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Number 1 Shimbun

Making Great Waves Off Marunouchi







In 1995, as a female graduate fresh out of international university, I was working at a Tokyo advertising company when a female friend quit her well-paid job at a publishing company, just as her career was taking off. The reason? To get married.

Back then marriage was more or less the universal choice. By the time they reached 50, just 5% of Japanese women and about 10% of men were still single, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

There have been major changes since then. Both sexes are postponing marriage and women are less likely to abandon careers to tend to a man. Yet, despite the fanfare surrounding “womenomics”, the term popularized by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as part of his plan to feminize the workforce, systemic rigidities and hierarchies hold back women in Japan.

Are we any better?

The FCCJ has little to boast about. While we have had a female president (Lucy Birmingham), and previous female Presidents in Mary Ann Maskery (1984) and several prominent female members, only 251 of our 1,643 members are women. That’s just 15% – worse than the 20% makeup of women in the Japanese media.

That’s notwithstanding high-profile cases like Chrystel Takigawa, the French-Japanese news presenter. She recently married Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, who, after being appointed to the post as the youngest member of the Cabinet last year, did the unthinkable by taking parental leave.

Demographic deficit

The fact is, news in the media industry is still overwhelmingly edited and disseminated by middle-aged or older men. This reflects Japan’s ageing demography: people aged 35-65 years now make up the bulk of the population pyramid, meaning it looks like a vase with a “fat belly” in the middle. Japan in 2020 is a middle-aged society run by men despite more women now going on to four-year universities as opposed to two-year vocational colleges, and gearing up for leadership roles.

Part of the problem, points out Izumi Nakamitsu, the highest-ranking Japanese at the United Nations, is that the Japanese media reinforces traditional roles for women, such as the subservient housewife/mother devoted to her family, who somehow cannot afford to divorce her husband.

In an interview with Kyodo News in March, Nakamitsu, the UN’s female under-secretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, said: “On (Japanese) TV debate programs, men discuss difficult subjects while female announcers are set on the set like ornaments. On TV dramas, too, you might see men holding a business meeting and women serving them tea.”

Media and the working mother

Toko Shirakawa, a journalist who serves on a cabinet panel on work-life reforms, also partly blames Japan’s media industry. In an opinion piece she wrote for Japan Times in January, she criticizes Japanese media’s “male-centric homogeneity” and gives the example of the shortage of daycare services for the gap between social change and the media’s perception of issues. For a long time, says Shirakawa, major Japanese media organizations gave scant coverage to the issue despite the insistence of their own working mothers.

“Their proposals to take up the issue have often been rejected by their senior male editors...who think they can dedicate 24 hours of their time to their job while leaving their wives to care for their children. [They] must have found it unusual for mothers to work by leaving their children in day care services,” she adds.

That attitude changed when an anonymous blogger’s comment went viral. ‘My child was turned down by a nursery school. Japan must die!’ the angry blogger wrote. But by then a precious opportunity to move for- ward had been lost.

The Ito Shiori case

A far more painful example is the rape case brought by journalist Shiori Ito against Noriyuki Yamaguchi, the Washington bureau chief of Tokyo Broadcasting Services. Japanese media gave the story little coverage until foreign media, the BBC in particular, covered it extensively. Ito’s landmark case ended with victory for her in a civil court case and a much-needed public debate on archaic rape laws.

The Asahi Shimbun’s Gender Equality Declaration, announced this year, offers more than a glimmer of hope. The declaration aims both to empower women in reporting and business operations and to achieve gender equality within the Asahi ranks.

Diversity Committee

A rundown of the FCCJ’s 20 committees also shows that all but six (Associate Members Liaison, Entertainment, Film, Freedom of Press, Library, and Special Projects), are chaired by men. By contrast, nearly half of 17 governors and committee members in The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong are women.

I ran on a platform of women and diversity in the 2020 FCCJ election and am one of four women board members. I have now made it my priority to attract at least 82 new women members to our Club to make up for the 5% we need to hit the 20% women membership target. Not an easy job, you may think. But I am immensely encouraged by recent developments.

First, Isabel Reynolds of Bloomberg has just been elected as new President of our Club. With 4 out of 9 Board positions now filled by women, we have securely inducted ourselves to the Thirty Percent Club formed by Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) executives committed to bringing a minimum 30% women executives onto their board, in line with Abe’s womenomics principle.

In this article, some of our members have shared their experiences in the media and with the FCCJ. They made it clear that they want a more diverse and open Club that feels welcoming to women.

Our doyenne is Haruko Watanabe, who brings her experience as a UNESCO consultant for Women and Media Development in training women in Asia and Africa, mentioned concrete examples such as FCCJ-sponsored workshops to help integrate Japanese women into global media. Others, like the New York Times Tokyo bureau chief Motoko Rich, said she wanted to see more events with female speakers and moderators.

For this reason, I am proposing the formation of a Diversity Committee, open to all sexes but with a dedicated desk specifically for women. I hope that as you start to see more women engaging with our Club, change will come organically.

We don’t need “womenomics” to save Japan. Japan will save itself when it can establish “humanomics”, to borrow from former Economist editor, Bill Emmott, author of the recently published The Far More Female Future of Japan, reviewed here by Vicki Beyer, and only if Japan sees no difference between a man and a woman when it comes to getting the job done.

● Ilgin Yorulmaz is Japan correspondent for BBC World Turkish.



Abigail Leonard

Freelance Journalist

“I do think the club could be more welcom- ing to women and people of all stripes. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard women – and men – say the club just doesn’t feel like a place they think they’d belong. Here I can instance the male Club member who congratulated a fellow member on “always having meals with the new female members”. Then there are the ongoing discussions about whether to bring out “The Marilyn”: the poster-sized photo of a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe that used to hang in the main bar.

Women journalists do battle with such idiocy daily, but we also face harassment by employers and sources; maternity leave and the work-life balance; safety in the field and access issues. We need the support of a strong network of female journalists. As a Club, we could all do ourselves a real service by being more forward-thinking and proactive in promoting the club to women. This Number 1 Shimbun issue is a positive step in that direction.”



Sayuri Daimon

ex-Japan Times Executive Operating Officer and Senior Editor

“It is disappointing that a Cabinet Office panel recently decided to give up on the government’s long-held target of having 30% of leadership positions held by women by 2020. The government is now saying that it will try to achieve the target at an earliest possible time in the 2020s.

However, I refuse to be pessimistic about the future of women in Japan. Many women have entered the workforce and many compa- nies are finally realizing that they need to include more women in the higher rankings of their companies.

Although there are more female journalists now at major media organizations in Japan, there are only a few women in top posts. The selection of news is too often dominated by men. What women can do is keep covering the issues that we feel are important, and support each other.”



Isabel Reynolds

Bloomberg Tokyo Correspondent, FCCJ President 2020

“I would first of all like to see the Club become a more welcoming place for a diverse range of journalists, including women, who have been under-represented in our membership so far. I’d like to see an outreach to these peo- ple to encourage them to become part of the Club and to play an active role in everything we do. I'm convinced that would help bolster our ranks, modernize our image and ultimately ensure our survival in these difficult times.

As part of that, and based on the Japanese anti-harassment law that came into effect recently, we should establish a clear-cut channel to deal with harassment. This could be part of the remit of the proposed Diversity Committee.

Finally, we should work hard to ensure diverse representation in our professional and other events. This can present difficulties in Japan, but the FCCJ can help by nudging Japanese media and society as a whole to take diversity seriously.”


Lucy Birmingham

FCCJ President 2013-2015

During my presidency I learned that one woman in a large crowd of men can make a difference, even in Japan! One thing I’m proud of during my presidency is the number of programs I initiated, including the Wom- en’s Forum, with many high-profile speakers such as Naomi Koshi, politician, lawyer, and advocate for gender equality. In 2012 Koshi-san became Mayor of Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, the youngest elected woman mayor in Japan.

More than anything, I remain deeply grateful to those members who supported me throughout my two rollercoaster years, defying plots to oust me and outright misogynistic commentary. Women bring style and a different type of leadership to any table. Electing more women and hearing more women’s voices will make a positive difference to the FCCJ. So it’s great to learn that the Club will enjoy that positive dif- ference with President Isabel Reynolds. I offer my congratulations, and a dash of humble advice: she who laughs, lasts.

Published in: September 2020

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