AP Interview: Japanese minister says women are ‘undervalued’

By MARI YAMAGUCHI and FOSTER KLUG
Associated press

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s minister for gender equality and children’s issues has called the country’s record low birthrate and population slump a national crisis and blamed “indifference and ignorance” on Japanese male-dominated parliament for negligence.

In an extensive interview with The Associated Press, Seiko Noda presented the steady decline in the number of children born in Japan as an existential threat, saying the country would not have enough troops, police or firefighters in the decades to come if this continued. The number of newborn babies last year was a record 810,000, up from 2.7 million just after the end of World War II, she said.

“People say children are a national treasure. … They say women are important for gender equality. But they’re just talking,” Noda, 61, told the AP from a cabinet office in Tokyo’s downtown government complex. “Japan’s policy will not move until (the issues of children and women) are made visible.”

She said there are various reasons for Japan’s low birth rate, persistent gender bias and population decline, “but being in parliament, I particularly feel that there is indifference and ignoring”.

Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, a powerful democracy and a major US ally, but the government is struggling to make society more inclusive for children, women and minorities. There are deep concerns, both in Japan and abroad, about how Japan will reverse what critics call a deep-rooted history of machismo that has contributed to the low birth rate.

The gender gap in Japan is one of the worst in the world. It ranked 116th in a survey of 146 countries by the World Economic Forum for 2022, which measured progress towards equality on the basis of economic and political participation, as well as education, health and other opportunities for women.

“Japan has fallen behind because other countries have changed faster,” said Chizuko Ueno, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Tokyo, referring to the gender gap in Japan. “Previous governments overlooked the problem.”

Due to outdated social and legal systems surrounding family issues, younger generations are increasingly reluctant to marry and have children, contributing to low birth rates and declining population, Noda said. . She has served in parliament since 1993 and has expressed her ambition to be Japan’s first female prime minister.

Noda criticized a law requiring married couples to choose a surname – 90% of the time it is women who change surnames – saying it is the only such legislation in the world.

“In Japan, women are undervalued in many ways,” said Noda, who is one of only two women in the 20-member cabinet. “I just want women to be on an equal footing with men. But we are not there yet, and the advancement of women has yet to wait.

The most powerful lower house of Japan’s two-chamber parliament is over 90% made up of “people who don’t menstruate, don’t get pregnant and can’t breastfeed,” Noda said.

The lack of female representation is often referred to as “democracy without women”.

A quota system could help increase the number of female candidates for political office, Noda said, but male lawmakers criticized her proposal, saying women should be judged on their abilities.

“It made me think that there are men who don’t have the capacity” to be candidates, she says. But during the candidate selection process, “men can just be men, and I guess, for them, just being a man can be seen as their ability.”

Noda graduated from Sophia University in Tokyo and worked at Tokyo’s prestigious Imperial Hotel before entering politics, succeeding her grandfather, who was a parliamentarian in Gifu Prefecture.

Noda had her first child, who is disabled, at age 50 after fertility treatments. She supports same-sex marriage and the acceptance of sexual diversity.

Noda, who has many liberal supporters, has called herself an “endangered species” in her conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan with little interruption since the end of the war.

She says she is often “bashed” by party conservatives, but also by women’s rights activists, who do not see her as a genuine feminist.

Yet without the help of powerful male party lawmakers, she could not have gotten this far, said Chiyako Sato, a columnist for the Mainichi newspaper, in her recent article.

Comparing Noda and her ultra-conservative and hawkish rival Sanae Takaichi who both ran unsuccessfully in the party’s leadership race in September, Sato said that despite their different political views, they are similar “maybe ‘they had no other way but to win the support of powerful male legislators to advance in the Liberal Democratic Party at a time when women were not considered full human beings.

The Japan Self-Defense Force, she said, struggled to get enough troops due to the dwindling younger population. She said there was also not enough attention paid to what the downsizing would mean for police and firefighters, who rely on young recruits.

In an attempt to solve the problems, she has created a new government agency dedicated to children which is due to be launched next year.

Younger politicians in recent years have become more open to gender equality, a reflection, in part, of the growing number of children being raised by working parents, Noda said.

But many male lawmakers, she said, think family, gender and population issues don’t concern them and are reluctant to get involved.

“The policies were made as if there were no women or children,” she said.