When Ayaka Shiomura, member of Japan’s Your Party, approached the podium at a Tokyo assembly session last week, she probably wasn’t planning on ending her speech in tears. Unfortunately for the Tokyo assemblywoman, it seems that arguing for increased government childcare and pregnancy services was reason enough for male members of the assembly to launch into a series of blatantly sexist heckles that left Shiomura visibly shaken but nonetheless determined to finish her speech.
Among the reported heckles, at least one assemblyman insisted to Shiomura, “You’re the one who must get married as soon as possible!” while another demanded to know, “Can’t you even bear a child?” These comments generated an uproar in Japan, with many demanding an immediate investigation into the origin of the verbal abuse.
The incident has also caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who included Shiomura’s story in her testimony this week at the Senate subcommittee hearing on global violence and discrimination against women. Though the end of last week had seen no clear progress on identifying the hecklers, this week opened with majority Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) member Akihiro Suzuki taking responsibility for the initial marriage comment.
These developments are especially embarrassing for the LDP, the party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has made his ”womenomics” initiative for improving the position of Japanese women in the workplace a priority on his policy agenda. It’s hard to claim you are pro-women when your party’s members openly delight in public sexism. Japan as a whole is struggling with a looming population crisis amidst persistent economic concerns, so supporting women who want to work and/or have children is an absolute must for the future of the island nation.
At this point, no one should be surprised by the seemingly ubiquitous sexism in politics. Shiomura, as a woman politician, is hardly alone when it comes to seeing her legitimate political positions met with completely unrelated gender-based attacks. What’s important about this most recent international headline-making controversy, however, is that she isn’t going to just let it go.
Rather than quietly accepting sexism as an unavoidable part of politics, Shiomura immediately took to Twitter, insisting that while she can handle legitimate policy heckling, she simply can’t accept jokes that make light of suffering women. Her initial message earned more than 30,000 retweets, but that was only the beginning.
Supporters flocked to Shiomura’s defense across political lines, with women like New Komeito‘s Tamiko Matsuba, a member of the LDP’s own political coalition, insisting that she “cannot forgive the remarks.” The Japanese Change.org petition calling for a serious action against the responsible LDP members is already nearing 100,000 signatures. Even after Suzuki made his public apology and expressed his plan to resign from the Assembly, Shiromura reminded the Asahi Shimbun that her colleague’s words have come “a bit too late.”
In less than a week, Shiomura has become the newest rallying point for Japanese women who are unapologetically demanding fair treatment in society. Looking to the future, she emphasized to The Wall Street Journal that maintaining momentum in the push for gender equality rests on getting more women elected into public office. If Shiomura is any example, then women in Japan are more than ready for it.
Image of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building via Wikimedia Commons.
James Hildebrand is a senior at Amherst College and editor-in-chief of the independent student blog AC Voice. He is interning this summer at Ms. magazine.