Written by Misato Matsuoka.

Japan has been acknowledged as the country with the largest gender gap in the developed world. According to the 2013 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Japan’s ranking for female equality has fallen from 101st in 2012 to 105th among 136 countries. The report identifies Japan as one of the countries that maintain barriers to women’s participation in the workforce, regardless of its investment in women’s education. Moreover, although the availability of daycare facilities has improved, it still remains a serious problem. The Guardian reports that “a lack of childcare facilities, poor career support and deeply entrenched sexism are blamed for keeping women at home”. In response to remaining difficult circumstances for female workers in Japan, Prime Minister Abe has exhibited his desire to improve gender equality by making numerous speeches about the issues including the one at the UN General Assembly in September 2013. With his push for “womenomics” coined by Goldman Sachs economist Kathy Matsui, he remarked in the Wall Street Journal that “Unleashing the potential of Womenomics is an absolute must if Japan’s growth is to continue”.

Despite these acknowledgements, Japan has recently been embroiled in the “Shiomura incident” which went viral after Ayaka Shiomura, a female member of the Tokyo assembly representing “Your Party”, tweeted about her experience of verbal sexual harassment. While she was addressing the issues relating to maternity support and delaying marriage at the 18th June assembly session, her speech was interrupted by shouts from the floor, including “you are the one who should get married first,” “before talking about that, why don’t you hurry up and get married?,” and “can’t you even have babies?” It is clear to see the presence of traditional conceptions of female roles in society as ones who breed, not lead. However, unlike in past, this was not the end of the story. Details about the incident were unveiled in blog posts written by her peer party members, Shun Otokita and Reiko Ueda. Otokita, who was in attendance at the meeting, posted on his blog words of condemnation: “First of all, I need to say, I am angry. Incredibly”. He also pointed out hypocrisy of politicians who claim to support women on the campaign trail but ceaselessly make sexist remarks in the assembly hall. Ueda further exemplified the case and also wrote that she and Shiomura submitted a request for punishment which was rejected since the shouting assembly member was not identified. This non-action prompted an online petition (only available in Japan) on the site Change.org to request identification of the member(s) who made the sexist remarks. The number of signatories quickly reached 75,000. In addition, a lot of media coverage domestically and internationally highlighted this incident.

Eventually, Akihiro Suzuki, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), publicly apologised to Shiomura for shouting “Why don’t you get married?”, although he had initially denied the claims that he had taken part in the heckling. Hours after his apology, his office was attacked with eggs and his Facebook and Twitter pages were overwhelmed with comments criticising his behaviour that clearly exhibits the public anger. Abe delivered his apology to Shiomura’s “Your Party” leader Keiichiro Asao, although he did not directly address the nature of the incident.

At present, it is also being mooted that other assembly members who made sexist remarks should be identified. Some female members from the Social Democratic Party requested on the June 27 to identify other members who made sexist comments during the assembly session. To appease backlash from the incident, Abe published a blog “SHINE! – Toward a Japan where all women can shine” to underscore the importance of improving the low rate of female workplace participation in Japan. He also wrote that “The government will actively support women, regardless of whether they are currently at work or home, to play more active roles”. Regardless of the effort, nonetheless, it has been pointed out that “shine” can be read “die (shi-ne)” in Japanese. Needless to say, this interpretation inspired ridicule of Abe’s effort on social media platforms.

Thanks to the tremendous role of social media and the success of the online petition in the aftermath of the “Shiomura incident”, more incidents of verbal sexist abuse in the political arena have come to light. One example is Mayu Murakami, who became the first Osaka city assembly member to give birth who had to face her colleagues calling her “a selfish rule-breaker, a remuneration thief and a betrayer of the public” instead of showing understanding of her work-life balance. Shiomura herself told at the recent news conference that “I must admit that it’s a very difficult environment for women to work”. She also remarked that “I really hope that the latest incident will provide an incentive for a change so that the same problem will never be repeated” and “the reality is just not up to that level yet. Under the current circumstances, I doubt Abe’s ‘womenomics’ can be achieved”.

In more general terms, the incident “reflects both greater awareness of women’s issues and the pervasiveness of traditional chauvinist attitudes in business and political circles”. Chizuko Ueno, a prominent Japanese sociologist and feminist, has recently contributed to the columns of “Working Mother Survival” with her interactions with the youth in Japan (especially female students from University of Tokyo), discussing working style and child rearing in the face of persisting traditional ideas about gender roles in the society. Even though Japan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985 and enacted the Basic Law for Gender Equal Society in 1999, Ueno found that many young Japanese have difficulty in overcoming traditional restrictions. While it has been recognized for a long time that women’s participation in the labour force should be improved, little has been done to push for real change. The “Shiomura Incident” may present another opportunity for reconsidering gender roles in contemporary Japanese society in a more serious manner.

Misato Matsuoka is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and a CPI blog Emerging Scholar. 

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