Tokyo Assemblywoman Ayaka Shiomura
Tokyo Assemblywoman Ayaka Shiomura

TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)– The recent public sexist heckling of a female lawmaker by male colleagues in the Tokyo Assembly may be shameful for the nation but it is not exceptional.

That’s the view of Kuniko Tanioka, a university president who spent many years as a rare woman in the Japanese National Parliament.

“The entire notion of human rights and discrimination against women in Japan is behind the global standards of today,” Tanioka, president of Shigakkan University in Japan, said in a recent phone interview. “I hope that men of the global community will educate Japanese men because they don’t listen to women, although women are trying to make a difference from the inside.

But she doubts the international and national attention to the incident signifies rapid changes for women to come. As proof, she points out that the Tokyo Assembly voted not to punish the lawmakers responsible for their sexist jeers.

Japanese officials have been talking sporadically about doing something to improve women’s social status for years. Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he wanted to boost women’s participation in the work force to 73 percent by 2020 and close a wage gap that keeps women earning, on average, 30 percent less.

On June 24, Abe launched a called “SHINE: Toward a Japan Where All Women Can Shine.” Its purpose is to help women succeed whether pursuing careers or staying at home. In future updates, the blog will feature posts by women involved in various fields.

Heckling Incident

The prime minister’s move follows the sexist heckling incident that has spotlighted male authorities’ dismissive attitude towards women and the unmet work-life balance needs of many working women.

On June 18 male politicians repeatedly interrupted 35-year-old Ayaka Shiomura, a Tokyo assemblywoman, after she stepped up to the microphone at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and tried to discuss support for women’s issues during a debate on supporting child-rearing women.

“You better hurry up and get married” one male lawmaker shouted. “Can you even have babies?” yelled another, spurring loud laughter and more taunts by other male lawmakers. Shiomura was visibility shaken, stopped her speech, but nevertheless finished it with tears in eyes. She then cried when she returned to her seat.

Shiomura’s tweet about the incident was retweeted over 10,000 times, sparking national and international coverage that inundated the Tokyo Assembly with hundreds of angry emails and telephone calls and spotlighted Japan‘s old-fashioned expectations of women staying quietly at home while men work.

Japan still has one of the lowest rates of female participation in business and government and lags in many measures of women’s equality. Only 25 women are in the 127-member Tokyo city assembly. Nationally, women occupy just 78 of the 722 seats in the two legislative chambers of parliament. Japan ranked 105 out of 136 countries on gender equality, just behind Cambodia, in the 2013 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.

A recent government survey, meanwhile, finds that parents need an environment that helps them to work and raise children at the same time. It also mentioned that the country was having difficulty coping with an increase in unmarried young people and the growing trend of later pregnancy. The survey conducted by a cabinet office last autumn was taken to deal with Japan‘s low birthrate; the average age for woman having their first child was around 30 in 2012, 0.2 years older than the previous year. The average age to get married was 29.

When asked about having a child, the most frequent answer of women in their 20s to 40s was that they wanted a “working environment in which they can work and raise children at the same time.”

Most Hecklers Unidentified

Shiomura, who is single, wrote on Twitter: “I was debating in the assembly about pregnancy, giving birth and infertility when the jeering began. As a woman I feel these were very regrettable things that were 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 regarding women who suffer child raising issues.”

Ruling Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) member Akihiro Suzuki, 51, admitted he made the first remark. So far, he is the only heckler who has come forward; others have not been identified.

Five days after the incident, Suzuki was shown across the front pages of Japan‘s leading newspapers apologizing and bowing to Shiomura for his remark during a press conference at Tokyo‘s Metropolitan City Hall.

Additionally, he said he would withdraw from the ruling LDP, but refused to resign from the Tokyo Assembly.

“I really hoped she could marry soon, bearing in mind this ongoing trend where women are delaying marriage and having fewer children,” Suzuki told reporters.

“This type of thinking is the problem,” Miyako Yamaguchi, a housewife, told Women eNews in an interview at a neighborhood cafe in Tokyo. “He didn’t think there was anything wrong with what he said and can’t understand what the big deal is. It will happen again and again because Prime Minister Abe and male politicians all think the same.”

Shiomura agreed, “I must admit that it’s difficult environment for women to work,” she said at a press conference on June 24 in Tokyo. “Everything is run by male standards and naturally that kind of environment causes problems.” She urged Japan to ensure that women attain more representation in business, government and in the prime minister’s cabinet.

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