Crisis of democracy in Japan?

Japan ranked 61st among 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a Paris-based watchdog. It ranked 11th among 173 countries in 2010, but its position deteriorated quickly to 53rd among 178 countries in both 2012 and 2013. Furthermore, it was down to 59th among 180 countries in 2014, meaning that its ranking dropped from 11th to 61st just in five years. In compiling the index, RWB evaluates a range of criteria such as “media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate.”(

Why such a sharp drop in freedom of the press in Japan in recent years? The deteriorating situation coincided with the re-emergence of Shinzo Abe as prime minister in 2012. He had once held the post just for a year from Sept. 2006, from which he stepped down for health reasons. It is interesting to note that Japan ranked 37th among 161 countries in 2005, but worsened to 51st in 2006, after which it improved to 37th in 2007 and further up to 17th in 2009 and 11th in 2010.

Regarding media pluralism, one of the criteria considered by RWB, I feel our society used to be open enough to allow newspapers, and TV stations affiliated with them, with a range of political views to operate freely. However, the established media with critical views toward the policies being pushed by Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are reported to be under increasing pressure from them. In recent months, for example, it was reported that Shigeaki Koga, a former bureaucrat turned political commentator critical of Abe, had been removed from a TV Asahi news show under the pressure from them. There were other cases involving other broadcasters in which political bullying was rumored to have been behind in the ousting of certain individuals from news programs.

Abe and LDP’s attempt to intimidate and muzzle the media having negative views toward them extends not only to Japanese journalists but also to foreign correspondents (e.g. see “Confessions of a foreign correspondent after a half-decade of reporting from Tokyo to his German readers” by Carsten Germis of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which appeared in Number 1 Shimbun, April 02, 2015, after completing his assignment). Germis wrote in the article that Japan as he had known soon after his arrival in Tokyo and the country he left after five years of assignment had changed considerably.

For example, according to him, foreign journalists had often been invited to the Kantei, the PM’s official residence, where current issues were openly discussed when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power. After Dec. 2012, however, he felt no appreciation for openness on the part of Abe’s administration. Although foreign correspondents had a long list of issues to be clarified and elaborated on by the government, there was no willingness shown by the government to talk with them. Yet, anyone who wrote articles critical of Abe’s policies was identified as a “Japan basher.”

Furthermore, citing his own experience, Germis claims that today even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is involved in exerting pressure on journalists. After he wrote an article critical of Abe’s historical revisionism, “the paper’s senior foreign policy editor was visited by the Japanese consul general of Frankfurt, who passed on objections from Tokyo.” This diplomat complained that the Chinese had used his article for their anti-Japanese propaganda. Worse, he even insulted him, the editor and the entire paper by insinuating that the journalist must have been paid by Beijing. According to him, this kind of behavior on the part of diplomats was unthinkable five years ago.

Such behavior from Abe’s camp make a mockery out of freedom of the press and people’s right to know, the fundamentals of democracy. Leading to and up till the end of WWII, people had been kept in the dark or silenced by the press controlled and manipulated by the militaristic government of those days and as a result ordinary citizens ended up paying heavy price. That is why journalists and citizens have nurtured over the last 70 years the basics of democracy. However, we witnessed a rollback in this respect in Dec. 2013 when the law on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, or commonly known as a secrecy law, was enacted. It was aimed at preventing civil servants from “leaking” whatever the government deems to be “national secrets.” However, journalists and many people claim that it curtails their right to know.

The institutional mechanism to secure independence of the media in Japan is also far from being adequate. For example, the head of NHK (the Japan Broadcasting Corporation), the public broadcaster funded by TV reception fees levied on all households possessing a television, is appointed by the prime minister, rather than being chosen by an independent commission.

The current head of NHK, Katsuto Momii, appointed by Shinzo Abe in Jan. 2014 for a three-year term, has been widely criticized for his views considered as not suitable for the post. While having to be independent and impartial, he stated he would not be able to say “left” when the government says “right.” This was his response to a question concerning the territorial issues between Japan with China and South Kores at the very first press conference upon his appointment. In another occasion, he was asked if NHK would broadcast a thoroughly investigative report on the highly controversial issue of “comfort women” from the WWII era. He replied “no” on the ground that the government position on it had not been firmly established. No wonder, lots of people feel that he is not suitable to head the public broadcaster which should be independent of the government.

The latest incident showing Abe administration’s increasing attempt to muzzle the media was exposed in late June. According to a leaked report from a closed “study” meeting involving about 40 junior lawmakers from LDP, close to Abe, held at the party HQs, the attendants apparently discussed how the two newspapers popularly supported in Okinawa, which are highly critical of Abe’s military policies, should be destroyed. Abe first shrugged off the criticism from the opposition parties regarding the behavior of his party members disrespectful of democracy, saying that the comments had been made in a private gathering. However, as media criticism grew wider and louder on this matter, he was eventually forced to apologize to the people of Okinawa, admitting that he was ultimately responsible for the comments made at the LDP HQs.

In view of the above, the sharp drop in Japan’s ranking in World Press Freedom Index in the last five years is understandable. But we should not just sit and allow our situation to deteriorate further. Both journalists and ordinary citizens need to be aware of what is happening and must reclaim our fundamental rights under democracy, guaranteed by our constitution since the end of WWII. Otherwise, we will one day wake up, realizing that our society has gone back to the dark era.

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Worsening child poverty in Japan and women’s predicament

According to Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions, a report released in 2014 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) of Japan, the Japanese are economically worse off now than before. The relative poverty rate (the proportion of people with net income below a defined threshold) worsened to 16.1% in 2012 from 15% in 2004. The 2012 threshold calculated by MHLW based on OECD standards was 1.22 million yen, which was half of the median equivalent disposable income. Japan’s poverty rate was the 4th highest among the OECD countries, following Mexico, the country with the highest rate, Turkey and the United States. It also noted that the poverty rate of those under 18 years of age was 16.3%, indicating that one out of six children fall in this category ( The rate was 11% in 1985, 12.1% in mid-1990s, 14% in mid-2000 and 15.7% in 2009 (OECD Family Database and

The trend of relative child poverty in Japan is worrying. The situation affects negatively the healthy growth, both physical and mental, of our future generations as well as their outlook on life. A study carried out among high school students regarding their future plans showed a close correlation between their aspiration to go on to university and the level of their family income (

Children should be allowed to hold aspiration for the future, irrespective of their economic condition at birth or during their childhood, and should be given the opportunity to strive for their dreams. So, unless we look at the hard reality of worsening child poverty and tackle the problem today, we may wake up one day with huge inequalities and little social mobility. This must be avoided in our society, the population of which is now declining. Securing a dynamic population is of utmost importance for our society to continue thriving in the 21st century.

Following WWII, the whole of Japan struggled to make ends meet, to rebuild the country destroyed in the war and to escape from the hardships experienced during and after the war. And, lo and behold, Japan became the second largest economy in the world by 1968, though surpassed by China in 2009 (The World Bank database). For a long time, the Japanese had little class consciousness. Most people used to consider themselves as part of the large middle class in an egalitarian society.

This changed around 1990, however, when Japan experienced a sharp economic downturn. Its net worth (national wealth), including land and stock prices, reached the peak of 3,531 trillion yen in 1990, which was eight times the GDP, but was down to 3,000 trillion yen at the end of 2012 (Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication: Statistical Handbook of Japan 2014).

After 1990, a growing number of workers faced an uncertain future. They suddenly found themselves unemployed or were forced to accept “non-regular” status, giving up the job security and accompanying fringe benefits they had enjoyed before. Many new entrants to the labor market were able to find only non-regular jobs without being able to accumulate seniority or being able to claim benefits, such as bonuses, which were offered only to regular employees. Here, “non-regular workers” include part-time, temporary, seasonal and contract workers who do not enjoy company-provided social protection and other benefits that regular workers usually enjoy.

The figures below illustrate the changing employment structure in Japan. Although the total number of workers grew from 39.99 million in 1985 to 51.11 million in 2010, the rise was largely among non-regular workers — from 6.55 million to 17.56 million. The proportion of non-regular workers among all employees climbed from 16.4% in 1985 to 35.2% in 2012 (MHLW: Rohdohkeizai no bunseki (Analysis of labor economics), 2013). By 2013, non-regular workers increased to 19.06 million, 68% of which were women (

This has led to lower average net income, but more importantly, to widening household income gaps. Among male regular workers in 2013, 39.6% earned 5 million yen or more, 37.7% between 3 to 4.99 million yen and 22.7% less than 3 million yen. Among male non-regular workers, only 4.4% earned 5 million yen or more, 15.3% between 3 to 4.99 million yen and 80.3% less than 3 million yen. On the other hand, only 13.7% of female regular workers earned 5 million yen or more, while 33% earned between 3 to 4.99 million yen and the rest (53.3 %) less than 3 million yen. In fact, 19.2% of them earned only between 1 to 1.99 million yen and 5.9% less than 1 million yen. Female non-regular workers fared far worse. Very few of them (0.4%) earned 5 million yen or more, while 3.1% earned between 3 to 4.99 million yen. Most of them were in the brackets below 3 million yen —10.9% between 2 and 2.99 million yen, 38.5% between 1 to 1.99 million yen and 47.1% below  1 million yen (Ibid.). Clearly, many women are below the poverty level.

True, there are women who work fewer hours than regular workers just to supplement household incomes. The income gap between regular and non-regular workers may be partly due to the number of hours of work, but that does not explain all cases. For example, a large proportion of contract workers put in as many hours as regular workers for much less income. While more than half of part-time workers put in fewer than 40 hours a week, a considerable proportion of them work more than 40 hours for grossly reduced income in relation to regular workers with comparable hours of work. (

Today, a growing number of women are sole breadwinners in the family, raising their children as single/divorced mothers. As divorce has become more common (e.g. the number of divorce increased from 157,608 cases in 1990 to 231,000 in 2013, according to MHLW database on population, 2013), the number of such households climbed from 554,000 in 1989 to 821,000 in 2013. Because of women’s low wages, many are feeling the crunch. A survey discovered that among such households, 49.5% found life very difficult and 35.2% somewhat difficult, as opposed to 27.7% and 32.2% of all households expressing the same ( This helps to explain why child poverty in Japan has been worsening.

Child poverty cannot be reduced without first improving women’s employment situation and reducing gender gap in earnings. The government proposes a number of policies to address the problem. They include, among other things, reviews of employment practices and pay structures, affirmative action to help competent women advance to higher positions, in addition to increased aid to needy families. They are all fine, but I strongly suggest that the principle of “equal pay for the work of equal value”, as enshrined in ILO Convention No. 100 which Japan ratified in 1967, should finally be applied to workers in Japan.

Too many women in Japan have been pushed to low-pay jobs simply because they are women. Too many jobs women have are given a low value simply because they are done by women, even if they require skills and decision-making. The review of pay structure should therefore be made from the principle of “equal pay for the work of equal value” and not just “equal pay for equal work.” Applying this principle without gender bias should bring many women and their children out of poverty.

Posted in Child poverty, Economic development, Japan, Labour issues, Men and Development, National wealth, Women & Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Essay: Ageing female prisoners in Japan

According to the 2013 edition of World Population Ageing, a UN report, Japan was most aged society in the world with 32% of its population being 60 years or over. Italy and Germany came second and third, both with nearly 27% of their populations in the same age bracket.

In Japan, however, usually only those who are 65 years or over are considered as “old”. They are then broken down into two groups: (1) between 65 and 74 years old, who are simply labeled as “old”; and (2) 75 years or over, who are referred to as “old people in the advanced age bracket.” The latest White Paper on ageing of population (2012 data), released in 2013 by the Cabinet Office, the Government of Japan, shows the former group comprising 12.2% of the total population and the latter, 11.9%. This means that 24.1% of the Japanese population is made up of those who are 65 or over. As Japan’s fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world, the ageing of the society may no longer be reversed, unless drastic measures are taken.

In relation to the ageing of population, I came across a sad article on female prisoners in Japan (“Hikari-o sagashite (In search of light)” by Miki Morimoto in Asahi Digital, May 23, 2014). Back in 1993, apparently only 26 women of 65 years or older were serving their sentences. By 2012, this figure increased by 11 times to 285. On the other hand, men prisoners in the same age bracket increased five-fold, from 368 to 1,907 in the same period. So the rate of increase was higher among women than men. Eighty percent of “old” women incarcerated are said to be serving for minor offenses, such as shoplifting and theft, while about half of them are recidivists.

Ageing among prisoners is simply a reflection of the society as a whole. Therefore, many inmates are reported to visit prison clinic frequently for their medical problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cataract, knee and leg pains, lumbago, as well as dementia. The scene of prisoners walking slowly from the dining hall to their cells with canes and walkers is said to increasingly appear like that in any home for old people.

The author of the article had interviewed some women prisoners, and I was saddened to read certain situations mentioned as possible reasons behind their committing crimes as well as repeating them. They included stress from not having been well accepted by parents-in-law in the past, the psychological wound from which still remained unresolved for some women to date; increased daily stress from having to deal with the husband alone after children had left home; loneliness from grown-up children drifting away from home; the feeling of not having their own place at home in the backdrop of husband’s violent behavior; and financial difficulties and uncertainties for the future (for both married women as well as those living alone). In effect, many of them seem to commit crime out of the feeling of insecurity and for not having their own place of comfort at home. They become recidivists in search of comradeship among fellow inmates. How sad it is, though, for anyone to feel that peace and comfort can be obtained in prison in the twilight of life.

In order to help such women to feel secure after their release so that they would not return there, some correctional institutions now provide counselling service for them. Many such women are said to have had poor communication skills, which had led them to isolation in community, which, in turn, resulted in their committing crime. So they are helped to build up communication skills through group therapy, where they discuss in detail and openly the problems they had had and the actual crimes they committed. The counselling service also provides information as to how and where they can seek financial help to prevent them from going back to shoplifting again after their release.

In the past when most people lived in an extended-family set-up, ageing mothers used to be looked after by their grown-up sons. This is no longer so, especially in large cities, throughout Japan. Therefore, women must also learn to grow out of being emotionally dependent on their children. They must nurture to have independent minds with clear wishes and dreams in life of their own, however small they might be. When they find their own purpose or meaning of life, they will be more forward-looking in life. So, I believe that arming them with better communication skills will go a long way for themselves as well as for the society as a whole.

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Essay: A big “No” to the re-start of nuclear reactors

Before the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant following the powerful earthquake and the tsunami of March 11, 2011, there were 54 nuclear reactors operating throughout Japan. They used to supply about 30% of the energy in the country. After the disaster, the reactors went offline one by one for maintenance and safety checks, and since September 2013, all reactors have been idle. Japan is now managing without nuclear power, though the cost of oil and gas imported to offset the energy shortage has gone up considerably. But no black outs, due to all nuclear reactors being idle, have been reported so far.

Despite the continued suffering of the victims of the disaster in Fukushima, and despite its not yet being contained, the Japanese government still wants to rely on nuclear energy as an important energy source. That’s why Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, plans to have reactors back in operation as soon as they pass the new safety stress tests being conducted by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). Whenever questioned on this issue in parliamentary sessions, Abe emphasizes the NRA’s bench marks as being “the most stringent standards in the world.” He believes the reactors that meet such tests will be perfectly safe. But what does he mean by the “most stringent nuclear safety standards in the world”?

Until 2011, many Japanese had been made to believe that our nuclear technology was at the highest class in the world and that our nuclear reactors were able to withstand any natural disasters common to Japan. This turned out to be a myth, which easily crumbled and dissipated after a tsunami the kind of which we had never experienced before.

Last September, Abe proudly declared in Buenos Aires, where the IOC awarded the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics games to Tokyo, that the problem of radiation-contaminated water leakage from the Fukushima plant was “under control.” However, not only does that particular leak still torment the workers on the plant as well as the residents in nearby communities, but also leaks in other spots have been detected and reported since then. The reality is that no one knows for sure when and how the problem will really be resolved. Under such circumstances, how trustworthy are the “most stringent nuclear safety health standards in the world” that Abe refers to?

Japan is a small, densely-populated, earthquake-prone island country where active faults run everywhere. So, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is the most risky country in the world to operate nuclear reactors. When Abe stresses our new standards being world’s most stringent, I wonder which countries he is comparing ours to. If our risk is much more serious than that of the second most risky country in the world, whichever that may be, even the “most stringent safety standards” in the world will not give us any assurance of safety.

People around the world are now experiencing the kinds of natural disaster they have never experienced before. Nature’s destructive force is beyond our imagination. Our political and economic leaders still think it’s cheaper to rely on nuclear energy than imported oil and gas when we don’t know yet what the total and eventual cost of the disaster in Fukushima will be. Besides, we still don’t know how and where to dispose of the dangerous nuclear waste materials that we have already accumulated from the 54 reactors. Today, investment in renewable energy is increasing rapidly, too. Considering all these factors, do we still wish to see our nuclear reactors re-starting? I say “NO” clearly and loudly.

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Essay : My thought on Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine

As expected, both China and South Korea reacted furiously to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in late December 2013.  Diplomatic relations between Japan and these countries, which had already been strained, worsened further with no hope in sight of improvement.  This time, however, Taiwan, Russia, the EU and the United States joined these neighboring countries in expressing their dismay at his insensitivities to the feelings of the peoples of Asia.

Abe and his advisors seemed flustered by this negative reaction from Washington.  The US government had never officially expressed its view on this issue when Juninchiro Koizumi or some of the earlier PMs paid visits to the shrine in the past, each time triggering the anger of neighboring countries.  According to a press report, Abe decided against V.P. Biden’s advice to not visit given during their telephone conversation earlier that month.  Abe went ahead anyway and acted according to his own conviction.  That was why Washington expressed its anger contained in the word “disappointment”, especially when it is trying to bring all the countries into cooperation to effectively cope with the common threat posed by North Korea.  According to reports, Foreign Minister Kishida immediately contacted Ms. Caroline Kennedy, the new US Ambassador to Tokyo, explaining Abe’s position, but the latter responded coolly and said that she would simply convey his message to Washington.

In response to all the negative reactions reported, Abe released a statement that he had had no intention of hurting the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people.  But he knew perfectly well how those countries would react, which was why he did not visit the shrine during his first tenure as PM back in 2006-07.  He defended his visit, asserting that he had prayed the souls of all those who sacrificed themselves for the nation rest in peace, and vowed that never again would people suffer miseries of war.  He also stressed that such a gesture was common for all national leaders and that he would continue to make efforts so that the people of other countries could understand his position.

The Chinese and Korean peoples who suffered at the hands of the Japanese military might understand the PM of Japan praying for the souls of all those who sacrificed themselves in the war, including Japanese foot soldiers who committed atrocities at the order of their superiors.  Hundreds of thousands of such soldiers were civilians forced into fighting by Japan’s reckless military policies of that period, and were also themselves victims who suffered immensely.

The serious problem, however, of Abe or of some of the earlier PMs visiting the Yasukuni shrine is that so-called “A-class war criminals”, or those who were responsible for the Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific, have been enshrined along with the ordinary soldiers since 1978.  Although Abe says he has no intention of hurting the feelings of those in neighboring countries, his words sound empty and insincere, even for a Japanese citizen like myself.  Just imagine the German government engraving the names of Hitler and his close associates on war memorials commemorating those who died in the previous war!  How would the people in Europe feel about that even if the government has sought and maintained peaceful relations with its neighbors since 1945?  The difference between the German and Japanese governments regarding their reflections on and apology for WWII is that the former has maintained a firm position, while the latter keeps vacillating, depending on who heads the government.  I am afraid that no matter how hard Abe tries, decent leaders in other countries will not show understanding toward his position.  The sooner he realizes this, the better; swift action would minimize the damage already done to Japan’s national interests in the diplomatic world.

Abe and his supporters claim that the so-called “A-class war criminals” were judged based on trials conducted by the winners of the war.  That was to be expected, as Japan surrendered unconditionally, but if they seriously doubted the outcome of the trials, why didn’t Japan ever officially conduct its own review and thorough investigation of what had gone wrong and who had been responsible for recklessly leading the country to war and the verge of annihilation?  This should have been done when Japan regained its independence with the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952.

It has already been 69 years since Japan’s defeat in the last war, and if Abe is serious about our country never again engaging in war or subjecting people to those same miseries, he can propose for Japan to, at last, officially conduct comprehensive reviews relating to WWII.  The outcome would surely help Japan to maintain peace with its neighbors and the world.  It is not too late.

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Essay: The Enigma of Gender Gap in Japan

In March this year, I posted on my blog an essay titled “Japan: The worst developed country for women?”  I mentioned in it that Japan came in 101st in the “global gender gap index” in 2012 out of 135 countries examined in the Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF).  The index tries to “capture the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities”.  It is designed to measure gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities in individual countries, rather than the actual levels of the available resources and opportunities in those countries.”  It is calculated in such a way to make it “independent from the countries’ levels of development”.  It “evaluates countries based on outcomes, rather than inputs” and the evaluation is carried out in the areas of (1) economic participation and opportunities, (2) educational attainment, (3) health and survival, and (4) political empowerment.

The WEF published recently the 2013 edition of the Report with the latest global gender gap index.  As it had been the previous year, Iceland came in top, followed, also as last year, by Finland, Norway and Sweden.  This year, however, the Philippines came in fifth.  The highest ranking Asian country, it improved its position from eighth last year.  Seven European countries are in the top ten, but none from the G7 or G20 is in the top ten.  To my great disappointment, Japan’s ranking worsened from 101st last year to 105th among 136 countries this year.  But I was curious why the Japanese women have not been able to narrow the gender gap for decades despite the country making great economic progress after the total destruction in WWII.

Japanese women’s ranking in health and survival is among the top in the world.  Their average life expectancy, which was 86.4 years in 2012, has remained the longest since the mid. 1980s, except in 2011 when it was slightly surpassed by that of Hong Kong women due to tsunami.  In the area of educational attainment, too, Japanese women have done as well as their fellow women in Norway and Sweden in attaining secondary education.  The gender parity index (GPI=the ratio of female-to-male values of a given indicator) was 1.00 in these countries.  It was 1.02 in Iceland and 1.01 in Finland (Global Education Digest 2012, UNESCO).

With regard to tertiary education, however, I understand why Scandinavian women are at the top in the global gender gap index.  The GPIs regarding first-degree graduation for Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden were 2.28, 1.83, 1.79 and 2.05 respectively, as opposed to 0.82 for Japan.  Among major Western countries, Germany, ranked 14th, had a GPI of 1.32.  For Britain, no. 18, it was 1.38.  For the USA, no. 23, it was 1.42.  And for France, no. 45, it was 1.27.  No figures were given for the Philippines.

Japanese women being ranked so low in the global gender gap index is mainly due to their low economic and political participation.  For example, it is reported that even today more than half of Japanese people still cling to the traditional values that expect men to go out and work and women to stay home and look after the family.  That is why only 9% of managerial positions in Japan are occupied by women as opposed to 33% in Iceland.  As for politicians, women hold only 8% of the seats in the lower house of the Diet, the Japanese parliament, as opposed to 40% in the unicameral system of the Icelandic national assembly (“Danjo-byoudou” Nippon wa 105i, Nande? Kako saiteini”, digital Asashi., Oct 27, 2013).  I had expected the Republic of Korea to have placed higher in the global gender gap index this year, as the country now has its first woman president.  However, for some reason, its ranking also worsened to 111th this year from 108th last year.

I worked and lived abroad for three decades until I returned to my home country last year, so I sometimes forget how far women in Japan still have to go to attain gender equality.  Recently, when I attended a friend and former colleague’s wedding here in Tokyo, I glimpsed the hard reality of the gender gap here.  The Japanese bride and the non-Japanese groom, who are both based in Geneva, decided to have a traditional Japanese wedding in the Shinto style.  In the reception following the solemn ceremony, all the guests enjoyed a sumptuous dinner where one beautifully presented dish after another was served.  The dinner-reception itself was far from traditional, however, where the bride and the groom danced to the tunes of Latin music while still wearing the traditional Japanese wedding costumes!

During this dinner, some of the prominent invitees were asked to say a few words.  Among them was the bride’s former boss, who is now retired and flew all the way from Malaysia to celebrate the occasion.  Since she and the groom did not speak Japanese, English interpretation was provided for them throughout.  At the end of her short speech, she was about to propose a toast to the couple, but was abruptly stopped doing so by the master of ceremony.

Suddenly, there was a moment of confusion.  I had no idea why she had not been allowed to present her toast.  She also looked bewildered and embarrassed.  So I asked a friend of mine sitting next to me at the table if she understood the situation.  That Japanese woman, who has also worked and lived abroad for many years, had no idea, either.  Some prominent men sitting at our table, having heard my question, said:  “Women are not supposed to propose a toast.”  They did not elaborate on this, but it seemed that at occasions such as that, only the last person to speak –always a man– would formally propose a toast for the occasion.

This called to mind an incident Margaret Thatcher experienced during her official visit to Japan after becoming the first woman prime minister of the UK, which I remember reading about in the paper long ago.  At that time, the Seikan Tunnel, the longest undersea tunnel in the world connecting the two main islands in Japan, was being built.  Meanwhile, France and the UK were considering building the Channel Tunnel connecting their two countries.  Thatcher would have liked to visit the worksite in the tunnel to see the new technology being employed for the construction.  However, the men working there adamantly refused to receive her simply because she was a woman.  Apparently, they believed that having a woman in the tunnel worksite would bring bad luck.  I wondered if they knew that many women, mostly wives of minors, had indeed toiled in Japanese coal mines, often deep under the sea, in the past.

The incident at the wedding reception and the experience of Margaret Thatcher may not be the ideal analogy, but I feel that even today too many men still accept old traditions that restrict women’s roles in society without questioning those traditions’ validity in modern age.  They simply say that “it has always been done so.”  At the same time, too many women also seem to accept old ways without challenging them or questioning why it has to be so.  Unless this situation changes, the gender gap in Japan, I’m afraid, will not narrow too much in the future.

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Essay : Seeing is believing ?

Recently, I met up with an old friend for afternoon tea in a hotel in central Tokyo.  She arrived at our usual meeting point with a shopping bag.  She had just been to a department store nearby where she had bought certain types of French cheese available in Japan which she missed.  She apparently made frequent visits there, although they cost much more in Tokyo than in Geneva.  We both used to work there, where all kinds of European cheeses were available for reasonable prices.   As most Japanese people had never seen or eaten cheese before the end of WWII and it has become popular here only in the last few decades, I asked her if she had loved it all her life.  She said she had developed a taste for European cheese while living in Switzerland.

I also love cheese now, especially the creamy ones, but I used to hold a negative image of it as a child growing up in the post war Japan.  I first learned the word “cheese” in our national language textbook in my fifth year in the elementary school.  I guessed from the context that it was something to be eaten, but had no idea what it was.  So I raised my hand and asked our teacher what it was.  His explanation, which I still remember vividly, was that it was “something like a bar of soap”.  Hearing his answer, I could not understand why anyone would want to put such a thing into the mouth.  I had heard that rats would sometimes gnaw on soap, but surely not human beings!  My teacher might have seen a photo of a piece of cheese, but probably had never smelled it or tasted it prior to answering my question.

Later as a student in America, I was introduced to cheese in sandwiches, burgers, spaghetti, pizza, lasagna, etc.  Despite my preconceived notion of what “cheese” might be, I had no problem of enjoying those dishes.  The kinds of cheeses I used to taste in the United States did not bother my sense of smell at all.  I remember, however, the Europeans I used to know in university saying that what they found in America was not the “real cheese”.

In that sense, I came to know the real thing for the first time in my life while staying in Europe in mid 1970s.  One day I joined an excursion to Strassburg in Alsace, France, organized by the University of Heidelberg, where I was following a language course for several months.  During our visits to many historical buildings in the charming city, we had some free time to roam around on our own.  A classmate of mine I was with wanted to stop at a fromagerie, a cheese shop, so I went with her.  Inside, there were other customers being waited on, so I looked around and saw cheeses in different colors in all shapes and sizes.  Some on the shelves looked as big as car tires.  I was astonished and impressed by so many variety, but the smell there was too much for me to bear, so I said to my friend that I would wait for her outside.

My first stay in Europe could have been the golden opportunity for me to learn to appreciate the “real cheese”.  But, the powerful odor in the shop discouraged me to even try tasting some of them.  So I stayed away from any smelly European cheese while in Heidelberg.  My attitude toward it began to change, however, after my second arrival in Europe, this time in Geneva in the early 1980s.  Different kinds of cheeses on a big platter were always served during the course of French dinner, just before the sweet dessert at the end.  In the beginning, certain cheeses still put me off, but seeing how other people enjoy eating it, I began to start tasting a small piece of different kinds.  By doing so, I slowly came to appreciate European cheese, and I now really love some of them.

The Japanese cuisine has now become quite popular around the world.  But I have heard that many non-Japanese people who have lived here for a number of years still have a problem with natto, as I had with cheese in Europe.  Natto, cooked and fermented soybean, is popularly eaten with hot steamed rice for breakfast.  It is inexpensive, readily available in any grocery store and offers excellent nutritional values.  But those who are unable to or refuse to eat it complain about its sliminess and unpleasant odor.  My advice to them is that a common saying of “seeing is believing” does not apply to food and they should not even go by their sense of smell.  As I had experienced, that aspect can be overcome if they recognize the item’s nutritional values and be courageous enough to start tasting it.

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