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RIGHTS-JAPAN: Get Cracking on Gender Equality

TOKYO, Oct 3 2009 (IPS) - Japan’s new female justice minister has promised to get serious about gender equality.

Lawyer Yoko Hayashi: government "must work with 'liberal' men who understand gender equality" Credit: Hayashi/IPS

Lawyer Yoko Hayashi: government "must work with 'liberal' men who understand gender equality" Credit: Hayashi/IPS

Minister Keiko Chiba said on Sep. 29, she intends to propose legislation as early as next year to allow women and men to choose to register different surnames at marriage.

There have been 20 attempts to approve such legislation. “I feel the failure to pass the legislation, even after the Legislative Council submitted its recommendations, is not normal,” Chiba said.

In August, the United Nations told Japan to move on gender equality or risk international criticism for its lack of action.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women called for “immediate action” to fix a variety of problems ranging from wage gaps, legal inequalities, rape, pornography and poor representation of women in high-level positions.

The U.N. committee monitors state compliance with CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women which was adopted in 1979 by the General Assembly. Its findings are not legally binding, but the 23-member panel says Japan has a moral obligation to follow its recommendations.

The panel in a lengthy report on Aug.18 urged the government to take tough measures to ensure gender equality. It described the efforts so far as “insufficient,” and set a two-year deadline for Japan to take action.

Yoko Hayashi, a Japanese lawyer and committee member, blames Japan’s lack of seriousness on its conservative politics, absence of women leaders, and the economic recession.

“I have to admit that there has been a lack of leadership and strategy among the women’s movement,” she said. “Also, Japan has not shared its wealth or economic growth with women. In other words, there is unbalance between Japan’s economic presence and women’s participation in society. Japan requires more intensive efforts to accomplish gender equality.”

In Japan, women still earn only 60 to 70 percent of men’s wages. Only women face a six-month waiting period before they can remarry, and laws discriminate against children born out of wedlock.

Furthermore, the committee recommended that Japan raise the legal age of marriage for women from 16 to 18, the same as men, and allow married couples to choose separate surnames.

The panel was also concerned that the penalty for rape in Japan remains low and that incest and marital rape are not defined explicitly as crimes under the penal code. While the punishment for robbery is a prison term less than five years, for rape it’s less than three years.

A total of 187 countries including Japan have signed CEDAW. The United States, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Nauru have yet to sign.

“I hope the U.S. will join CEDAW as soon as possible,” Hayashi says. “If Japan and the U.S. adopt a more pro-human rights policy both in the domestic sphere and the foreign policy, it will bring a profound change in world politics,” Hayashi says.

If Japan ratifies the optional protocol to CEDAW (2000), which gives the Committee the authority to consider even individual complaints, Japanese women can argue against gender-based discrimination, such as wage gaps under the universal standard, she adds.

Says Lakshmi Anantnarayan, the communications director for Equality Now, an international human rights organisation, there has been much progress in developing standards and systems to address violence against women in a comprehensive manner in the last two decades. “However, Japan seriously lags behind.”

She notes there is only one rape crisis centre, which cannot meet the complex and multiple needs of rape victims adequately. Neither are the police, health care system, prosecutors and courts trained in handling rape cases.

“In most countries (the age for) consensual sex is 16 years, anything under that is considered statutory rape, yet in Japan it is 13,” Anantnarayan points out.

To help curb rape and violence against women, the committee called on the Japanese government to “ban the sale of video games or cartoons involving rape and sexual violence against women which normalise and promote violence against women and girls.”

Pornographic video games and cartoons are thriving businesses in Japan. Rape games such as ‘RapeLay’ encourage the player to stalk, grope, kidnap and then rape a woman and her two daughters, one of whom appears to be about 12 years old.

Amber Raz, Equality Now’s Asia Programme officer, says these games involving sexual violence often promote stereotypes that women and girls enjoy being raped or ultimately fall in love with their rapist, as was the case with another comic series called ‘Rape Man’.

While Japan is slow in changing, many women’s groups hope the new coalition government will bring about a more progressive gender equality policy soon. The world’s second largest economy is ranked 91 in the global Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum.

To make progress, says CEDAW member Hayashi, the government must “find and support women who work for women” and “work with ‘liberal’ men who understand gender equality.”

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