Sexist Heckling and Political Coverage

Setsuko Kamiya 神谷説子

The sexist heckling made by Tokyo Metropolitan assembly members against one of their female counterparts in June reflects the deep-rooted sexism held among some Japanese male politicians. And it also revealed Japanese media to be unresponsive to such discriminatory jeers even though they weren’t, sadly, necessarily anything new.

What seems to have helped attract public attention and anger towards the sexist heckling this time is social network services that instantly spread the news, and foreign media reports which reacted much more seriously to the incident than Japanese mainstream media.

It happened on June 18 when Tokyo metropolitan assemblywoman Ayaka Shiomura of Your Party was addressing the assembly about the need for further measures to support child raising as well as to boost fertility. As the 35-year-old spoke, several assemblymen interrupted her with jeers of “Why don’t you get married?” and “Why don’t you give birth first?” Shiomura, who is single, returned to her seat in tears.

Later in the day, Shiomura tweeted about what had happened at the metro assembly. In just a day, it was retweeted over 20,000 times, and the news kept spreading as countless others tweeted their criticism of such sexist remarks, which apparently came from members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

A couple of major domestic newspapers indeed reported on the incident, but the contents of the story were simple facts about what happened, and it was treated as a small piece of local news. The news gradually gained significance as stronger calls came for the ones responsible for the heckling to be found and held accountable.

In contrast, foreign news outlets from the onset reported the news as an example of intractable sexism in Japan. The stories outlined how the heckling had come from the capital assembly’s ruling party members amid a push by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his “Womenomics” growth plan, which aims to mobilize more women to join the workforce in order to revitalize the economy. Some reports also touched on the overall gender inequality in Japan, citing statistics on the small number of women in management positions and how men command greater salaries than women.

Eventually the news took center stage as Akihiro Suzuki, a 51-year-old Tokyo Metropolitan assemblyman who for several days denied his involvement, admitted to making one of the sexist heckles and apologized to Shiomura in front of the press. He quit the LDP shortly afterwards.

This incident prompted the media to continue digging into the problem. In early July, it was reported that Sayuri Uenishi, 31, a Diet member of Nippon Ishin no Kai, had been attacked with a sexist slur by LDP lawmaker Hideo Onishi in April, two months before Shiomura’s case. During a Lower House committee session as Uenishi was addressing the committee, 67-year-old Onishi said: “Hey, you should get married and have kids as fast as possible!” Following this revelation, on July 9 Kyodo News reported that at least 12 out of the 78 female Diet members admitted to having been victims of sexist slurs in the past.

If sexist heckling is pretty much a fact of life in the political arena, why hasn’t it been reported in the past? I can’t help thinking that this is an indication that political reporters in the Japanese media, whose industry is male-dominated, are still pretty insensitive to sexism.

In fact, after this incident an Asahi Shimbun reporter responsible for a series of articles focusing on gender issues noted on July 9 that she was bothered at having given up on raising the issue of sexism due to her being in the minority among political reporters. My guess is that’s pretty much the case in other media outlets, but I sincerely hope that this will change.