By Catherine Makino
Sunday, May 1, 2005
Japan's ruling party is pursuing drastic revisions to the country's constitution, including rewording the guarantee of gender equality. Women's rights advocates say that if the revisions pass, Japan will return to "a dark period of history."
TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)--The clock will be rolled way back for Japanese women, if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party succeeds in its efforts to change the constitution, women's advocates here say.
Some are calling it a return to "a dark period of history." Many are also outraged that such a drastic change in the constitution began under what seems to be a veil of secrecy.
The constitution, written in 1946 after World War II, helped reshape life for women here. One of its major changes was to ensure that marriage would be solely based on agreement of husband and wife, who had equal rights. Before then women were not guaranteed civil rights or legal rights. They were not allowed to vote or own property. Although husbands could file for divorce, wives could not.
Then, in June of last year, a constitutional revision panel of the ruling party proposed adding language to Article 24 of the constitution that would emphasize the values of family and community.
Discussions about overall revisions to the entire constitution are currently taking place, with the main focus and major arguments centered on the war-renouncing Article 9. That article prohibits the government from taking part in and even preparing for any military actions.
The report on Article 24 expressed concern that "individualism" had been distorted into "egoism" in postwar Japan, leading to the collapse of family and community values.
"It is shameful that Japanese people no longer think much of family, community and the nation, and that some of them even insist on having a system of retaining separate family names," Masahiro Morioka, a ruling party member in the House of Representatives said in the report. "The constitution must ensure that protecting family is the foundation of securing the nation."
Hisako Motoyama, a leading Osaka activist against the revision, says: "The government is borrowing family values--which attack women--from the U.S. It's the same thing, but the only difference is that we don't use religious language, we use nationalistic language.
"This is an attack on women's constitutional rights. They want to change the fundamental principles of the constitution."
Women's rights groups say the revisions, by asserting citizens' family responsibilities, could undo advances that have propelled women into senior positions in government and business and to attain equal-pay standards in many fields.
"There is a backlash against feminism, and the ruling party is campaigning against gender and sex education," Motoyama said. "They are saying feminism is breaking down our social foundation. They are against gender equality."
Mamiko Ueno, an author and professor of constitutional law at Chuo University in Tokyo, sees the revision as an attempt to foist state responsibilities onto the family, which--by and large--means women.
"Because there is a problem with low birth rate in Japan, the LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] thinks that by creating a system where women stay at home, they will have more children," she said. "They will become second-class citizens and men will head households. If a man doesn't want his wife to work, she will be forced to stay at home and take care of the family. It also means the care for the elderly in Japan's aging society, which is sure to become increasingly difficult, will fall to the daughter or daughter-in-law."
But Hajime Funada, the ruling party's chair on constitutional revisions, says Article 24 will not affect gender equality.
"We will follow the 'slogan of men and women's equality,'" he said recently. "We only want to add that the people of this nation should follow and keep their obligation and responsibility to protect and conserve their own family. They should also respect their parents. It will create a bond that will tie together the local community."
Seiko Nodo, a female ruling party member, also believes "it's not a bad thing," said her secretary.
Lawmakers in both houses of Japan's National Diet are expected to vote in favor of the revisions. If it passes by a two-thirds majority in both houses then many here consider it will likely face a national referendum.
Pema Gyalpo, a professor of the law faculty at Toin University of Yokohama and advisor to the ruling party on the constitution, predicts the vote could happen within a year. "The ruling party feels the public is ready for it," he said.
Opposition to Article 24 is mounting. Last year 15 women's groups, with the support of 80 other groups, opened a nationwide "Stop the Revision of Article 24" campaign of spreading leaflets and holding public meetings to get the news out.
Campaign organizers fear that many voters will find the revision appealing because of its references to such things as the "importance of the family" and "authentic traditional and culture of the nation."
"I am extremely concerned about this point," Motoyama says. "It is vital that people have the chance to think about the real meaning of these proposed amendments and have a real debate based on accurate information, but the mainstream media are not reporting anything at all regarding Article 24."
The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the few major newspapers to cover the proposed revision of Article 24, has published an editorial in support of the revision, saying "family should be protected as the foundation of society."
Consensus about revising the constitution has been building for years, but some say it now has the air of inevitability.
Sixty-one percent of respondents to a nationwide Yomiuri Shimbun survey support revision of the constitution. The figure marks the second consecutive year that support for constitutional revision has exceeded 60 percent, with 65 percent reported last year.
In addition to the constitutional push, the government is also making other moves to restrict women's rights.
About two years ago, for instance, the government--citing what it called a troubling rise in the number of divorces--instituted restrictions on the eligibility of single mothers for child-care benefits. A single woman with one child would have to earn less than $12,000 a year, to receive a maximum monthly benefit of around $400. Previously, a single mother earning less than $23,500 was eligible for full benefits.
"We women in Japan are worried by the recent moves of the governing party that shows a social trend toward reducing women's rights, and we want to stop it," Mami Nakano, a lawyer, said recently.
Catherine Makino is a freelance writer in Tokyo. She has written for San Francisco Chronicle, the Japan Times, The Asian Wall Street Journal and the China Morning Post.
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