‘Values’ emerges as political factor in Japan
By Linda Sieg
Analysts note the campaign has echoes of the ‘values’ platform that helped US President George W Bush defeat Democratic Party rival John Kerry in last year’s election
CONSERVATIVE Japanese politicians who have been courting voters with appeals to patriotism and national pride are adding another element to the potentially potent brew - an emphasis on traditional family values.
The campaign, analysts note, has echoes of the “values” platform that helped US President George W Bush defeat Democratic Party rival John Kerry in last year’s election.
Mounting momentum to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, introduce patriotism into school curricula and revise the way textbooks deal with World War Two has attracted much attention.
Now conservatives are turning to another theme.
A group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers, including popular party executive Shinzo Abe, are criticising a five-year plan to promote gender equality being drafted by government expert advisers.
LDP critics say they don’t oppose equal opportunities for men and women, nor do they insist all women belong at home.
They do say, though, that the draft plan goes way too far, and even want the word “gender” removed from the proposals.
“The gender equality plan is saying to women, ‘you must work’ and proposes policies that give priority to that. That is wrong,” said Kyoko Nishikawa, an LDP member of parliament’s lower house who is a member of the party group set up in May. “There must be a natural division of roles based on male and female differences from birth, I think. To say that such things are all acquired traits is wrong,” she told Reuters.
Abe, often mentioned as a likely successor to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, is the group’s most prominent member. A political blueblood, he is best known for his hawkish views on defence and outspoken criticism of China and North Korea.
“In a society of equal participation by men and women, it is important for women to exercise their abilities freely, but a ‘gender-free’ concept which ignores the value of marriage and the family is linked to the destruction of culture,” Abe was quoted by an LDP publication as saying at a symposium in May.
The gender equality plan has also been singled out for criticism by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a group of nationalist scholars sponsoring a new school text. The society says the book corrects an outdated “masochistic” view of history but critics charge it whitewashes Japan’s wartime past.
Some religious groups, including a Shinto association that backs Koizumi’s visits to a shrine for war dead where convicted war criminals are also honoured, oppose the gender equality plan, politicians said.
Feminine, masculine: Gender equality advocates say the LDP group is distorting their position and erroneously linking it with the emotive topic of sex education in schools to make the plan easier to attack.
“We are saying there are diverse lifestyles through which people can express their own uniqueness,” said Yoko Komiyama, an opposition Democratic Party lawmaker who holds the gender equality portfolio in the party’s shadow cabinet.
“We’re not saying eradicate sexual differences, we’re saying let’s get rid of discrimination based on sexual differences.” The LDP group members are also worried about what they see as a tendency to give priority to individuals at the expense of the family.
“Children and parents are the basis of the family, and what is most important is the love that links them,” Nishikawa said. “Rights and obligations exist on the basis of that. To make rights and obligations the basis of everything is dangerous.”
Critics say that stance is an attempt to turn back the clock. “They are saying the family must be a certain way, without recognising individual freedom, and that the people must act a certain way for the sake of the country,” Komiyama said.
Analysts cite several factors behind the growing focus on values. Concern about a falling birth rate and fears that a breakdown in the traditional family are behind social ills play a part.
Recent improvements in working women’s status at firms keen for capable managers to boost their global competitiveness are another factor, though Japan still lags many advanced countries on most indexes of gender equality.
“Companies are trying to mobilise more women, but that is just the sort of situation in which a backlash can easily occur,” said Jun Iio, a professor of government at the National Institute for Graduate Policy Studies, noting many Japanese still hold conservative views on the roles of men and women.
The crumbling of the LDP’s decades-old political machine that mobilised special interest groups, such as farmers and construction companies, and wooed voters with huge public works budgets also makes more emotional forms of appeal attractive.
“It’s a good way to fight elections. It moves votes. People care,” said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University. “The real question then becomes, how many votes does it move and which way does it move them?” reuters