Little progress on Japanese gender equality
By PHILIP BRASOR
Last weekend the Cabinet Office released the results of its latest gender-roles survey, which it has been carrying out irregularly since 1979. About 3,500 adult men and women offered their opinions about who should be in charge of the home and who should do the breadwinning. The results were reported by all the major newspapers, which concluded that Japanese society was becoming more accepting of the idea that it is alright for married women to work outside the home.
A closer look at the results reveals something less clear-cut, but there was a news story last week that put the issue in proper perspective.
On Feb. 1, enka singer Masako Mori was rushed to the hospital, where she was treated for what the tabloids initially called a drug overdose. Apparently, Mori had been under a lot of stress and was given medication to help her cope, but, for whatever reason, she took too much.
Further reports suggested reasons why Mori was so stressed. She has three sons, the oldest of whom is high-school age, and a husband to take care of. The husband, in fact, is Shinichi Mori, one of the most famous enka singers in Japan and a notorious man’s man. He divorced his first wife, actress Reiko Ohara, because, by her own admission, she wasn’t much of a homemaker.
Masako, who retired from singing when she married the much older Shinichi 20 years ago, raises her sons single-handedly, keeps house and takes care of her husband when he performs. As an only child, she also takes care of her own parents. What’s more, in the past couple of years she has been singing at her husband’s concerts, a significant sales-booster since in her heyday she was more popular than he was. Reportedly, she asked the doctor at the hospital if she could stay a couple of days longer because she didn’t want to go home.
Masako Mori is a traditional Japanese wife, happy to stand in Shinichi’s shadow. But now that she’s singing again, her life isn’t much different from that of any career woman with a husband and children. She’s a reality check to the survey, the purpose of which was to find out if people agreed with the statement, “Husbands should work outside the home while wives should protect the household.”
The loaded word “protect” identifies the sentence as an anachronism, and the wording obscures rather than clarifies the responses it evokes. Almost half of the respondents said they disagree with the statement, a higher percentage than those who said “no” the last time the survey was conducted in 2002, and more than double the percentage who disagreed in 1979.
This is deemed progress, but other survey results make you wonder. Sixty percent of the respondents said that both “ideally” and “in reality” men place higher priority on their jobs than on their family, while the percentage is significantly lower for women. What’s more, women are considered the keepers of the household coffers by an overwhelming majority.
The survey may show that the idea of women working outside the home is becoming more acceptable, but that doesn’t mean traditional gender roles are breaking down. If the survey proves anything, it’s that most people think that, in today’s economic climate, a family needs two incomes. Working wives are a necessity, not a sign of social progress.
In fact, quite a number of people in positions of authority have recently staged a successful backlash against attempts to dismantle conventional gender roles.
Last summer, the Tokyo Board of Education asked public schools to stop using the term “gender-free,” claiming that it ignored differences between boys and girls. As a policy adjective “gender-free” simply denotes an effort to treat boys and girls equally, and was originally adopted to get rid of the old idea that, when taking attendance in class, boys names should be called first. But some politicians took it to mean that boys and girls are to be treated “as the same,” and will be forced to do things like share locker rooms and undress together.
Last fall, Funabashi City Assemblyman Minoru Nakamura posted on his Web site an essay blasting certain women who advocate gender equality at the Funabashi Women’s Center, saying that these women have obviously been slighted by males or are married to “the worst men” in society. That’s the only explanation he can think of for why they condemn “male-centered society.” Though Nakamura finds these women “pitiable” (they tend to be “uglier” than other women their age, he added), he says they should not be allowed to use a taxpayer-funded facility to spread their loathsome opinions.
The essay has intimidated women who normally take advantage of, say, the center’s domestic violence counselor. Women’s groups have demanded that Nakamura remove the essay and apologize. So far, he’s only done the former, and the fact that the assembly has not condemned him even though the matter has come up at meetings indicates that his opinions aren’t necessarily repugnant to its members.
Maybe they don’t know that in 1985 Japan passed a bill that guaranteed employment equality between the sexes and in 1999 implemented The Basic Law for a Gender-equal Society. Local governments build Women’s Centers not because they want to help women realize genuine equality, but because they like building things. Several years ago Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who has publicly denounced the notion of gender-free, did away with the Women’s Foundation that operated the Tokyo Women’s Plaza in Aoyama, which is now run by the city.
Whatever semantic baggage “gender-free” carries, it’s obvious that equality for women in Japan still has a way to go, and probably a lot farther than the Cabinet Office survey implies. Women are now expected not only to keep house and raise the kids by themselves, they’re also expected to help support the family financially. That’s not progress; it’s exploitation. Just ask Masako Mori.
The Japan Times: Feb. 13, 2005
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