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Monday, Feb. 05, 2007
Outcry Grows over Japan "Baby-Making Machines" Gaffe
By Bryan Walsh
Sen. Joseph Biden has some company — it turns out serious political gaffes aren't just for bumbling American presidential candidates. On Jan. 27 Japan's Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa gave a speech on the country's shrinking population in which he referred to Japanese women of childbearing age as "baby-making machines." He went onto explain that arresting population decline was difficult "because the number of baby-making machines and devices is fixed [in the population]; all we can do is ask them to do their best per head." The 71-year-old Yanagisawa did add, however, "that it may not be so appropriate to call them machines."
No kidding. Even in Japan, where chauvinism is often an accepted part of public life, Yanagisawa's comments touched a nerve among Japanese women. The country's fertility rate is just 1.29, one of the lowest in the world, which puts Japan on a course for depopulation over the next several decades. Japanese women are regularly harangued by mostly male politicians to help slow the population decline by bearing more children — even though getting married and having a baby often means sacrificing their career and their independence, even in 2007.
It's not surprising that most take a pass on becoming rent-a-wombs for the nation. "I find it ridiculous," says Kyoko Tanabe, a 32-year-old translator in Tokyo. "I feel less and less enthusiastic about delivering a baby of my own into this world."
Opposition political parties were quick to turn the gaffe into a weapon against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, calling for Yanagisawa's resignation. The minister apologized repeatedly but has refused to resign, and so far Abe has stood behind him — calculating that he can't afford to lose a second cabinet minister just four months into his first term. (Genichiro Sata, minister of administrative reforms, resigned in December over a political funding scandal.)
In protest, the opposition parties have begun to boycott budget sessions in the Diet legislature. "We cannot accept that the ministry that deals with grave social issues like decreasing population is headed by someone who has demonstrated a complete lack of respect for the people," says Yoshiaki Takaki, head of the Diet policy committee for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
Neither Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) nor the DPJ can claim sterling feminist credentials — women are largely absent from leadership positions in either party — but this battle is less about baby-making machines than a suddenly struggling Prime Minister. Abe's approval rating feel to a new low of 40.3% in a survey taken over the weekend, down from a height of nearly 70% when he took office. More than 50% of respondents in the poll said they wanted to see Yanigisawa resign for his remark — and with elections coming up in July that could decide the control of the Diet's upper house, many of Abe's own party members feel the same way. LDP ethics committee chairman Takashi Sasagawa told reporters that Yanagisawa "should quit quickly like a man" — thusdemonstrating that Sasagawa was slightly missing the point of the whole sexism thing. But today Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki, Abe's right-hand man, confirmed that Yanagisawa was staying, which will only exacerbate divisions with the LDP.
Abe has bigger problems than a gaffe-prone health minister. The rest of his cabinet is suddenly proving willful to the point of disloyalty, perhaps sensing the Prime Minister's weakness. Last month Abe had to rein in his defense minister twice after Fumio Kyuma first called the American invasion of Iraq a mistake, then later told Japanese reporters that Washington should not be so "bossy" over a planned relocation of a U.S. military base on Japan's Okinawa island. Kyuma's remarks were not welcome in Washington, which has grown accustomed to Tokyo's uncritical alliance, nor were Foreign Minister Taro Aso's comments on Feb. 3 that the American plan for Iraq had been "very immature." Both Kyuma and Aso were echoing what a majority of Japanese feel, but their statements seemed almost calculated to cause embarrassment to their boss - a staunch supporter of the U.S. — while currying favor with the public. Shiozaki, who should be keeping Abe's team in line, was left to protest to reporters last week that "we are not a cabinet with its members saying whatever they like." Perhaps he was preparing a set of muzzles.
With reporting by Yuki Oda/Tokyo
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Troubles mount for Japan's ruling party
Prime minister struggles to contain outrage over Cabinet officials' comments, and the perception that his government is adrift.
By Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 5, 2007
TOKYO — Japan's ruling party concluded another rocky week in office Sunday by losing a high-profile mayoral race and winning a regional governor's election by a closer-than-expected margin, a rebuke from voters for an administration increasingly seen as clumsy and adrift.
The setback came as Liberal Democratic Party politicians continued the loose-lipped habits that have given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's 4-month-old government a reputation for lacking discipline.
Abe is struggling to protect Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa amid a torrent of calls for his resignation after he referred to women of child-bearing age as "birth machines" during a Jan. 27 speech on Japan's low birthrate.
Opposition parties want Yanagisawa fired and are boycotting parliamentary debates while they wait, a move designed to inflict as much embarrassment on Abe as possible.
The prime minister is anxious to avoid another forced resignation after one Cabinet minister and the powerful head of the government's tax commission stepped down in December after separate scandals.
Abe reprimanded Yanagisawa for the comments but said the health minister would keep his job.
Yanagisawa is not the only one to give the prime minister headaches.
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Taro Aso called the Bush administration's handling of the Iraqi occupation "very naive," the second time in recent days that a senior Cabinet member had chastised the United States over its policy on Iraq.
Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma recently called the decision to go to war in Iraq "wrong" and accused Washington of being heavy-handed in talks about relocating U.S. military bases on Okinawa.
The criticism from an ally struck a nerve in the Bush administration and unleashed a debate here about the wisdom of offending the country Japan depended upon for its security.
The succession of gaffes and conflicting messages has hurt Abe's poll numbers and spawned speculation that his leadership is threatened.
A Mainichi News poll released over the weekend showed the prime minister's support down 27 percentage points since he took office in September.
The challenge to Abe comes not so much from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which is weak and disorganized, but from fissures and ongoing power struggles in the governing party. Some senior party members, including legislators from the upper house of parliament who face elections this summer, have joined the chorus of condemnation that has followed Yanagisawa's comments.
The summer legislative election is being billed as a make-or-break moment for Abe.
The prime minister also has been hurt by the flat reaction from the public to his core theme of making Japan a "beautiful country," a vague appeal to restoring national pride. Voters appear more interested in hearing what the government plans to do about issues such as stagnant wages, which are holding back consumer confidence and preventing the country from breaking out of its long economic slumber.
Abe appears to still have time to impose discipline and governing priorities on his party.
The question is whether the Liberal Democratic Party, accustomed to being reined in by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi but apparently giddy with freedom since he retired, is prepared to stay focused long enough to give Abe that chance.
柳沢発言女性怒った 愛知知事選 有権者の心刺激
柳沢発言女性怒った 愛知知事選 有権者の心刺激 (東京 2007/02/05)
Japan's Ruling Bloc Suffers Poll Setback
By HIROKO TABUCHI
The Associated Press
Sunday, February 4, 2007; 10:28 AM
TOKYO -- Japan's ruling bloc lost a key local election on Sunday, a possible bellwether of public support after a Cabinet minister caused an uproar by calling women "birth-giving machines."
The setback compounds the problems for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration, which has also lost a minister and a top adviser in separate scandals.
Most recently, Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa infuriated the public by calling the country's women "birth-giving machines" who had "do their best per head" to stem Japan's falling birthrate.
Yanagisawa quickly apologized, and Abe has repeatedly rebuffed calls from opposition and civic groups for his resignation. But Sunday's weak showing at the polls is expected to increase pressure on Yanagisawa.
The minister told Kyodo News agency he was determined to stay on, despite ruling bloc's poor showing in the election.
"The vote was to pick the helmsman for the local administration," Yanagisawa said. "As for me, I will fulfill the duties I have been given."
Kenji Kitahashi, a former parliamentarian backed by three opposition parties, beat a candidate backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a junior coalition party in a tight mayoral race in the southern city of Kitakyushu.
Public broadcaster NHK projected late Sunday that Gov. Masaaki Kanda of Aichi state in central Japan would keep his seat, but the race with an opposition party-backed candidate was unexpectedly tight. Official results were due early Monday.
A media poll also showed Sunday that for the first time, more Japanese disapprove of Abe than approve _ calling the new leader's leadership into question ahead of parliamentary elections in July.
The opinion survey published by Kyodo said support for Abe fell to a low of 40 percent _ almost 25 percentage points below a similar poll in September. The poll gave no margin of error.