Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Japan's quietly accepted discrimination surfaces

OUTCRY Recent flippant remarks by politicians displaying a lingering negating of equal rights for women have fueled the fires of activists and embarassed the prime minister


A former prime minister says women who don't have children shouldn't get pensions. A senior ruling party lawmaker suggests gang rapists are more "normal" than men too shy to propose marriage. Even the Cabinet's top spokesman pipes up -- saying women who dress provocatively invite rape.

And that was just in the past week.

Though the flippant remarks were followed by quick apologies or denials, they've been a big embarrassment for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has -- perhaps more than any Japanese leader -- appointed women to high-profile Cabinet positions, including the foreign and justice minister spots.

The gaffes have also renewed an outcry from activists over what many see as a lingering, and often quietly accepted, undercurrent of discrimination against women in Japan.

"They are speaking their true thoughts and they are forgiven," said Aiko Ogoshi, a professor at Kinki University and an expert on women in society.

"There still is a bit of that lax attitude that forgives this kind of thing," she said.

The current fracas erupted after a panel discussion last week in which former prime minister Yoshiro Mori and other senior political leaders debated how Japan should deal with its falling birth rate.

Mori, Koizumi's mentor and predecessor, said women who don't have babies shouldn't be allowed to claim pensions.

"Welfare is supposed to take care of and reward those women who have lots of children," Mori said. "It is truly strange to say we have to use tax money to take care of women who don't even give birth once, who grow old living their lives selfishly and singing the praises of freedom."

The debate's moderator asked Seiichi Ota, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and former Cabinet minister, if he thought some men might choose rape because they were afraid to propose. He was referring to a gang rape allegedly committed by university students and has recently been in the news.

"At least gang rapists are still vigorous," Ota replied. "Isn't that at least a little closer to normal?"

The audience, and Seiko Hashimoto, a female lawmaker participating in the discussion, erupted in laughter.

"I'll get in trouble for saying this," Ota chuckled.

He was right. The next day he was slammed in the early morning newspapers and on TV news programs.

But the gaffes didn't stop there.

The government's top spokesman and a key Koizumi lieutenant, Yasuo Fukuda, swiftly condemned Ota's comments. But days later, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun reported that Fukuda told reporters at an off-the-record briefing that the real culprits in gang rape were the women.

"The problem is that there are lots of women dressed provocatively," he reportedly said.

Fukuda -- who is also the minister in charge gender equality -- denied the comment and said: "I meant something completely different."

Women voters weren't convinced.

"We elected such people and it is an embarrassment they are our representatives," said Michiko Matsuzawa, a 41-year-old Tokyo office worker. "I can't believe they remain in office."

A group of female parliamentarians on Friday sent Fukuda's office a letter demanding a full explanation and saying the remarks by Ota and Mori "trample on" their efforts to establish gender equality.

In a protest lodged earlier, the opposition Socialist Democratic Party said Mori's remarks reminded them of Japan's former militarist government, which urged women to have many children to build a stronger country.

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