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Tuesday, May 3, 2005

THE ZEIT GIST

Turning back clock on gender equality

Proposed LDP changes to the Constitution could limit individual freedom and weaken women's rights


As the government emphasizes patriotism as part of the national school curriculum and discussion continues apace over revising Article 9, some LDP lawmakers are now calling for changes to the Constitution that may put equal rights and individual freedom at risk.

The ongoing discussion on revising the Constitution has grown to include calls for amendments to Article 24 -- the clause protecting equality of the sexes in postwar Japan -- in a bid to lock family values into Japan's legal and social framework at the expense of individual freedom.

Last June, an LDP Constitution revision panel introduced a model plan to revise Article 24, which took effect in May 1947, "from the viewpoint of stressing the value of family and community."

However, this has sparked a storm of protest, mainly among women and defenders of human rights, who argue the panel's suggestions are aimed at assigning fixed gender roles in society in a bid to return to a pre-war social model and force women to stay in the home.

Article 24 states that "laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes."

But the LDP panel has argued in a report on the topic that " 'individualism' has been come to mean 'egoism' in postwar Japan, leading to the collapse of family and community."

The panel has also said that the Constitution should maintain Japanese traditional values and morals that they believe were forgotten when the Constitution was drafted by occupation forces after the war.

However, the panel has implicitly laid the blame for postwar 'egoism' at the feet of Japanese women who have chosen careers and independence over early family life and child-rearing.

The panel's appreciation for Japanese traditional values is itself rooted in an admiration for the traditional Japanese self-sacrificing attitude.

"It's a matter of course that mother had a primal responsibility for her child," says LDP panel member Kyoko Nishikawa, herself a mother of two.

"Complaining about fixed gender roles is so nonsensical," she says.

"It's a simple fact that men and women have essential roles based on their sex. Only women can bear a child. Criticizing sex-roles is weakening women's minds. Mothers should naturally appreciate their responsibilities toward their own children."

She believes that this feeling has been lost by some Japanese mothers.

"But this responsibility is not shared by all of today's mothers. It's very irresponsible that today's mothers just have a child and don't fully take care of it. Expressing the value of family in the Constitution is my message for those mothers."

However, the concept of "essential gender roles" was long the basis for justifying gender-inequality, confining women to the home and denying them public roles.

By the same token, when individuals are defined primarily as one member of a family, women's rights and freedoms will always be at risk under the pretext that women have roles that only women can play.

University of Tokyo Professor Tetsuya Takahashi believes that recent moves within government to alter the Constitution represent a worrying development for Japanese society.

"While women are expected to maintain the family and take care of children and the elderly, men are expected to support the country," he says. "Today's discussion on Article 24 is closely connected to the discussion on Article 9, the war-renouncing provision.

As the LDP panel suggested in its report, since the constitutional provisions under discussion now specify people's responsibility to defend the country, they need people for the front. This is viewed as the man's role."

The panel's efforts are not simply designed to undermine equal rights, rather to help produce individuals suited to the government's needs, he believes.

"In this sense," he says, "individual dignity, which is stipulated in Article 24, would be distorted by assigning fixed sex-roles. The government is trying to change the national character by sacrificing the individual's rights for the family and, by extension, the family for the country."

It was precisely this form of pre-war social model -- that is, the devoted mother serving her husband, who in turn unquestioningly served the emperor -- that prompted the inclusion of Article 24 in the postwar Constitution in the first place, however.

Beate Sirota Gordon, who drew up Article 24 as a civilian member of the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces in 1946, says the clause was essential in postwar Japan.

"I saw that Japanese women -- my friends and acquaintances -- had no rights, so I tried to include as many women's rights as possible in the Constitution," she said during a visit to Tokyo last week.

Beate remembers that the Japanese government was fiercely opposed to Article 24 in discussions with the GHQ.

"There was a harsh objection to the gender-equality provision from the Japanese side, just as they were opposed to the emperor's status change," she says.

Interestingly, however, Beate's original draft of Article 24 did include a reference to family values -- "The family is the basis of human society and its traditions for good or evil permeate the nation" -- though this was removed from the final version.

Dismayed at efforts to alter articles 24 and 9, Beate says: "Both Article 9 and 24 are needed for world peace. There are many oppressed women in the world. Japan should be proud of its Constitution, and other countries should follow the Japanese model."

Indeed, Article 24 of today's Constitution, has helped postwar Japanese women gradually achieve important status and social protections in several areas.

The by-products of the provision include the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (1986), the Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society (1999) and a Law for the Prevention of Spousal Violence and the Protection of Victims (2001).

Despite these developments, however, Japanese lawmakers themselves have come under attack recently for failing to adequately promote awareness of equal rights.

In a report issued by the U.N.'s Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women of the United Nations two years ago, the committee "stressed the importance of sensitizing and training public officials and members of the judiciary to eliminate gender-biased stereotypes."

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