Where do they find these people? That question is surely on the minds of many Japanese women today, who have good reason to wonder how Yoichi Masuzoe squeaked into public office even after leaving a sordid paper trail of sexist comments.
Did you know that menstruation makes women unfit for governing? Or that female politicians are “middle-aged hags”? These are just a couple of theories attributed to Tokyo’s new governor. You’d think a former health minister would be slightly more attuned to gender dynamics ― not to mention science. But that didn’t keep Shinzo Abe from championing Masuzoe for what’s arguably Japan’s second-most visible office and making a mockery of the prime minister’s talk of empowering women.
Japan’s other half isn’t going to sit silently in this he-said, she-said drama. A growing group of women are threatening a sex boycott against men who voted for Tokyo’s misogynist-in-chief. The Twitter-based group is garnering headlines around Japan and proving to be a real killjoy for Abe’s government.
Backing Masuzoe was the Liberal Democratic Party’s way of keeping anti-nuclear candidate Morihiro Hosokawa out of the governor’s residence. A defeat would have severely damaged Abe’s hopes of restarting Japan’s 48 reactors and selling nuclear hardware and technology around the globe. Masuzoe also is seen as a steady hand to oversee preparations for the 2020 Olympics. But at what cost?
No policy shift would yield faster results than increasing the female participation rate in Japan’s economy. Last year, Abe himself cited Goldman Sachs Group Inc. research showing that if female employment matched men’s (which is about 80 percent), Japan’s gross domestic product would get a 15 percent boost. Then, three funny things happened on Abe’s journey from Japan Inc. stalwart to feminist.
First, Abe unveiled a three-pronged plan involving child care, maternity leave and female board members that lacked imagination, detail and potency. Next, he watered his own proposals down even further. Now he is entrusting high-profile tasks to people who hold women in low regard.
Take former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, head of the 2020 Olympic organizing committee. The Tokyo Olympics is a national affair. But for Abe, the games represent even more: a family bookend. His beloved grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, brought the Olympics to Tokyo in 1964. Kishi’s games announced Japan’s return to the global community and its ambitions as an economic power, not unlike how his grandson views 2020 as a big payoff for his “Abenomics” program. Why, then, entrust the planning to a man with a long track record of sexist diatribes?
In 2003, Mori said women who delay childbirth are selfish and shouldn’t be allowed to claim pensions. Lest you think Mori has evolved, consider his 2009 campaign against upstart Mieko Tanaka, then a 33-year-old travel agent. Rather than speak to her ideas and criticisms of his representation of Ishikawa Prefecture, Mori quipped: “She was picked only because she is young and has a nice body,” then told voters not to be fooled by Tanaka’s “sexiness.” Mori is a diplomatic time bomb.
Abe’s picks for the governing board of national broadcaster NHK also are raising eyebrows. There’s female member Naoki Hyakuta, who suggests career women are to blame for Japan’s low birthrate. Katsuto Momii, who now runs NHK as director-general, caused a global outcry when he played down the Japanese military’s use of sex slaves during World War II.
Masuzoe personifies Japan’s gender gap. His victory Sunday is part of a disturbing pattern by a government that belies its claims to support women by rallying around those who don’t. The LDP tried to explain away Masuzoe’s 1989 menstruation remark as a youthful indiscretion. That’s bunk: He was over 40 at the time and didn’t try very hard to distance himself from past observations. Now he’ll be Tokyo’s face for the next four years.
But why did Masuzoe win to begin with? Some chalk it up to the weather; the worst snowstorm in 45 years resulted in one of the lowest turnouts ever. For insurgents such as Hosokawa taking on the establishment, turnout is everything. To me, Masuzoe’s win demonstrates a disturbing tolerance for gender discrimination in a nation whose future relies on greater equality.
Because politicians pay no price for slagging off women, the practice will continue. Japan is still a very top-down economy, and corporate executives often take their cues from the political zeitgeist of the day. One year into Abe’s supposed “womenomics” conversion, men still dominate Japan’s boardrooms and women fetch the tea.
Japan desperately needs a “lean in” moment. Female voters must hold the men who lead Japan accountable. But men also must lean out and realize something proven by studies from McKinsey & Co., the World Economic Forum and the International Monetary Fund: Empowering women is good for the economy and corporate profits.
If withholding sex from Japan’s Neanderthals doesn’t do the trick, let’s try arguing that womenomics isn’t about charity, but a higher Nikkei 225 Stock Average. That would be a better use of Abe’s energies than promoting the kind of men who are holding Japan back.
By William Pesek
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. ― Ed.