TV & Radio
"Birth-giving machine" gaffe hits nerve in Japan
Fri Feb 2, 2007 1:16 AM ET
By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Even his wife was angry.
When Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa called women "birth-giving machines", he outraged the many Japanese who have shed traditional gender stereotypes, confirming their suspicions that Japan's leaders are out of step with the times.
The gaffe -- which coincides with a slump in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's popularity -- has prompted opposition party calls for Yanagisawa to step down and has given the ruling camp another headache as it gears up for an upper house election in July.
"My wife scolded me," Yanagisawa told Japanese reporters this week after having told local party faithful on Saturday: "Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head."
Yanagisawa altered his remarks almost as soon as spoke them, but critics say the fact he said them at all reflects deep-seated views that permeate Japan's male-dominated corridors of power.
"What women are angry about is that Mr. Yanagisawa's remarks are evidence that this is the view of men who have power," said Sumiko Iwao, a professor emeritus at Keio University who until last month headed a government advisory panel on gender equality.
It wasn't the first time conservatives in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) seemed out of sync with ordinary Japanese on gender matters.
Last year, a proposal to give women equal rights to ascend the throne was scrapped after the birth of Japan's first royal prince in four decades, despite surveys showing the vast majority of the public would be happy to see a reigning empress.
"We have seen this time and again, and women are now convinced that this is a sort of shared attitude among many men in power," Iwao said.
Japanese women still lag their counterparts in many advanced countries in terms of political clout and earning power, but faced with a sagging birth rate, companies have stepped up efforts to mobilize female workers and managers more fully.
"Women have become equal and many are working, so what was he thinking of in describing them that way?" said 26-year-old part-timer Keiko Otsuki, as she headed for work on Friday.
"As a woman, I find it offensive to be treated like an object."
Preliminary estimates show Japan's fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime -- may have edged up last year after hitting a record low of 1.26 in 2005, but the rate is expected to start falling again this year.
Japan's population has already begun shrinking, raising worries about future economic growth, and just two days after Yanagisawa's comment, Abe set up a new panel to design steps to address the problems of Japan's declining population.
The shortage of babies has been linked to a variety of factors, including a trend toward late marriages and the difficulty women have balancing family and work, in part because of the long hours their husbands spend on the job.
"His remarks effectively gave away his thinking -- that if women tried harder, there would be more babies," said an editorial in the liberal Asahi newspaper.
"But things are hardly that simple," the paper added.
"A number of Liberal Democratic Party politicians believe that the nation's birthrate will right itself if women stay at home."
The gaffe has reinvigorated opposition parties, who now scent blood after a spate of ruling party missteps including the resignation of a cabinet minister over a political funds scandal.
The uproar could affect the local elections on Sunday for the governor of Aichi in central Japan and the mayor of Kitakyushu City on the southern island of Kyushu. The results of those polls in turn could influence whether Yanagisawa stays or goes.
But the main opposition Democratic Party and its smaller allies are also coming under fire for boycotting parliamentary debate on the budget as a way to force Yanagisawa to step down.
"I think Yanagisawa should quit. He isn't looking at people, whether men or women, as human beings. He's looking at them as tax-paying machines," said Yukie Horikoshi, a 38-year-old nurse.
"But I don't think other parties are any better. They make promises but they aren't listening to the voice of the people."