Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

POPULATION: ‘Soft Power’ On the Rise in Japan

Tim Shorrock

WASHINGTON, May 8 2005 (IPS) - The collapse of Japan’s ‘bubble economy’ in the 1990s and Japan’s subsequent decline as a global manufacturing power have created new openings for women in what used to be a society heavily dominated by men.

Since the turn of the century, the Japanese Diet has passed new laws providing financial assistance to Japan’s elderly – lifting a major burden from the shoulders of working women – and outlawing domestic violence and human trafficking. Experts cite a growing realisation, especially among the young, that there are alternatives to lives oriented solely around work and pleasing the boss.

”We are not workaholics anymore,” proclaims Mariko Bando, while addressing a Washington seminar last week organised by the Japan Information and Culture Center of the Embassy of Japan and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

Bando is vice president of Showa Women’s University and a 34-year veteran of the Japanese civil service, where her last job was director general of the Bureau for Gender Equality.

To be sure, Japanese women still face severe discrimination at the workplace, particularly in large corporations. According to recent government surveys, women make up just 10 percent of the ranks of corporate management. This compares to 46 percent in the United States and over 30 percent in the most advanced economies in Europe.

”The percent of women in decision-making is still small,” says Bando, despite the fact that women manage most home budgets and include among their ranks many popular novelists, ”gender equality is not yet realised.”

But in the 15 years since the bubble burst, she says, Japanese society changed from one that was ”economy-based” to one in which democratic values held sway. As a result, women began to demand more rights, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) focused on gender equality, allowing women’s issues began to flourish.

”Japan lost its hard power, but has developed soft power,” adds Bando.

One of the most significant results of this increased activism was the passage in 2000 of a law providing long-term care for Japan’s growing elderly population. In the past, this duty had been thrust on women and housewives, who were often given the responsibility for caring not only for their own parents but those of their husbands’ as well.

But this burden became too heavy, and ”women’s groups demanded the socialisation of these costs,” explains Bando.

Another important law, passed in 2001, made domestic violence a civil crime and created a national network of some 120 government-run shelters where frightened spouses and their children can take refuge from violent abuse. The law also has a clause that requires abusive spouses to temporarily stay away from their homes to allow families afraid for their lives to collect their belongings and settle their affairs.

Until the law was passed, women victims seeking help from local police were told they were on their own. ”The police would say ‘that’s not my job, we can’t interfere with home life’,” says Hiroko Hara, the convener of the NGO Japan’s Women’s Watch and professor at the graduate school of humanities of Josai International University.

This changed when women serving in the Diet lobbied the government and persuaded the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to back the protective legislation. ”Now men have limits,” says Hara, who adds that the law protects male victims of domestic violence as well. But despite the protections now provided under the law, she says, more than half of the victims who apply for assistance decline to press charges.

The domestic violence law is reviewed every three years. In 2004, in the first such review, the Diet extended the length of a protective order and made it easier for Japanese courts to restrain abusive spouses.

Another sign of ”soft power” in Japan is the emergence of women artists in the popular field of manga, an art form that combines cartoon characters and story-writing.

Manga took off in the early 1960s as a medium directed at children in primary school. During the 1970s, as both manga artists and readers became more demanding and discriminating in their tastes, it became popular with older students and adults. Now it is a vehicle for short stories and historical novels, and has become a global phenomenon.

”Manga is a medium that uses the book form very well,” says Machiko Satonaka, one of Japan’s hottest manga artists. Satonaka, who is managing director of the Japan Cartoonists Association, has completed more than 420 works of manga, primarily written for girls. They include a series of book-length manga that depict the world of the Manyoshu, a Japanese poetry anthology published more than 3,000 years ago. In fact, the Manyoshu provided Satonaka’s first inspiration. From those poems, ”I was inspired to write my own manga,” she says.

Satonaka claims a large following among Japanese women because of the attention she pays to female psychology. In the past, she says, male manga artists depicted women heroines as ”only cute and smiley all of the time, very passive”. Her heroines, in contrast, ”think for themselves about how to live” and are ”independent, thinking for themselves.”

According to Satonaka, who has been drawing manga for 42 years, some 2,000 artists claim the title of ”manga specialists” in Japan. Unlike many other fields, women enjoy ”completely equal opportunity” in manga. Since she has been writing and drawing for so long, says Satonaka, many women artists have been influenced by her work. Her most gratifying moments are when young people tell her ”they want to follow me. That’s the moment I feel the happiest.”

The three women agreed at the seminar that ‘gaiatsu’ – a Japanese word meaning outside influence or pressure – has been instrumental in the recent changes in women’s lives. Two key events, says Bando, was the release of a United Nations study in the 1990s that showed that Japan ranked 39th in a survey of how women have progressed in 70 countries, and the Fourth World Conference on Women that was held in Beijing in 1995.

”I think ‘gaiatsu’ was very important for pushing Japanese women’s issues,” she says. ”It was only with gaiatsu that the Japanese government started to move,” adds Hara.

This is particularly true in the area of domestic violence. Japan’s new law remains much weaker than legislation on the books in both South Korea and Taiwan, says Hara.

Ironically, however, foreign companies have reaped some of the benefits of the sexual discrimination that still exists in Japan. Non-Japanese corporations ”get the employees who can’t go up the promotion ladder,” says Bando.

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