Japan’s Women Told to Breed, Not Lead

“Hey idiot, hurry up and get married!”

Japan is up in arms about insensitive and sexist remarks made by male members of The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly (the equivalent of a U.S. State Government Assembly) toward a female representative during her presentation earlier this week. She was speaking on issues of raising children in Japan.

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Ayaka Shiomura, a 36-year-old member of the opposition Your Party, called for the Tokyo metropolitan government to support women who need assistance while pregnant or raising children during a June 18 assembly session. She also suggested that the government should help Japanese women who have fertility issues to conceive children.

Japan is wrestling with a declining birth rate and growing elderly population. It has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world.

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While she was speaking, men in the section for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) began jeering at her with lines like: “Hey you, should hurry up and get married!” and “Can’t you have babies?”

Shiomura continued to speak even though she had to choke back tears at one point. After the session, Minoru Morozumi, the secretary-general of Your Party’s assembly members, lodged a protest with his LDP counterpart, Osamu Yoshiwara.

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Osamu Yoshiwara told the press that he wasn’t in a position to confirm whether or not it was a member of his party who yelled out the comments, but he asked assembly members to behave in a “in a dignified manner.”

It should be noted that this isn’t the first time the leaders of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government have made sexist and inappropriate remarks; it’s almost a tradition. LDP backed Shintaro Ishihara, who was governor of Tokyo from April 1999 to October 2012, remarked circa 2001, “It’s a waste and a crime for women who have lost their reproductive powers to go on living.” (PDF) The current governor of Tokyo, Yoichi Masuzoe, also backed by the LDP, has said in the past such classics as “Women are not normal when they are on their period. They are abnormal. You can’t possibly let them make critical decisions about the country [during their periods], such as whether or not to go to war.” He also has commented that women elected to office were “all a bunch of old middle-aged hags.”

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The incident might have passed quietly but what began as a protest about inappropriate behavior by Tokyo Assembly members quickly grew into a roaring wave of resentment and anger from women all over Japan—and some men as well.

A online petition, which calls for punishment of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly members who hurled those sexist comments, gathered more than 32, 000 signatures throughout Japan in under 24 hours. The petition was posted on Change.org, a website which provides a platform for citizens to gather signatures and support for popular causes. The number of signatures is expected to exceed in 60,000 in the next day.

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The jeers were also disturbing in that they seemed to echo the sentiments of the 10 Precepts for Marriage issued by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 1939 during the period of military rule in Japan. The guidelines concluded with the infamous line: For the sake of the country, give birth and grow the population.

The petition is the fastest-growing campaign ever placed on Change.org Japan, according to Emmy Suzuki Harris, Campaigns Director for Japan at Change.org.

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Surprisingly the creator of the petition is a man. He corresponded with The Daily Beast on conditions of anonymity. He feels that the signatures are not enough.

“We should know why something that the citizens cannot really forgive happened. However, to see people in other regions showing the same anger at what happened touched and reassured me.”

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“I’m deeply angry not only as an individual, but as a male. Because pressure and discrimination against women reflects badly on men as well.”

“These sort of taunts fly around and there are assembly members who laugh in an assembly where members who say ‘we’ll promote the social advancement of women!’ or ‘we’ll work firmly toward providing child care support!’ gather,” Shun Otokita, a colleague of Shimomura’s wrote on his blog. “This is the reality of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly in the capital of our country.”

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The Mainichi Shimbun reported that Yoshiwara said that he hadn’t heard the comments and suggested, “Perhaps each assembly faction makes sure its members don’t make rude comments.” The Daily Beast called the LDP faction for comments on the incident, but our reporter was disconnected twice and then told to call the public affairs office of the General Assembly.

Shiomura wrote on Twitter “ I was debating about pregnancy, giving birth, and infertility when the jeering began….As a woman there were very regrettable things said. The heartless taunts made me teary-eyed. I will take taunts about my policies, but I don’t think these are things you should say to women who are suffering (over child raising issues).”

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Japan is very far behind the rest of the developed world in terms of gender equality. Japan was ranked 105th last year in the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks women’s equality in 136 countries. Under the Shinzo Abe (LDP) administration, Japan’s ranking in press freedom has also fallen to new lows.

Shiomura is reportedly going to seek punishment for the person who yelled the comments at her. Judging by the huge numbers of people signing the petition and that her protest tweet has now been retweeted nearly 30,000 times—-she may have a lot of support.

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On Friday, the organizers of the petition when to the assembly's council secretariat bearing a box filled with 42,580 signatures and 6,390 comments from supporters. The group demanded that the LDP punish the person responsible for the remarks by June 25. If this is not done, "The Tokyo branch of the LDP would be widely recognized at home and abroad as a group that accepts discrimination against women," wrote the petition's organizer on the Change.org webpage.

Prime Minister Abe, the most powerful person in the LDP, who has made anemic but sincere proclamations to promote gender equality may find himself in a position where he has to support an opposition party member and slap down his own rank and file.

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