TV & Radio
Neo-nationalism Endangers Gender Equality
TOKYO , Nov 11 (IPS) - When her husband committed suicide five years ago, Mariko, 56, was left alone to fend for herself in a society that not only offered few opportunities to start life again but also blamed the desperate widow for the tragedy.
''My happy life ended when my husband died. Now I have to scrimp and save. I feel alone and lost,'' said Mariko, who asked IPS that her last name not be used.
Her husband's suicide was linked to overwork and the company offered Mariko, then a homemaker, a small compensation package that, she says, ran out two years ago.
To make ends meet, Mariko, whose only son studies abroad, managed to find work in a small neighbouring bread shop. She is on anti-depressant medication to cope with her difficult situation.
Yukiko Nishihara, head of Suicide Prevention Network, says Mariko represents the stark situation of a growing number of women in Japan these days who are deprived of their husbands by death or divorce.
"Despite gender equality laws in Japan, the reality is that women are paid little and offered little security at the work place with companies tending to hiring them as part-time workers without regular salaries. Gender equality now focuses on gaining better work conditions for women and men," says Nishihara.
She points out that with the number of annual suicide cases topping 32,000 for the past seven consecutive years (more than 10 percent among middle-aged men) due to economic difficulties, women are increasingly compelled to find work to survive.
Said Reiko Shoji, head of Working Women’s Network: ‘’Women lose out quickly in a work environment that expects them to put in long hours and compete with men as well as take on family responsibilities. We need to develop a system where offices are more tuned to the needs of women."
Japan maybe the world's second richest economy but ranks a dismal 43rd in the gender empowerment index of the United Nations that registers gains by women in the economic and political field.
Of the 80 countries compared under the U.N. index, Japan was downgraded five notches from 38th place last year.
Discriminatory conditions for women, including lower pay –pay checks for women part-timers are almost 60 percent lower than their male counterparts--and slow progress in corporate life are seen as working against the empowerment of women in Japan.
Aware of the international spotlight on the domestic situation, the government recently appointed as minister for population issues and gender equality, diplomat and academic Kuniko Inoguchi, who is already well-known for the lobbying she does for women’s rights issues.
Inoguchi has pledged equal pay and better working conditions for women, calling as positive signs her own victory in the September elections and the recent increase in the number of female Diet members---46 this year compared to 38 two years ago but still dismal in the 480-seat Lower House.
"The government is trying to achieve the goal of increasing the percentage of women in leadership posts (in all sectors) to 30 percent by 2020," she said in an interview to ‘Japan Times’ published on Nov. 5.
According to government figures for 2004, only 10.1 percent of all managerial posts in Japan were held by women and Inoguchi has said she would like to see an improvement in those figures with active support form the private sector.
Corporations have announced plans to employ more women but that is mostly to make up for the declining birth rate that threatens to reduce the current 64.3 million Japanese work force.
Women activists say the trends are no guarantee unless the government can promise laws that support equal pay and job satisfaction for women.
"The appointment of Inoguchi with all due respect, appears toothless unless she can take companies to task which is a bitter test ," says Midori Ito, head of the Women Union based in Tokyo.
The Union fields more than 500 calls per month from women who have been fired on the grounds of not being able to cope with long working hours or for demanding gender equal salaries.
On average, Ito explains, women are paid around 10 US dollars per hour for part-time work which is insufficient to support living expenses in Japan.
‘’With the majority of women--almost 80 percent of married women--hired as part-timers, the possibility of more women ending up living in poverty is becoming real these days," she pointed out.
Michiko Yamaguchi, spokeswoman for Ishikawa Fusae Memorial Association, one of Japan's oldest womens rights organisations, says there is growing concern that conservative lobbies in Japan have begun to oppose the gender equality movement.
Ominous comments have been made by chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, 51, tipped to be the next prime minister. Abe is on record saying that while he does not support discrimination, he felt that gender equality works against traditional Japanese values that expect women to get married and bear children.
Like Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Abe is an ardent devotee of the controversial war-related, Yasukuni shrine and in fact the grandson of a man convicted for war crimes.
Abe is also known for defending Japan’s war-time record reducing thousands of women in Asia to sexual slavery for the imperial army in the "comfort women," scandal which continues to rankle with neighbouring countries like Korea, Taiwan and China. .
Abe has also been a vociferous critic of sex education for young school children calling the move inimical to Japanese tradition. Yamaguchi refutes such claims and links Abe’s attitude to the rise of neo-nationalism in Japan that works against gender equality.
"The struggle is heating up. Japan’s progress in bringing empowerment to women is now sliding back and we are very concerned," she said. (END/2005)