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How Bad Has 2019 Been So Far for Gender Equality in Japan?

Bad. The answer is bad.

By 5 min read

With Japan set to host this year’s W20 in March 2019 — a female empowerment conference held to give suggestions at G20 — you would expect the country to be on extra-good behavior for the new year. You would be wrong.

Idol member apologizes for being attacked

Early January saw reports break of how on Dec. 28 last year Maho Yamaguchi, member of AKB48’s sister idol group NGT48, was allegedly attacked by two men just outside her apartment. She reported the incident to her agency and the police, leading to the arrest of the 25-year-old perpetrators. However, they were soon released without charges. The police were quoted as saying the suspects “only wanted to talk to Yamaguchi, and didn’t think it would be a big deal.”

On Jan. 8, Yamaguchi came out about the assault on a livestream shared on Twitter. She explained, “I wanted to speak out sooner but [management] said they would take care of everything, so I waited this whole month while in fear… However, there were no results. The people who did the evil deed are all just as they were.”

Twitter user @jeauexe shared an English translation of Yamaguchi’s account of the attack below.

In the translated version, Yamaguchi describes the first attack as follows: “I was grabbed by the face and was almost pushed down on the ground. I desperately tried to drive him away. If I give up now, I would get myself killed.”

The day after her livestream, Yamaguchi performed with NGT48 in her native Niigata Prefecture (west of Tokyo) for a live show, where she bowed and apologized to the audience for her livestream.

Fans are showing their shock at these events and how they were handled, along with support for Yamaguchi by using the hashtag #JusticeForMahohon on social media.

Female idols revealed to have mental health issues

This news was soon followed by a former member of AKB48, Miki Nishino, revealing on Abema TV’s Ogiya Hagi no Busu talk show that many idols have mental health problems, according to an article published Jan. 16 on Japan Today. Nishino described group text chats where her fellow members would post weary messages as cries for help in response to immense pressures to please fans, win popularity contest votes, and keep up with the busy idol schedule.

Women of the Imperial Family not allowed at throning of the new emperor

The very next day, things got worse for gender equality when The Japan Times reported the government’s decision to exclude women in the Imperial Family from attending Crown Prince Naruhito’s throning ceremony on May 1. The decision was made based on Imperial House Law, which prohibits women from ascending the throne and minors from participating in enthronement ceremonies.

However, the government will allow female cabinet members to attend as observers. As there is only one female cabinet member in Shinzo Abe’s present government —regional revitalization minister Satsuki Katayama — that means compared to current Emperor Akihito’s enthronement ceremony in 1989, female attendance will increase from zero to one.

Gender equality ad misses the mark

Meanwhile, a new commercial for department stores Seibu and Sogo has been popping up in train stations and shopping districts that claims to be a pro-gender equality campaign.

Japan Today explains in an article posted Jan. 12 that this muddled advertisement shows a determined actress Sakura Ando walking forward while avoiding cream-loaded plates hurled in her direction.

While being forcefully hit in the face with one of these plates, she claims, “This year, finally, things are going to change!”

The message was meant to be equalizing and empowering, but to many viewers, it definitely missed the mark.

Reactions in JapanToday’s comments stated:

“This ad makes me feel very uncomfortable.”

“It’s weird how she’s just standing there and taking it.”

“I guess they were going for some sort of deep message, but it hasn’t reached me at all.”

Spa! magazine ranks female university students by how “easy” they are

In the midst of all this, university student Kazuna Yamamoto started an online petition against tabloid magazine Spa! for publishing an article ranking universities by how “easy” their female students are to sleep with.

The petition calls for the magazine to publicly apologize and take down the sexist article and at the time of publication has 52,613 signatures.

While these events are disappointing, they are not unprecedented. According to an article posted by the Asahi Shimbun on Dec. 18 last year, Japan ranked 110th out of 149 countries in gender equality by the World Economic Forum.

Among the reasons for this low score? Several scandals in the second half of last year of medical and other universities manipulating women’s test scores to limit female enrollment.

In the same article, managing director of World Economic Forum Saadia Zahidi said of Japan, “It is obviously very counter to what should be happening.”

A month into 2019, those words couldn’t ring truer.

What can you do about gender equality in Japan?

The upcoming W20 for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality offers a chance for the Japanese government to address these issues on an international stage and to drum up ideas for policy measures that can be proposed at the G20 Summit in Osaka this summer. Still, whether those words can be put into actions is to be seen.

One interesting campaign that has come about from the W20 is the so-called “Shine Weeks,” where Japanese and non-Japanese citizens can find support for organizing their own events that help generate policies for proposal at G20. If you’re thinking of hosting a panel discussion, seminar, movie showing, performance, cultural event or something else to support gender equality, you can register your event (in English) with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here.

For information on what the Japanese government is doing to promote gender equality in Japan, check out the Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office website.
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