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Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006


Abe's hold on women stumps feminists

Reactionary views, appointments obscured by his 'gentle' exterior?

Staff writer

Second of three parts

News photo
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walks arm in arm with his wife, Akie, out of a government plane on Oct. 9 at Tokyo's Haneda airport upon their return from a trip to China and South Korea. KYODO PHOTO

Depite an approach to gender equality issues that his critics consider hopelessly old-fashioned, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has managed to win strong support among female voters, a fact that leaves feminist thinkers like University of Tokyo professor Chizuko Ueno scratching their heads.

"It's incomprehensible why Prime Minister Abe is so popular among females," Ueno said.

"It's eerie," the women's studies professor said, considering the conservatism apparent in both Abe's Cabinet appointments and his stance on gender equality issues, as well as his vocal support of "traditional family values."

Upon taking office last month, Abe gave the gender equality portfolio to arch conservative Sanae Takaichi, who opposes a draft bill to allow women to retain their surnames when they marry.

Another high-level female appointee, Eriko Yamatani, is a vocal opponent of "gender-neutral" education who has said that approach, which seeks to instill in both sexes a sense that they can play equal roles in society, ignores differences between males and females. She was chosen as special adviser in charge of educational reform.

Abe, who previously headed a Liberal Democratic Party project team that has called for a re-examination of the gender-neutral approach in education, is known as a strong supporter of traditional family values.

He has, for example, opposed sex education that shows students condoms and uses anatomically correct dolls to teach the subject, denouncing it as "gender-free fascism," without defining his terms.

This opposition wins points with those who believe Japan's traditional family values are under threat.

Despite his holding views that seem at odds with the increasingly prominent role women are playing in business and politics, and with their own modern self-image, many women seem charmed by Abe. He has been the subject of glowing coverage in popular women's magazines.

Poll statistics appear to bear out Abe's favorable press. Public approval of the Cabinet stood at 65 percent support, according to a September survey of 1,035 people by Kyodo News.

But Ueno of the University of Tokyo believes there is less to Abe's popularity than meets the eye, arguing that many feminists oppose his policies, but are not being heard by the media.

One problematic aspect the media did cover pertaining to Abe was his reported pressure, along with LDP bigwig Shoichi Nakagawa, to get NHK in 2001 to censor a documentary on a mock tribunal in Japan that found the late Emperor Hirohito guilty of institutionalizing the sexual slavery of thousands of women across wartime Japanese-occupied territories for the sake of Imperial army soldiers.

"Because I was told that the mock trial was going to be reported in a way that the organizers wanted it to be, I looked into the matter," Abe said in a statement reported on Jan. 13, 2005, when he was LDP deputy secretary general. "As a result, I found out that the contents were clearly biased, and told (NHK) that it should broadcast from a fair and neutral viewpoint, as it is expected to."

Four days later, he denied pushing for the censorship and refused to testify about the incident before the Diet.

Ueno criticizes Abe's ideas on gender roles as being out of step, adding that social changes, rather than feminists and gender-neutral education, are responsible for the changes to family life in Japan that Abe decries.

Ueno is stumped by why women are backing a politician possessed of such backward views. She disputes the idea that Abe's popularity is an indication women are becoming more traditional, citing surveys that show a steady rise in the number of women opposed to playing traditional roles based on their sex over the last 30 years.

She speculates that Abe's appeal to women is superficial: He looks gentle. The group Japan Men's Fashion Unity named him the "best-dressed personality" in 2002, and he and his wife, Akie, were in the top 10 list of ideal couples, according to a 2003 Internet poll of 58,782 people by groups that promote Good Partnership Day every Nov. 22.

"It may be the influence of TV politics," Ueno said.

Political pedigree may also be a factor. Abe is the grandson of the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and the son of the late Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe. He has charmed the public and been at the center of media attention from the moment he stepped into the political arena.

On his trip to China and South Korea earlier this month, he was seen frequently holding his wife's hand, a rare sight among middle-aged Japanese, and this may have contributed to Abe's popularity with middle-aged women.

One news editor at the major weekly Josei Jishin said Abe began winning over women as chief Cabinet secretary under his predecessor as prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, with his approach toward China and South Korea as well as his being the point man on the North Korea abduction issue. But his good looks have also played a big role. Josei Jishin recently published three favorable articles about Abe.

"Media polls reveal that he has received a high percentage of support from women, but I feel that his young age and looks helped a lot," said the editor, who asked not to be named.

Although Abe's popularity has not reached the heights Koizumi enjoyed at his peak, Abe benefited from a high degree of exposure even before the LDP presidential race began. The other candidates, Taro Aso and Sadakazu Tanigaki, had much less.

"The main age group of our readers are married women in their 30s and 40s. They judge politicians not by their policy plans, but what they can actually do. They are realistic.

"That being said, I cannot tell if the Cabinet will continue to receive favorable opinions by our readers in the future," the editor said.

Kazuko Furuta of the New Japan Women's Association, a feminist organization with 200,000 members formed in 1962, reckoned Abe's pitch to revive traditional family values is an attempt to encourage women to quit their jobs and stay home to focus on raising children.

"I don't know why so many women are supporting Prime Minister Abe's conservative policies. I really don't know," the 59-year-old director of NJWA's gender equality and female advancement division said.

Furuta believes there are some conservative women's groups who back the Cabinet's position, but most women have been fooled by Abe's use of such simplistic phrases as "beautiful Japan" and such promises as providing employment opportunities for people without jobs.

"For me, everything about Abe is scary -- especially his plans to revise the Fundamental Law of Education. I am hoping that Abe's popularity with women will cool down rapidly once his polices come into force and his intentions are revealed," Furuta said.

See related links:
Abe to play hardball with soft education system

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