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Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009

COUNTERPOINT

Japan's gender equality may be 'insufficent,' but it's surely coming


As the vast majority of societies worldwide are male dominated, one of the most contentious issues they face as they evolve centers on the status of women.

The United Nations has been working to improve the educational, social, economic and political rights of the world's women since the establishment, in 1946, of its Commission on the Status of Women, and its powerful Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which dates from 1967.

But in August, a report on gender equality in Japan from the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) found "little progress in the past six years." Consequently, CEDAW has set a two-year limit on Japan to address matters relating to gender discrimination.

Among the issues raised by the committee was marital discrimination.

The legally binding Civil Code in Japan requires married couples to have the same surname, and Japanese women must take their husband's surname after marriage unless he is a foreigner, or unless — as is not uncommon — the husband has been officially adopted into his wife's family and has therefore taken their surname.

The so-called bessei mondai (separate surname issue) has caused much controversy, particularly in the past two decades. Though opinion polls have consistently favored allowing married couples a legal option to have different surnames, conservative legislators have just as consistently blocked any such reform. Last Tuesday, however — following August's general election victory by the Democratic Party of Japan, which overturned a half-century's leadership by the Liberal Democratic Party — Justice Minister Keiko Chiba announced that "as early as next year" a bill to alter the Civil Code on the separate surname system will be introduced in the Diet.

Another relic of Japanese legal practice was brought up by CEDAW. According to Article 733 of the Civil Code, Japanese women are not permitted to remarry until six months after a divorce, whereas men can remarry immediately after divorce is finalized. This is blatant inequality.

In terms of Japan's corporate and political cultures, too, there is no doubt that gender equality has lagged behind progressive societies, notably those of Scandinavia, where such equality is a basic and unchallenged right.

Taken as a whole, CEDAW's report branded Japan's efforts to ameliorate the situation for women as "insufficient."

Yet for all this, I wonder if the report's parameters are not drawn too narrowly, as in some senses the circumstances for women in Japan are actually better than they are for women elsewhere.

Certainly, having brought up three daughters in this country, I can vouch for the utter peace of mind I had when they were out of the house, even when they were very little or on their own. Surely personal safety is a major component of equality for women: the freedom to go out, day or night, and not feel physically threatened. Were one to judge countries of the developed West on this criterion as a factor of gender equality, Japan would rightfully be the envy of the world.

While creches at companies in Japan are not as widespread as they should be, the hoikusho (preschool) system of childcare for working mothers ensures that children are well taken care of by professionals. There are 24-hour hoikusho as well, for women who do shift work.

After each of our children was born in Japan, my wife and I were visited by a healthcare worker, whose job it was to assess the circumstances of the home as they affected the child's welfare. One such visitor said to us, "Your child does not only belong to you. It belongs to the community."

Doesn't this give some relief to parents aiming to bring up children in a safe environment? Is their children's welfare in a community not a factor in what women consider important in their lives?

Similarly, school children around Japan are given hot meals every day. This is a boon to working mothers and families of restricted means.

As for fertility, the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill was blocked for decades, until 1999, by a male-dominated medical and political establishment. This is surely a blot on Japan's record of gender equality.

Yet, women have always had easy access to condoms and other forms of contraception; and the right to safe abortion is not questioned. No one going to a clinic for an abortion, or providing one, is going to get harassed or assaulted in Japan, as they well may be in the United States, for example.

There is a link, too, between a safe, widespread and efficient transportation system and women's freedom. Being able to access a variety of services close to home, to shop for the basics, go to the doctor, banks, dry cleaners, or what-have-you, is surely a gender- transcending plus, since convenience plays a part in our sense of security.

All of this is not to say that gender barriers disadvantageous to women in Japan are not formidable.

The nation's corporate culture during decades of growth up to the early 1990s mitigated against equality. Working people in firms of all sizes were often obliged to keep crushing hours. Family was relegated not to the back seat but to the trunk. Working mothers were forced to make impossible choices; working fathers had little time left for meaningful relationships with their loved ones.

In that era, too, women were routinely passed over for promotion, as it was assumed they lacked the true grit to push their company forward. But now, looking back at nearly 20 years of economic stagnation, it is clear that it was male-driven true grit that plunged Japan into the quagmire it's in today.

The victory of the DPJ in August's general election signifies changes in the national consciousness across a broad range of social issues. In its campaign, the party stressed individual lifestyle over economic growth — where "lifestyle" includes the many elements that make up a person's overall welfare. This message resonated stunningly with the public.

On July 23, Chieko Nohno, a member of the Upper House, issued a statement to CEDAW in New York in which she pointed out that the 2005 Second Basic Plan for Gender Equality's goal is "to increase the share of women in leadership positions to at least 30 percent by 2020 in all fields of society."

As an important step on this road, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act was revised in 2006 to make it illegal to dismiss or discriminate against women for reasons of pregnancy or childbirth.

We all know that it takes more than legal proscriptions to change a society; and Japanese men have long been dictatorial in organizing society to their own advantage. But the will of the government — and the electorate — on this is now unequivocal.

Criticism from outside Japan, especially from such institutions as the United Nations, is welcome. But, in the end, it is pressures from within that transform a nation.

The gross failure of the testosterone- driven "true grit" model of growth for growth's sake — and the recent change of government — are combining to remake Japan into a nation dedicated to gender equality. Once that new model takes hold, it shouldn't be long before the problem of the low birthrate fades away as a matter of course.

Everyone knows that family comes first. It has just taken Japan a long time to realize it on an equal-gender basis.



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