyone on the television screen was male.

Nor was that all. At the time there were major diplomatic problems with China, Taiwan, and other countries over the Senkaku Islands, and all the commentators and analysts appearing on my TV screen were male. In the newspapers, too, once it came to politics, the economy, and diplomacy, all of the experts, each and every one of them, were male, male, MALE!

Swathed in their dark brown, grey, and black suits like so many sparrows, pigeons, and crows, the men talked tough, heaped abuse on one another, dug up hypothetical enemies just to lambast them until finally they turned their blades on the little people.

I suddenly found myself screaming at the television screen. “What the heck’s going on here?! Everywhere you look, nothing but ossan [middle-aged men]!”

Fed up and disappointed, I spat out a joke on Facebook. “They may go on and on about smashing vested interests, but whatever they say, it’s all just ossan against ossan,” I typed.Government of the ossan, by the ossan, for the ossan. In other words, geezer political theater. I’m bored with it, and I’m sick to death of it. Maybe we should start our own party for obachan [middle-aged women]!”

My Facebook friends, particularly my women friends, liked it. “Right on!” came the chorus. “You’re right!” “Too true!” Things were starting to get interesting! We charged ahead, and that very day started up a Facebook group we called the All Japan Obachan Party. The only qualification to be a party member was that your gender identity be female. Today we have more than 5,000 party members, nationality no object, in every corner of the globe.

No One to Blame But Ourselves?

The objective of the All Japan Obachan Party is to elevate all obachan, and at the same time to puncture ossan politics with puns, witticisms, and humor.

Let me explain what we mean by ossan. We define ossan as “self-righteous, arrogant, self-important men who never listen to what anyone else has to say.” Our party’s name for a man who isn’t an ossan is otchan. And, while I’m at it, we use the label obahan for women who are of the same breed as the ossan.

Our goal of lifting up all obachan actually comes from our own self-remonstrations as obachan ourselves. Up until now we obachan have tended to tell ourselves, “I don’t understand complicated things like politics,” or “I’ll leave all that hard stuff to my husband,” or “Society will keep on rolling along just fine even if I don’t understand it.” In short, the ossan aren’t the only ones responsible for that tiny number of women representatives and other phenomena like it. The other side of the picture is that we, the obachan of Japan, have left things to the ossan, and have let politics ride for far too long.

However, it’s not true that Japan’s obachan proactively abandoned politics and chose not to participate. It is an undeniable fact that obachan have been excluded for years. The general attitude has been that they shouldn’t worry themselves about complicated things. In fact, we hear all kinds of voices around our Facebook-mediated gossip circle. Voices like these:

“People look at me like I’m a ‘weirdo’ when I start talking politics, so I can’t even talk about it with the obachan next door . . .”

“If a woman offers her own opinion at our local neighborhood association meeting, she’s going to get bashed for it later . . .”

“I devoured the postings from my Obachan Party friends on my cellphone late one night after my family was all asleep like I was starving. When I finally looked up, it was already dawn . . .”

“This is the first time I have ever stated my own opinion in my own words. I’ve started noticing things now that I never noticed before . . .”

This all came as a profound shock to me. Japanese women had been starving to take part in politics! I was ashamed to discover that even I—who was teaching women’s rights at a university—had failed to grasp the full reality of political participation for Japan’s women.

Fighting Back with Wit and Humor

But now we can no longer allow ourselves to be excluded. We have no choice but to force and squeeze our way into ossan politics. That’s because, even though it's blatantly abnormal for the ratio of women politicians in Japan’s upper and lower houses combined to be stuck at just 9.5%, it is amazing how many people still haven’t noticed just how abnormal it is.

Just consider. If the ratio were reversed (a Japanese Diet with 90.5% women, and only 9.5% men), wouldn’t that be disturbing? Our approach is to improve the lot of all obachan by getting people to notice just how disturbing this is, by taking on even the most difficult issues straight on, and by getting our digs in with wit and humor.

It actually requires highly rarefied technique to score points on difficult issues with wit and humor. But by refusing to resort to grumbling, or insults or malicious backbiting, by refusing to stand in the same ring and play by the same rules as the ossan, and yet to still continue to score points against their idiotic words and actions we should be able to help awaken more and more obachan to the foolishness of today’s society.

I get asked this all the time, but we have no intention of creating an actual political party. We are simply a gathering of people on Facebook. But today our friends and colleagues number more than 5,000. And we never want for new subjects daily in this digital gossip circle. From kitchen matters and undergarments to security legislation and international affairs, the All Japan Obachan Party is a place where you can talk about not just politics but your daily life to boot. And by joining in this gossip circle you can discover many things.

There are also many people who take umbrage at our using the word obachan. In my opinion, though, the very fact that obachan has become a term of disparagement in Japan is just another sign of the baleful influence of ossan society. What on earth is wrong with being an obachan?  It is too sad for words that the only word we have in Japanese for a woman who has gained some years is an insult. If you translate the French word madame into Japanese, it comes out as obachan. There’s no other word for it. It’s too stupid for words to even play on the same Lolita-complex playing field as the ossan, where a woman becomes worthless the moment she’s no longer young.

Punning Our Way into Politics

In November 2012 we held a launch ceremony in Osaka and announced our own eight-point plan in response to Mayor Hashimoto’s plan for the Japan Renovation Party. The hassaku in our Obachan Hassaku, though, punned on the Japanese word for “oranges.” The event was picked up by numerous overseas media, appearing in English, French, Chinese, and Korean.

All Japan Obachan Party “Eight Oranges”

  1. We won’t send our kids, nor any other folks’ kids, to war!
  2. Collect taxes from the rich first! But if you use our taxes properly, we won’t stint in paying our own fair share, too.
  3. Use the budget to help folks suffering from the earthquake and tsunami rebuild their lives. We’ll never forgive you if you use ‘em for something else!
  4. We don’t need no nuclear garbage we can’t clean up way into the future. We don’t want to irradiate our kids!
  5. We want to all help each other out in raising the kids and taking care of our elders and the sick. Build us a good, solid structure for doing that!
  6. Treat working folk well! And make it easy for people who want to work to find work.
  7. We like a society that takes care of the weak and those who don’t speak up much.
  8. So reflect obachan views in politics!

Policy and Poetry

In March 2013, we held our own Tokyo Basho, evoking the basho sumō tournaments, and announced—as opposed to Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s and now Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s honebuto no hōshin, or “big-boned policy” of robust economic and fiscal stimulus—our own harabuto no hōshin, or “flabby policy.” This also went down well. People started saying the day had finally come for obachan to speak out on politics. And along the way we got in a few more digs at ossan politics.

In early May that same year we released our AJOP “Declaration on the Introduction of the Women’s Handbook” in response to a Liberal Democratic Party proposal to mail a guidebook to every woman in Japan giving hectoring “advice” about pregnancy and childbirth as a way of combating the country’s falling birthrate. And we followed that up by publishing translations into English and other foreign languages of Mayor Hashimoto’s comments that the US Marines on Okinawa should make more use of sex industry establishments on the island and that the wartime comfort women system was “necessary.”

Along the way, we have also been releasing humorous poems. The following example concerns the Japanese government’s refusal to let husbands and wives use their own surnames instead of a single (almost always the husband’s) surname under Japan’s family register system.

Carefully counting
the brush strokes of good fortune,
our parents named us.
Swapped out for another,
ill luck never ending!

This summer, on the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, we also issued our own statement in opposition to the governmental Abe Statement, as an expression of our own firm resolution—part of the Obachan Party platform—that “We won’t send our kids, nor any other folks’ kids, to war!”

For these and for all of our various projects, we start by pulling together the topics and issues that have spurred the most lively discussions within our All Japan Obachan Party, send out calls for any final opinions, and finally get the approval from our party members before announcing them publicly.

Love, Courage, and Obachan

So let me return to that first question. Has there really been no progress in political participation by women in Japan?

It is a public pledge of the Government of Japan that it will strive to raise the ratio of women in leadership positions throughout Japanese society to approximately 30 percent by the year 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. This effort even has the nickname “202030.”

Now, while this is just an approximation, I would guess that women make up about half of Japan’s population. To say that hitting just 30% would be good enough for now strikes me as a modest proposal. It’s clear that even today—70 years since the end of the war—we’re lagging considerably if we’re still at a place where we need government pledges like this one.

The playwright Wakagi Efu has been so good as to praise the work of our All Japan Obachan Party as Japan’s “second suffrage movement.” May there be more and more obachan who think for themselves, who speak out in their own words, and who take action on their own behalf. May we reach a point where we do talk politics with the obachan next door. And may there be more and more obachan out there who will support those of us who choose to exercise their right to run for elected office. These aspirations may sound modest. Yet I think these are the goals that Japan’s new women’s suffrage movement should be aiming for today.

It’s still a little way off, but by next year or the year after, our All Japan Obachan Party plans to convene a World Obachan Summit in Osaka. It’s our belief that love, courage, and obachan can change Japan, and the world.

(Originally written in Japanese on August 10 and published on September 1, 2015. Banner photo: Symbol of the All Japan Obachan Party. From the official AJOP Facebook page.)

Hashimoto Toru Democracy women Japan Restoration Party Facebook suffrage