Will the sexist heckling of Ayaka Shiomura increase mistrust in Abe’s “Womenomics” campaign”?

The assemblywoman vs. the dinosaurs

by Julian Ryall

It was not just the casually sexist remarks that were bandied about as she addressed the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly chamber on June 18 that angered Assemblywoman Ayaka Shiomura. That was naturally bad enough, she told a press conference at the FCCJ six days later, but it was compounded by the subsequent sniggering and the wink-wink, nudge-nudge among members of the male dominated chamber.

Then, despite following the appropriate procedures for a filing a grievance in the chamber, its guardians informed the Your Party politician that nothing could be done against the perpetrator or perpetrators as she had no evidence to identify her heckler. “They concluded by saying that as the person responsible could not be found, they could not therefore take any further steps,” Shiomura said. “The end result, as far as they were concerned, was that there was no problem and that nothing had occurred.”

But Shiomura, a 35 year old politician serving her first term in the assembly, refused to allow the men who rule the chamber to wash their hands of the matter quite so easily. Thanks, in part, to a similar sense of displeasure among the domestic media, combined with her own Twitter and Facebook messages, sufficient pressure was brought to bear to force one of her hecklers to come forward.

Akihiro Suzuki, 51, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, apologized on June 23. He admitted interrupting Shiomura’s speech on support for women trying to become pregnant or struggling to raise children by saying, “Can’t you even have babies?” Other comments “You’re the one who should get married first” and “She must be single” also were heard coming from the LDP’s seats in the chamber.

Sadly, Shiomura said, that is the sort of place the debating chamber of the nation’s capital has become. “There are not so many female politicians, and I can’t deny that it is difficult for a woman to work in this kind of environment,” she said. “This is very much a world that is dominated by men. It is an environment in which men feel free to say whatever is on their minds,” she said. “And that is the basic problem that has caused this to happen.”

Ayaka Shiomura at the Club

Shiomura said she had “braced herself” before making what was to be her maiden speech in the chamber as there had been similar catcalls when she had participated in an earlier debate. But the volume that the heckles were delivered at and the “old fashioned thinking” shocked her. “It was so unexpected in this modern age, it was not something that I had prepared myself for,” she said.

Then things got worse.

“I thought that since there were people around me, they must have heard the comments and would be similarly shocked,” she said. “But the response of the chamber was just a great deal of laughter. The moment had become enjoyable for this audience. I felt tremendous sadness and the beginnings of anger.” That sense of injustice was deepened by the chamber declining to make any effort to investigate the matter.

The majority of the mainstream Japanese media sided with Shimura’s frustration, claiming such outbursts have no place in society, let alone in Tokyo’s decision making chamber. The Mainichi Shimbun commented, “More than merely ill mannered and graceless, what the man shouted at Shiomura has disturbingly deep roots. This most recent incident is a sign of just how late in coming is any truly radical change in prevailing attitudes to women,” it said in an editorial.

Some of the tabloids preferred to use the opportunity to rake some muck, with Shiomura being asked to respond to suggestions in the weekly Shukan Bunshun that she was involved in an affair with another member of Your Party. The allegations are “groundless,” she replied.

Tokyo Sports also quizzed Shiomura about a comment she made on a TV show in 2007 confirming that she took ¥15 million from a man as compensation for ending their relationship. That exchange involved “wit,” she claimed, unlike the heckles in the chamber, which were “just sexual harassment that was like bullying.”

Sidestepping a question at the FCCJ event about whether she forgave Suzuki for his comments Shiomura would only say that her feelings are still “complex” she did express fears for the success of the government’s policy of greater opportunities and equality for Japan’s women.

“I think that what Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe says about women in society here is correct, that he wants to reinvigorate the role of women and to enable them to display their skills and power. But if we look at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly we see a place that is filled with people who do not think along the same lines at all,” she said.

“When we have assembly members and administrators whose thinking is so old fashioned, I have to ask how we can truly create the policies and realize the dream of empowering women.”