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Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011

MEDIA MIX

Minister attacked for challenging the 'family system'


Yoko Komiyama is the first woman to ever occupy the post of Japan's minister of health, welfare and labor. As a mother, she may have more insight than her male colleagues into issues her ministry addresses, and from the start of her appointment in August she has stirred up controversy, mainly with her comment that the cigarette tax should be raised. But tax matters are the concern of the finance ministry.

Another controversial comment had to do with something Komiyama does oversee: social security. At her first press conference as minister, she said she wanted to revise the designation for homemakers that allows them a pension share if their husbands are enrolled in the program through their employers. She called this designation "very strange," since it "privileges" 10 million full-time housewives over 33 million other women, married or single, who work either part-time or full-time and have to make pension payments themselves.

This designation, which went into effect in 1986, is considered a pillar of Japan's "family system," since it rewards women who stay at home and raise children while their husbands work. The weekly magazine Shincho led the charge against Komiyama, saying that in addition to being a "pioneer in the gender-free movement," she advocates for the option of separate names for married couples. Shincho claims that Komiyama's attack on the designation has angered housewives, who believe the minister "hates them" and wants to destroy the Japanese family.

It's the weeklies' job to be provocative, and cabinet members are easy targets. The child of a father who was president of the University of Tokyo and a mother from a prestigious political dynasty, Komiyama is privileged herself, and after graduating from Seijo University in 1972 she secured a job at NHK, working as an announcer until 1990 when she joined the public broadcaster's editorial board. In 1998 she turned to politics and is now serving her fourth term in the lower house.

As a hatchet job the Shincho article is lazy. The reporter says that Komiyama's failure as a wife, not once but twice, has made her resentful of the institution of marriage. Her first was to Tadao Komiyama, another NHK employee. It lasted from 1976 to 1992 and produced three children. In an interview with Shincho some years ago, she said her husband did not discourage her from working but insisted that her role "as a woman" was to raise their children and take care of his mother and grandmother. In the house where she grew up there was no such distinction between men and women. In 1994, she married a divorced business consultant but they did not live together. She thought of this arrangement as an "ideal marriage," but after several years the couple split.

The article quotes academics who call full-time homemakers the backbone of "Japanese efficiency." They say the current pension setup treats them as their husbands' equals, since it values the work they do as housekeepers and mothers. They claim Komiyama is determined to "take these women's jobs away," since removing the designation could mean they will have to work outside the home. As it stands, a wife can earn up to ¥1.03 million a year and still remain a dependent, meaning she doesn't have to pay income taxes on her earnings.

Komiyama's objection to the designation is that it is "unfair" to people who actually pay premiums. Only women married to salaried workers paying into the kosei nenkin system can be designated. Wives of nonregular employees and the self-employed can not, and therefore by law have to pay into the basic kokumin nenkin system, whether they work or not.

Also, wives who work part-time and make more than ¥1.03 million a year have to pay the monthly ¥15,200 basic pension premium.

Theoretically, designated housewives who receive pensions are paid out of a pool of kosei nenkin contributions, but since the entire pension program has been under-funded and over-extended for years, a third of these payments come from tax revenues, which means everybody pays for designated homemakers.

None of this concerns Shincho, which still thinks it's 1986 — when 33 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 29, and 48 percent of women between 30 and 34 were full-time homemakers. In 2006, the percentages were, respectively, 18 and 33. The gradual abandonment of so-called lifetime employment, which took for granted full-time housewives, means more married women are working. Whether they are doing so out of choice or necessity is beside the point. If the Japanese family has indeed been destroyed, it's been destroyed by economic realities brought about by the corporate world and its obedient public servants. The middle class is still relatively strong but it isn't what it used to be, regardless of what Shincho believes.

Nevertheless, the weekly may get the last laugh. On Sept. 29 a pension reform advisory panel proposed a new plan that would divide kosei nenkin payments in two: one-half for the retired salaryman husband and one-half for his full-time homemaker wife. Currently, the couple receives the payment as a couple. This change might have some bearing on widows (who receive three-quarters of their husbands' pension) or divorced women (who, in 2007, were allowed to receive pensions based on ex-husbands' contributions); but in terms of the designation itself, reporters at the subsequent press conference asked what had really changed.

Komiyama admitted, "That's a difficult question." Saying that half a couple's pension belongs to the wife suggests that she was responsible for half the husband's contributions, thus bringing the designated homemaker, in Komiyama's words, "one step closer" to everyone else's situation, even if the designated homemaker still paid nothing at all. It's just semantics. So while Shincho uses purposely inflammatory arguments to support a Japanese family system that no longer applies, Komiyama is compelled to support a change in social security that, in reality, is no change at all.



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