Ben Hills

When Mariko Mitsui, Japan’s best-known female politician, resigned from the Social Democratic Party in disgust at sexual harassment from her fellow MPs, the response was as coarse as it was predictable.

“We didn’t pinch Mariko’s bum,” jeered Hidejiro Kawai, the man who heads the Opposition in Tokyo’s Metropolitan Assembly, “but we did have to wipe it for her from time to time.”

An anonymous roneoed newsletter was circulated accusing her of “using her womanhood as a weapon”, highlighting such outrages as her hugging supporters(“Isn’t that also sexual harassment?”) and pouring sake for men at banquets.

On a television talk-show she was ridiculed for her stand – in between advertisements showing a housewife transformed into a fairy dancing with her Kururina vacuum cleaner – by a (female) compere who claimed female politicians”know nothing about such matters as the Budget”.

“This is why women in Japan won’t speak out,” says Ms Mitsui, relaxing between sessions in her cluttered new office at the Tokyo City Hall. “The first harassment is bad enough, but then comes the second wave – mainly from the media.”

Mitsui was one of the “Madonna people”, swept into Japanese public life in the late 1980s in the wake of Takako Doi’s unprecedented success – the first woman to head a political party in Japan and the first time in nearly 40 years that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost control of one of the Houses of Parliament.

Now, five years later, all those (mostly male) editorialists who fantasised about Japanese women coming out from behind the shoji screens to take their rightful place in public life – and similar cliches – are starting to look stupid.

“The boom is over,” sighs Mitsui, still smarting from the campaign of vilification by her former party colleagues, upset that she went public with allegations that they patronised her, propositioned her, felt her up, and accused her of being either frigid or over-friendly.

“It is tough being a woman in Japan if you want to achieve anything,” she says. “Women are like foreigners here – gaijin – no matter how hard we work we are given no recognition. Women are only expected to pour the tea.”

Mitsui was elected in 1987 to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. And before anyone says, “Oh – she’s just a city councillor”, you should know just a little about this city.

If it were a country, it would be economically more powerful than all but a dozen or so members of the United Nations. It has a population of 12 million; Mitsui’s ward alone, the leafy middle-class suburbs around Ogikubo, has more voters than Canberra.

Tokyo’s annual budget is more than $A90 billion – not far short of the entire annual expenditure of the Australian Federal Government. The towering complex of futuristic skyscrapers that make up City Hall cost close to twice as much as the $1 billion Parliament House building in Canberra, and the assembly chamber where Mitsui now sits on the cross-benches is considerably grander.

Mitsui – like many other women who went into politics in the 1980s – says she was inspired by Takako Doi, and by the promise of legislation to end the entrenched legal and social discrimination against women in the Japanese workforce.

Although she had a relatively privileged middle-class lifestyle – married to a lawyer (he squeezes her fruit juice in the morning, she points out), and working as a high-school English teacher – Mitsui had experienced the seamier side of discrimination, Japanese-style.

For a start, she attended Ochanomizu Women’s University (the education system in Japan, although now technically desegregated, in practice has quotas which provide places for more males than females in elite institutions). Then, for three years, she suffered the indignities of working as an “oh-eru” (the”Japlish” for OL or Office Lady, as they are called), “making the tea and wondering why the men got all the trips”.

In 1986 Japanese women got their legislation, 10 years after the Government(which had never had a female Cabinet member) began thinking about it. “We were disgusted,” says Mitsui. “After all those years of work this miserable law was enacted, ‘encouraging’ companies to treat people equally, but providing no penalties. Many of my feminist colleagues just burnt out after that.”

Five years later, a survey by the Foreign Press Centre (FPC) in Japan, showed very little had changed – particularly at the top – in Japanese corporate and political life. In fact, female politicians appear to be going backwards fast.

A photograph of the first Parliament elected under Japan’s postwar constitution in 1946 – the first time that women had the vote – shows a group of female MPs in their formal kimonos, obi waist-bands and zori sandals, some of the 39 women (8 per cent) elected to that parliament.

Today’s Lower House has only 12 women (2.3 per cent). In Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s Cabinet there is just one woman, the Education Minister, Ms Mayumi Moriyama, a low-profile performer best-known for her disclosure that her assets include golf-club memberships worth $A900,000.

It’s probably not surprising. In the famous speech in which he said that blacks and hispanics lowered the level of intelligence in the US, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made it a trifecta when he claimed that Japanese women pay no attention to a politician’s speech – only to his neck-tie.

On a list of how well women are represented in national parliaments – a list topped by Finland – Japan ranks 110th, between Egypt and Algeria(Australia, incidentally, is number 64).

Outside Parliament the trend continues. “The number of women in the national policy-making arena is negligible,” said the FPC survey. Of the nation’s top 8,474 public servants, only 57 are women. There are no female heads of department and no female Supreme Court judges.

In the provinces, things are no brighter. None of Japan’s 47 prefectures(States) has a female governor; only two of the 3,000 towns and cities have female mayors. Thirteen prefectural governments and 82 cities have no women members at all. In those which do, women representatives are frequently greeted with cat-calls and dirty remarks when they get up to speak.

The case of Kazuko Kitaguchi, a woman member of Kumamoto City Council on the southern island of Kyushi, is a classic. When she complained that a prefectural MP had grabbed her by the breast in public, her council passed a resolution condemning her for complaining publicly.

In the workplace, says Mitsui, the pattern of discrimination continues. The equal opportunity legislation has done little to change the two-track employment system where women begin on 10 per cent less pay than men, finish up 30 per cent worse off, and are forced out of a job when they marry. They form a cheap, flexible pool of labour for Japan Inc – most women do not have the luxury of Japan’s much-vaunted lifetime-guaranteed employment. They get the “four K jobs” – kitanai (dirty), kitsui (hard), kiken (dangerous) and kyuryo ga yasui (low-paid).

Japanese women (again, according to the FPC study) make up only 15 per cent of professional/management jobs and 26 per cent of university students – both about half the proportion of the US. So 97 per cent of nurses are women, but only 11 per cent of doctors; 56 per cent of elementary school teachers, but 18 per cent of university lecturers. And, in a recession such as Japan is dragging itself through now, they are the first to be laid off.

Almost every day in the densely packed CBDs you can see groups of women in their 20s celebrating in one of the smart bars, then dashing off to catch the metro home, leaving one of their number standing forlornly on the footpath clutching a gift-wrapped box and a bunch of flowers. Her career is over; she is getting married on Saturday. She has just “voluntarily” retired from her job.

Her future is now to work at home, have 1.53 babies, and be referred to by her husband as either “the Finance Ministry” (women usually do the household budget) or “the aircraft carrier” – the husband being the corporate fighter pilot who crash-lands on her doorstep every night for a brief refuelling.

Mariko Mitsui says that there is some truth in this stereotype – but it is not something peculiarly Japanese. “Really, what it comes down to is that this country is 40 years behind the rest of the developed world in its social attitudes,” she says.

Mitsui has won some small victories during her six years as a Tokyo legislator, and singles out her campaign against the annual Miss Tokyo contest. Although she hasn’t stopped the contest, she stopped the council using $20,000 a year to sponsor it, had the age limit abolished, and forced the organisers to stop publishing the contestants’ measurements.

“It was hardly a revolution,” she concedes, “but we women have to keep battling away. In Japan every small victory is sweet.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Thursday 18 March 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 11
Word count: 1647
Keywords: Resignations Politics
Drawing: John Shakespeare