Hey, Baby? You’re fired, don’t come back. Maternity Harassment (MATAHARA) and The Working Woman in Japan

Fighting Against Maternity Harassment is a grass roots effort
Fighting Against Maternity Harassment is a grass roots effort

 

Working at one of Japan’s megabanks, a workplace notorious for old-fashioned male attitudes, it wasn’t uncommon for Mrs X to be told, “Don’t you dare get pregnant!” or “If you get pregnant, we won’t give you any work!” from her colleagues.*

It was then that she became pregnant from her long-term partner. Unmarried unsure of how her workplace would react, she consulted with one of her colleagues.”It was then that a manager from another department heard from chance. He got angry and said, ‘Quit messing around! I will never allow the pregnancy of someone who isn’t married. If what you’re saying is true, then I will not treat you like a human being!'” she told JSRC.

“Eventually I couldn’t stand the atmosphere and fear in the workplace and chose to abort (the child).”

The Peeling Face Of Womenomics 

Japan faces a tough hurdle of an aging population coupled with a low birth rate. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2013, pledging to solve the low birth rate and impending labor crisis, embraced a policy dubbed “womenomics,” and reviving the economy by raising the number of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020. A pledge he has since backed away from.

It’s a hard task, considering that Japan’s business world is dominated by deep-rooted sexist attitudes that favor male workers over females and women, who are considered a bad investment due to the belief that they’ll quit when they marry and have children. Japan ranked 101 out of 142 assessed countries in 2015, according to a study released by the World Economic Forum.

And if a woman does become pregnant, while working, some are subjected to what the media has dubbed matahara (マタハラ).

According to Japanese Trade Union Confederation, matahara is an abbreviation of “maternity harassment.” The word refers to mental or physical harassment that some workingwomen go through when they announce to their colleagues that they’re pregnant or after they come back to the office from maternity leave. Some women come back to find themselves demoted or receiving a pay cut. In the worst-case scenario, some are even pressured to quit or fired. Harassment comes not only from men in the office but other women as well—sometimes out of irritation that their workload will increase, sometimes out of a kind of jealousy.

Prime Minister Abe’s former education advisor, Ayako Sono, infamous for publishing a column in a major Japanese newspaper advocating apartheid as part of immigration policy, said that “maternity leave is an unfair burden on Japanese companies” while still advising education policy.

Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, employers are required to pay consideration to pregnant women by offering them shorter work hours or flexible work schedules. They’re also banned from firing or demoting expectant mothers due to pregnancy and required to give them maternity leave. (Men are also technically allowed to take maternity leave as well to help in the first few weeks after a child is born.)

In practice, however, the law is hardly followed—and the local courts are hardly sympathetic. A physical therapist in Hiroshima was stripped of her job title and her managerial allowance following her second pregnancy—and her request for a “lighter workload”–in 2008. The woman, who had been working at the hospital since 1994 and was promoted to vice-director of her department in 2004 was told that there were no vice-director positions available when she came back. She sued her employer for violating Article 9.3 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and Article 10 of the unwieldy Act on the Welfare of Workers Who Take Care of Children or Other Family Members Including Child Care and Family Care Leave and gender discrimination.

The Hiroshima District Court and High Court rejected both of her claims on February 23 and July 19, 2012, with the District Court arguing that “the plaintiff never objected to the shift to a lighter workload.”

It took until October 2014 for the Supreme Court to strike down the decisions make in the lower courts. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the Supreme Court ordered the woman’s former employer to pay 1.75 million yen in damages. The court sent the case back down to the Hiroshima High Court, arguing that the proceedings regarding the necessity for a demotion were insufficient.

Maternity harassment sometimes extends outside of the workplace. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has been producing pregnancy badges since 2006 that say “I have a baby in my stomach” for expectant mothers to wear on public transportation to let other passengers know that she is pregnant.

A large percentage of the Japanese male public is unaware about these badges. A government survey released last September revealed that over 60 percent of Japanese men had  never heard about the badges, Jiji press reported.

In some instances the badges have instead become a source of trouble, even harassment for the women who wear them. One Mainichi Shimbun reporter who followed an expectant mother on her daily commute and found that even though her source stood in front on the priority seats—special seating on the train reserved for elderly, disabled, and pregnant passengers—other passengers rarely stood up to give up their seats.

Other expectant mothers wearing the badges have alleged on social media websites such as Twitter that they had experienced verbal and physical harassment from strangers such as being  elbowed or knocked down.

One anonymous poster on an online forum wrote  in regard to the pregnancy badges, “Do [these badges] mean ‘I want you to reward me because I’m pregnant’? I just think it’s strangely brazen.

So Abe faces a tough task in changing business and societal attitudes towards women in order to solve the country’s labor shortage, especially when members of his very own party display the same chauvinistic attitudes that pressure women in the corporate world to leave their careers.

The policy has failed horribly. Of the record five female ministers appointed to Abe’s second cabinet to set an example, two resigned in the same day due to misuse of campaign funds. Two other female ministers came under fire for links to extreme Nazi groups.

Deputy Prime Minister—and Shinzo Abe’s second-in-command and a likely candidate for being the next Prime Minister—Taro Aso said at a speech in December of 2014  in Sapporo, “There are many people who are creating the image that (increasing numbers of) elderly people is bad, but more problematic is people who don’t give birth.”

The Abe government even abolished the babysitting discount ticket system,  the Sankei Shimbun reported. The tickets, which were distributed to 3, 000 people through 1, 300 companies, allowed working women to place their sick children, who are unable to attend a daycare when ill, with babysitters for a discounted price.

On March 31st 2015 the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare decided to consider the termination of a female worker’s employment within one year after the end of her maternity leave as “illegal” and issue warnings to companies who violate this law.

“In regard to companies that violate the law, we will provide administrative guidance to rectify the situation by advising them, then guiding them, and then making recommendations. If they do not follow our recommendations, we will publish their company name,” said Hitomi Komorizono, an official from the Equal Employment Opportunity Policy Division of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

However, the move still has victims doubting that it will change the situation.

“I don’t think that just because this notice came out the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, that things will improve,” says Sayaka Osakabe, a former victim of maternity harassment who founded an online network for other victims called Matahara.net.

“However, because of this notice, I think that it will be easier for female workers to raise their voices.”

During a session of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, when Ayaka Shiomura was giving a speech on women’s issues, members from the Liberal Democratic Party section of the room yelled out jeers telling her to “hurry up and get married” and “why can’t you have babies?”

It’s a tough spot for Japanese women. On one side of the spectrum they’re being punished in the workplace for giving birth to children. On the other side they’re being told to breed. Either way, simply existing as a woman in Japan seems to be considered an inconvenience. The lack of affordable day care is another problem altogether.

Is it any wonder the number of women giving birth declines?

* Previously published on September 16, 2016.

 

 

 

 

Hope and Love in Hell: Former North Korean Captive Charles Jenkins Speaks

Charles Jenkins, a U.S. Army Sergeant who deserted his post in South Korea and allegedly sought refuge in the communist North Korea in 1965, died this week.  He spent nearly four decades inside the “worker’s paradise” before being set free along with his Japanese wife, Hitomi, who was abducted by North Korea. Below is our interview with him, reprinted. Rest In Peace.
The interview was conducted on June 27th 2013.
Charles Robert Jenkins in Sado Island (2013) Photo: Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky
Charles Robert Jenkins in Sado Island showing the wound left on his arm by the North Koreans (2013) Photo: Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky
In 1965, U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins deserted his post in South Korea and allegedly sought refuge in the communist North. He spent nearly four decades inside the “worker’s paradise.” After North Korea admitted to abducting Japanese citizens in 2002 and returned them to Japan, including Jenkins’s wife, Hitomi Soga, Charles Robert Jenkins re-emerged into the public eye–a relic of the cold war, an unsolved mystery and a figure of national interest. In July of 2004, North Korea finally let Jenkins leave. He turned himself in to the U.S. Army in Japan, was given a court martial and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. After his release, he relocated to Sado Island, off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, where he spends his days with his wife and family, working and remembering. This is part of his story. In his recollection of events, he raises questions about why he ended up in North Korea, contradicting his previous statements. Perhaps it is due to failing memory, or perhaps it is due to circumstances which even now he feels that he cannot divulge, no one– probably not even the man himself–knows completely.
The gift shop of the Sado Island Legend Museum was busy and noisy that summer afternoon. Japanese tourists, mostly retired men and women can’t wait to walk around the museum’s gift shop to take a glance at one man. He is in the corner, a tired old American, who looks like he has been working in the fields most of his life, not a gift shop. The man is quietly tending to his sole duty, which is to mechanically fill the local sweet biscuit boxes, despite the noisy crowd of people calling him from all sides, Jenkins-san!  Some of the tourists solicit him from time to time for a souvenir photo. The shy little man from North Carolina doesn’t smile for the photos, and he returns to his work; the pattern repeats itself until the day is done.He lived in North Korea for over 40 years after being captured inside the Russian embassy in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in 1965, when he defected from the U.S. Army.
When asked for an interview, he first shakes his head. “I cannot leave my post now. I’m on duty until 4 PM.” After asking permission to his superior, Mr. Jenkins agreed to talk.
Charles Robert Jenkins, 73, is known by everyone in the island of Sado, off the west coast of Japan, directly facing China and the two Koreas. Jenkins fled his U.S. Army unit in South Korea in 1965, when he was only 24 years old and was caught in North Korea after a failed attempt to be sent back to the U.S through the Russian embassy in North Korea. In 2002, his wife Hitomi Soga, was released a month after Japanese former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s historic visit to Pyongyang in September of that year. During that historic meeting, North Korea admitted to abducting Japanese citizens and holding them in the country to train spies for the regime. In 2004, After forty years of communist captivity, he was finally brought to Japan with his two daughters, Mika and Brinda. When Jenkins arrived to Japan, the U.S. military sentenced him to 30 days in jail and a dishonorable discharge for deserting his Army unit, among other crimes.Jenkins told JSRC that he was offered a job as a sergeant in Camp Zama, a U.S. Army post located in Kanagawa prefecture. Jenkins believes it was because the military could then question him anytime they wanted to. “They promised me a good salary but my wife didn’t want it,” he said. “In Kanagawa, they gave me a good house to live in.”
Jenkins later received a permanent resident status to remain in Japan with his wife and daughters.The reason for his desertion is still unclear, did he simply surrender to North Korea as many reported? Or did he intend to sneak into the Russian embassy in North Korea hoping that they would save him from serving out his time in North Korea? In both cases, it was huge risk. What was so intolerable in the U.S Army that pushed Jenkins and three other American soldiers to surrender? We might never get a clear answer as he swore to his army lawyer to never reveal the true reason for his decision.Jenkins told the LA Times in 2009 that he deserted because he wanted to avoid a “sure death” in Vietnam. He told JSRC that he wanted to go to Vietnam because he couldn’t make it anymore in Korea. The answer contradicts his previous statements and even after repeated questioning Jenkins would not divulge what he had promised his army lawyer never to reveal.
Why is that Charles Robert Jenkins  couldn’t make it anymore  in North Korea? What made him feel it was worth deserting the U.S. Army? He won’t answer. Jenkins did say he regretted almost each and every day of his captivity for the incredible act he perpetrated in 1965, until he met his Japanese wife, who is 20 years younger than him.
“Four American defectors lived in the same room. The first American to  go  to North Korea was Larry Allen Abshier. The second was James Joseph Dresnok, the third was Jerry Wayne Parish. Larry and Parish have now passed away. Jenkins was the number four. Right now there is only Dresnok left in North Korea that I know of. But there could be more American soldiers in North Korea from the Vietnam War.”
According to Jenkins, in the late 60s and early 70s during the Vietnam War, each time the Communists would liberate a village in Vietnam, they would take all the people that were capable, clever and young, to send them away to North Korea for ‘education’, in fear that they would fight back against their new rulers. “They were forced to learn electricity, plumbing, stuff like that, not really going to university. After the war was over, they were all sent back and I heard rumors that in return, Vietnam gave them American soldiers, that might still be prisoners of war today.”
Remembering the story of one Romanian man in North Korea who defected to the U.S.A, he recalls meeting two Romanians who told him that they had seen people in the North Korean fields working who appeared to be American soldiers. “That Romanian who defected was a weapons dealer who was about to be caught. But I did meet two Romanians in North Korea in a shop in Pyongyang. I asked them what they were doing. They said they were television technicians. They were building a television factory. The reason [why they saw those possible American soldiers] is because the government was building a 48 km long road from Pyongyang to Nanpo. North Korea didn’t have a road to land the airplanes. They were building a runway, not for airplanes but for a road. While they were building this road, they had to take a detour in the mountains. That’s how the Romanians got to see these other people. And the driver told them that they were prisoners. I haven’t seen them, and I haven’t heard much more about them.”
In North Korea, some high military officials trusted Jenkins more than they did some other North Koreans. Jenkins explained.  Why? “Well, when I worked at the military university, one time, I was down in my room eating, two generals and a colonel invited me over. The general kept talking to the other general and the colonel was talking to me. The general kicked the colonel out of the table, (He laughs), he said ‘Shut up’, the general looked at him and said  ‘Listen, we trust Jenkins more than we trust you.’
The colonel replied, ‘I’m a colonel in the Korean People’s Army, who do you think you are talking to me like this?’ The general says, ‘You could escape through Russia or China but Jenkins can’t. He is in Asia, he can’t go nowhere [because he can’t fade in the Asian crowd]. And he will never get out of North Korea, so we don’t care what he knows.” Jenkins smiles, “Well, they didn’t know I was going to marry a Japanese woman who would be sent back.”
Jenkins published a memoir, The Reluctant Communist, a book his wife didn’t want him to write as she feared North Korean retaliation. In the book, he describes how he became a reluctant celebrity when the North Korean government used him as the American villain in its propaganda films.
American actors in North Korean propaganda movies were extremely popular, according to Jenkins. People in the streets started to recognize Jenkins who appeared in small parts of about 10 movies.Jenkins: For the record… 
The following is from the interview with Charles Jenkins conducted on June 27th, 2013. At times Jenkins makes cryptic remarks and appears to contradict himself in places. We have reproduced the remarks as he said them.

When people saw me, they would recognize all four of us Americans in me. The producer of the movie ‘Confrontation,’ designed my character, (“Doctor Kilton”) with a horrible haircut.
Once, the other defector Parrish, asked the producer how does ‘Doctor Kilton’ look?  The answer he got from the North Korean producer was that Kilton’s age was about 40, but he had to make him look like he was 80. “We do not want Americans to look handsome,” the producer then explained.

xxx
Jenkins provided JSRC with a photo taken from the North Korean propaganda movie Confrontation The scene is from a funeral ceremony with half-Russian actors and Jenkins himself in the middle, with a bald head. “I was supposed to look ugly.”

I can’t tell you why I decided to leave the U.S. Army, because I promised my military lawyer that I wouldn’t tell anyone. I left on a January 5th’ [1965], about about 12 in the morning. I counted my soldiers, put them in position, I waited about an hour and it was very cold. I told them I heard a noise and that I was going to check it out. Then I said I would go back very slowly, it was 27 below zero. Anyway, that’s when I left. I took all my ammunition, I had a rifle, I had a T-shirt in my pocket, and tied it on my riffle, and walked all night like that. I walked across the biggest mine field in North Korea. They couldn’t believe that. They told me they had the biggest mines in that valley, in between these two mountains. ‘How could you possibly get through them?’ I told them, ‘Well, I know why.’ And I told them I ain’t gonna tell you why.’ They said, ‘Can ever a solider do that?’ I said, ‘Yes, any man can.’ But why in the world didn’t I hit the wires? If I had hooked the wires, I would be beheaded, phouh! (Jenkins mimed a mine explosion.) To avoid the wires, I had to step real high, and step real slow for two kilometers. (Jenkins motions the gesture by pulling his knees very high and getting them slowly down. Then when there wasn’t any man at all, the ground froze so hard, I couldn’t hit them (the mines.) It froze.
I also drank a lot of beer before leaving. But my lawyer said, ‘If you were that drunk you couldn’t have made a night walk.’ But before I left, my patrol leader, Lieutenant X, me and him exchanged our guns. Because they gave me a shotgun, I couldn’t keep the shields in it. So he took my shotgun and I took his rifle. If I was drunk, he wouldn’t have given me his rifle. He wouldn’t even let me go in that zone. I wasn’t drunk, my Lieutenant let me go. If I was drunk, he wouldn’t let me go, because they would have taken my rank away. I told no one that. I wasn’t afraid of the Korean war. I wanted to go to Vietnam, but they wouldn’t let me. I had been to Korea for 13 months and I had been to Germany for 3 years. And I didn’t want to go back to Korea, but they put me there because I could speak some Korean language at that time. But they didn’t let me in Vietnam. My 13th months was due in Korea, all I was expecting was to go back in Germany or France.
There are certain things I wanted to tell the U.S. I couldn’t do it in Korea. And that’s what I can’t tell. My plan was to go into Russia, they would turn me over to the American embassy and I would have gotten back to the U.S.A., straight to the Pentagon. But in North Korea they let nobody go nowhere. That’s for sure.
I was ‘caught’ in North Korea, in a sense. I tried, with three other Americans, to go to the Russian embassy in North Korea. We went into the Russian embassy as if we were Russians. The Korean guards, they thought we were Russians. (He laughs) So we just walked in. The Russian embassy would have notified Moscow. Anyway at that time, the Russian president ordered us to be kicked out of the embassy. We were sent right back into North Korea. I don’t know who did it, but they put us in a room, the ambassador came in and he whispered something to the interpreter. And the interpreter said, ‘Well, I’m sorry but we will have to ask you to leave.’ So that’s what we did.
Right after going to the Russian embassy, you wouldn’t believe how it was. We had one guard, all he could do was to scream at us all day. We were in a cell, and he would come in and beat on the table and scream. We were forced t sit on the floor with our legs crossed and arms crossed during one hour and after an hour we had to change over. That’s the way to punish you. And at times they would tie you up and beat the hell out of you. You see this scar? (points to chin) ‘ this is where my tooth came on to my lip.
You see that scar? (He shows a tattoo on his left arm.) There used to be ‘U.S. Army’ written up here. At the military university, they cut off my skin to the place where it was written U.S. Army. Some North Koreans had seen my tattoo one day as I was wearing a short sleeved shirt. They grabbed me, they don’t give no anesthetic, nothing. You know what they say? The medicines are for the battlefields. They give the medicines to the military, not to the hospital dispensary. That’s where they cut off my skin. They took scissors and cut it off.
The first seven years they saw us as Korean War veterans. The Korean people hated Americans. The colonels and the high ranked officials were not so bad, but the lower ranked soldiers hated Americans.
We weren’t sent to reeducation camps, we got educated right there in our place. In the prison, they were always threatening us. They said they would make an example out of us. And I was often the one made an example, because I made more trouble than anybody. Also because I was the highest ranked.
I regretted every single day I defected from the U.S. army until I met my wife. After that, I thought, ‘Well, if I wasn’t here, it would have been hard for her.” Because if she hadn’t married me, she would still be in North Korea right now. That’s for sure.
But then, when Koizumi came back to North Korea, to meet Kim Jong-Il the second time, that’s when Kim Jong-Il agreed, if I want to leave, I could leave. (crying) But they thought I would come back (to North Korea) because I would go to jail in the U.S.A. They knew that. So, that’s how I came back. If my wife wasn’t sent back (to Japan) I wouldn’t be here.

Japan’s PSA: “Don’t Work Yourself To Death So You Can Keep Working!”

The Japanese government, particularly the Abe administration, has had a lacklustre attitude towards basic human right and worker rights, since taking power after Christmas in 2012. By 2013,  the word ブラック企業 (black company/burakku kiygo) meaning “evil corporations” had become a well-known buzzword. Japanese labor conditions are getting worse, hours are getting longer, and wages are stagnating.

Death by overwork has always plagued Japan but in recent months, one case after another has come to light. As noted in this article written for Forbes, Japan Is Literally Working Itself To Death: How Can It Stop, “NHK, Japan’s state-run news channel, reluctantly admitted this year that overwork had caused the death of a 31-year-old NHK female reporter in 2013. The Labor Standards Board reached the conclusion in 2014 but it was not publicized. Miwa Sado, who worked for NHK in Tokyo, died of congestive heart failure in July 2013. She had worked 159 hours of overtime with only two days off in the one-month period prior to her untimely death (She was found dead with cellphone in her hand). Chronic overwork, even when it doesn’t result in death, is a serious blight on Japan’s society. There’s even a word for it: karoshi (過労死). Her death is only one of the suspected thousands of deaths from overwork each year.”

Well, just when it seemed that Japan Inc. just didn’t care, the Ministry Of Health, Labor, and Welfare took decisive action. They declared November to be, “Special Month Of Raising Awareness Preventing People From Working to Death And Other Things”  and have adorned the stations with these powerful (not) eye-catching (not) posters.  But the unintentional irony is the sub-text of the poster which loosely translates all together as, “Don’t work yourself to death so we can have a society where you can keep working!”.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan is combatting death from overwork (過労死)with a sign that says, “STOP death from overwork!”. Brilliant. The subtext is “(Don’t work yourself to death) so we can have a society where you can keep laboring away.”
Work will set you free in Japan, if you work hard enough.

 

 

 

 

Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare offers plenty of tips for not working to death but what is needed is a change in laws, more labor inspectors, and a fine for more than $5,000 dollars for companies that work their employees to death. Human life should be a little more valuable, one might think.

I searched for the words, “Work Will Set You Free”, but they haven’t added them yet. However, in consideration of how much the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his second in command, Aso Taro,  admire the Nazi regime— I guess it’s only a mater of time.

 

Note: Thanks to Rachel Padilla who copy-edited this article. 

Have you been a victim of sexual assault in Japan? How did police respond?

Born With It (生まれつき): Short film captures the angst of being a black child in Japan

While race relations in the United States seem to be tenser than ever, Japan is coming to a crossroads with accepting mixed race Japanese and immigrants into their mostly homogenous society. Japan is a welcoming country to foreigners, especially if you are a temporary visitor. The subtle prejudices only become visible to a foreigner once you have lived here for a while and experienced the day to day difficulties you face as an outsider when you actually try to become part of the society. Any foreigner in Japan who has been turned away from renting an apartment simply because they’re not Japanese, knows that experience.

An American filmmaker, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, from Texas, depicts this struggle to be accepted as a dark skinned black man in Japan in his award winning short film Born With It(生まれつき). Osei-Kuffour lived in Japan for six years, encountering numerous instances of prejudice and discrimination. The film follows a black elementary school child in Japan experiencing the cruelty of racism and harsh words spoken unfiltered in the world of children, who have not learned the impact of what they are doing or saying, or how to accept difference.

Osei-Kuffour notes “I wanted to tell the story from a kid’s point-of-view because I think its powerful to see someone’s innocence broken for the first time.  This is ultimately a story about prejudice and it’s also disarming to see a child unaware of the scars of the adult world. Like most forms of discrimination, the most difficult moments I had in Japan are hard to convey convincingly.  Most of the issues I encountered seemed to revolve around me, as a foreigner, not being perceived as an equal, normal human being.  There always seemed to be the sense that since I was not Japanese, I would be unable to comprehend Japanese ideas or values, represent my given company in a meeting or share a space with other Japanese people.

Those moments seem small on paper but they begin to get under your skin when you’re trying to assimilate to the culture.  I had — and still have — a strong desire to have a film career in Japan.  So I’ve always wanted to live and work and get the same chances as my Japanese friends that were same age.  But despite a strong command of the language, it became very clear to me that no matter how fluent I became, I had to either be famous outside of Japan or Japanese to really get the chances that I sought out in all Japanese environments.  This is not the case for everyone but it is for most. ”

The seventeen minute film has resonated with many people in and outside of Japan, and garnered praise including The Best Film & Social Impact Award at the NBC-Universal Short Film Festival and Honorable Mention for Best Short Film at Toronto International Film Festival (Kids Section)  and many more festivals.

“Born With It” will be airing on PBS KQED as part of the show “FILM SCHOOL SHORTS” in San Francisco 10/13 11pm.

Watch the trailer here.

Is Japan’s Press Partially Responsible For The Decline Of Press Freedom?

Ever since the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2012 for the second time, Japan has been criticized for failing to guarantee fundamental human rights to its citizens and cracking down on press freedom. The international community, from the United Nations to Japan’s most important ally the United States, has pointed out that the Japanese government is undermining the freedom of the press. The report released last month by David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression, is just another example.

Japan’s Press Freedom has steadily declined since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office. From 11 to 72.

On July 1st, a group of journalists and academics gathered at the symposium titled Contemporary Crises in the Asia-Pacific, jointly hosted by Sophia University Institute of Comparative Culture and Japan Focus, to discuss the state of journalism in Japan.

The event began with freelance journalist David McNeill showing how Japanese journalism continues to be undermined by the government.

Japan’s decline in freedom of press ranking (currently at 72, it was 11 in 2010) clearly shows that journalists in Japan face tough times gathering information and publishing news that are in the public interest but not the interest of the Japanese government or powerful corporations.

 David McNeill pointed out, “Government officials have shied away from holding press conferences in the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) to avoid being faced with tough questions. Instead, they prefer to have private meetings with the media whom they favor and speak everything off the record.”

Another panelist, Michael Penn of the Shingetsu News Agency, supported Kaye’s claim of the press club system undermining the media’s ability to gather information in the public interest. The press club offers exclusive access only to mainstream media journalists who get to attend high official press conferences. As a freelance journalist, Penn has been excluded from having access to attend press conferences, unable to gather information first hand. Penn claims that, “It is not the government who is excluding me from attending press conferences but the mainstream mass media that are in charge of running the club that keep telling me no.” He stated that although the Abe government is undoubtedly applying pressure to the media, it is the media and journalists themselves that are overreacting and imposing “self censorship”.

Nowadays, Penn claims, there are as much overt pressure from the government but the media itself feels the pressure, and by reading between the lines, they are restrict producing content that may have a chance to upset Abe. Penn comes to a conclusion that we need to realize the mainstream media are on the government side.

In order to free journalists from pressures coming from the government and the media itself, Yasuomi Sawa from Kyodo News (the Associated Press of Japan)  brought up an idea of creating a network of journalists from all sections of the industry and providing an opportunity to interact with journalists from other media outfits. As Kaye correctly pointed out in his report, journalists in large media enterprises are organized by enterprise unions instead of craft or industrial unions. Because the journalists are organized in such a unique way, they tend to stay in their companies sometimes for their entire careers and are unable to form solidarity among themselves as professional journalists. Mr. Sawa also claims that for journalists to be compensated and recognized accordingly, there needs to be more awards given to good journalistic work.

In the event, all panel members agreed that journalists and academicians need to come up with ways to overcome the pressure coming from the government and within the media itself to tell the public what they have the right to know and the truth they should know.

 

 

 

Student Loan Defaults Increasing At Record Speed in Japan

As the cost of obtaining a college degree has skyrocketed over the years, millions of Japanese are facing potential financial crisis for pursuing post-secondary education.

According to the documents obtained through a freedom of information request to Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), a government funded organization which is responsible for lending more than 99 percent of all student loans Japanese college students use, 735 individuals who used JASSO student loans filed for bankruptcy in the year of 2015. The number was at 487 in 2013, an increase of a whopping 34 percent in just two years.

 

The Abenomics, economic policies advocated by Prime Minister Shinzo based upon the “three arrows” of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms, was supposed to revive the Japanese economy and improve living conditions. The situation, however, has been the exact opposite.

Wages remain the same and real wage growth has even been negative in the past several months. It finally increased in May when the government announced a 0.5 increase from the same month of the past year. However, according to the data from the National Tax Agency, more than 11,390,000 people in 2014 are living off an annual salary of less than 2,000,000 Yen, making them the so-called “working poor”. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened. The relative poverty rates stand at 16 percent also in 2014, the worst on record.

Such economic conditions have taken a toll on graduates repaying their student loans. The reasons for increasing student loan defaults are clear: the increase in tuitions and the decrease in decently paying jobs.

It might be difficult for those who graduated college in the 70s and the 80s to understand why the young are having so much difficulty repaying their student loans. This is because the cost of getting a college degree has gone through the roof. The tuition of attending national universities was set at 36,000 Yen per year in 1975. Now, students at national universities pay 535,800 Yen a year, a 1388 percent increase.  Those attending private universities face a much tougher situation. On average, private schools charged about 180,000 Yen per year in 1975 according to the data published by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Now private universities ask their students to pay 860,000 Yen.

As college tuitions continue to increase on a yearly basis, more and more students are borrowing money from JASSO, the largest creditor of student loans in Japan. According to JASSO, over 38 percent of students attending four-year colleges borrow money from JASSO to pay for their tuition, books, housing, and other expenses.

Another factor contributing to the increase in the use of student loans is the shrinking support from the students’ parents. College students traditionally received assistance from their parents but the amount they receive is now on average a mere 700 Yen per day. Let’s not forget that Tokyo, where one out of every four students in Japan lives, is one of the most expensive cities in the world. To make up the difference, they need to have a part-time job and borrow money from JASSO with interest of up to 3% per year.

It would not be such a big social issue if those students actually repaid their loans.  They cannot, whether they think it is important to repay student loans or not, repay if they do not have a permanent job or be on unemployment, which is exactly what is happening. More than 40% of those in ages 15-24 are being hired as temporary workers, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Most temporary workers work full time just like their counterparts but their wages are kept extremely low to the point where they need to work two or even three jobs. And their employment is so unstable that there is always a chance their contracts do not be renewed.

If one cannot repay his loans and becomes three months behind on his monthly payment, JASSO would have his name listed on the so-called blacklist and the information will stay on the list until five years after the last monthly payment is made. If he becomes nine months behind, JASSO will exercise its right by taking the matter to court. In 2015 alone, the JASSO annual report shows that more than 20,000 were blacklisted and 8,700 were sued by JASSO, compared to 4,500 and 7,400 respectively in 2010.

And it is not just the young who face tough conditions. JASSO requires a student to come up with not only one but two sureties to borrow money from them, meaning that a parent and most of the time an uncle or a grandfather would be bonded into this debt. If it becomes impossible for a student to repay his loan, the creditor would simply ask his sureties to compensate for it, with a five percent per year delinquent charge on top of the original amount. JASSO does not hesitate to sue co-signers as well. The only way for a borrower or a cosigner to get away with this debt is to declare bankruptcy, which is exactly what is happening.

Students in only a handful of developed countries experience such hardships. Among the thirty-five members of the OECD, many do not even charge tuition from students. Out of countries that actually charge tuition, Japan is one of only three that have no scholarships or grants. The other two are Chile and South Korea. It is interesting that in Japan student loans are literally called “scholarships” even though they are loans and not grants. In fact, the Japanese government has not offered any type of grants or scholarships in the past.

In order to tackle this social issue, the Abe administration finally announced last year that it would implement a grant-type scholarship given to college students starting in April of 2017. This is the first time in Japanese history that a scholarship is implemented whether need-based or merit-based. However, even though more than 500,000 enter college every year, only 20,000 students or about 3 percent will benefit from this, and those receiving public assistance or living in orphanages are the only ones eligible to receive this scholarship. Also the maximum amount given to a student per year is set at 480,000 Yen, which is not even enough to cover a year’s worth of tuition.

Experts claim that although implementing this new scholarship was a step in the right direction, the contents pale in comparison to those of other OECD countries. Since the amount and the beneficiaries are extremely limited, it would not be enough to put a brake on the increasing number of student loan bankruptcies. Haruki Konno, a researcher and the representative of a nonprofit organization POSSE which obtained the bankruptcy data from JASSO, claims that the government needs to act quickly. “JASSO has systematically sued those who cannot repay, no matter the circumstances. I have seen people on public assistance and mothers living in women’s shelters getting sued because they could not pay their dues or they put their names on the paper so that their sons or nephews could have money to go to college. As the working conditions worsen and salaries decrease, colleges need to stop charging tuitions as some colleges in several European countries do to avoid such tragedies.”

日本語の要約:
今年から導入された給付型奨学金が創設されるまで、日本で「奨学金」と呼ばれているものは全て貸与型であり国際的には「教育ローン」に分類される借金です。家庭が貧困化し大学を卒業しても正社員に就けない人が増えていく中で、この「奨学金」を返済できない人が急増しています。返済困難になった若者や連帯保証人が、2015年度は16737人がブラックリストに載せられ、8713人が訴えられました。さらに、入手したJASSOの内部資料で、毎年600人~800人が自己破産していることが明らかになりました。

 

 

“Womenomics” is working just as well as Abenomics–badly. 女は辛いよ

Japan is getting serious about gender equality—and there were absolutely no bribes paid by Japan to win the right to host the 2020 Olympics—and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima is under control. Decide for yourself which of these three statements is the most untrue.

Womenomics was touted by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as his progressive policy to elevate the status of women in what is still a very sexist and unequal society, where women are far from being empowered. The Global Gender Gap report published last year noted that Mr. Abe and the LDP’s pledge to bridge the gender divide resulted in actually widening the gulf, with Nippon sliding down a few notches to 111th in terms of world gender equality. 

It’s hard to see women in Japan being “empowered” when they can be sexually assaulted with near impunity. The odds that their assailant will be arrested, or prosecuted are low–less than a coin toss. And if he is actually prosecuted–he can sometimes walk free, with no jail time and no criminal record,  by paying damages and saying, “I’m sorry.” It’s a situation that the Abe administration could have changed but neglected to do so, tabling newly revised criminal codes to instead focus on passing a conspiracy bill that the United Nations warns could erode civil liberties.

Of course, some would argue that “womenomics” have never been about elevating the status of women in Japan—it’s always been about keeping Japanese business thriving and hopefully encouraging woman to work—and breed. Of course, pregnancy in the workplace often is greeted with bullying from all sides. Abe’s vision of Womenomics has certainly never been about improving the lives of Japan’s single mothers, 50% of whom live in poverty. In fact, other than talking about “shining women–it’s not clear exactly what he wants for Japan’s future potential birthing machines.*

The current Minister of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, is of course, also a man, and also in charge of improving Japan’s birthrate. Do we need to say more?

Yes, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe and the LDP are gungho about Gender Equality. Meet Katsunobu Kato, his home page will convince you.

Recently, Bloomberg published an interview with Democratic Party leader Renho, in which she pointed out the obvious, Womenomics is all talk and no walk.

“They should be ashamed to use the word ‘Womenomics’,” Democratic Party leader Renho, the 49-year-old mother of twins, said in an interview in Tokyo late Thursday when asked about the term Abe often uses to describe his efforts. “It’s an embarrassment.”

Abe had vowed to eliminate waiting lists for childcare in a bid to draw more women into the workforce to make up for Japan’s shrinking population. He also sought to have women take 30 percent of management positions in all fields by 2020.

On both goals he’s falling well short: Japan was 111th in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap ranking for 2016, down 10 places on the previous year.

“About 80 percent of those who take childcare leave are women, and if they’re forced to wait for daycare, that means unemployment,” Renho said. “You either get demoted or you give up on work. What’s womenomics about if women are being forced to make such sad choices?”

For the rest of the article, go to

Abe’s Policies Failing Women, Japan Opposition Chief Says

 

*Reference to women as “birthing machines” is sarcasm. We know that the LDP also thinks of women as much more than that–as potential nurses for the elderly, expert green tea brewers for the office, and caretakers of the children that they should be giving birth to right now for the greater prosperity of Japan. 

 

The Great White Woman Is Here to Save Japanese Men

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Hey, Asian guys! You’re hot! Don’t you feel better now. As a reward here is an unasked for smooch from a white woman—for free. She’s even blonde! Feel better now? No? Wait this isn’t the Valentine’s Day gift you always wanted?

As they say, all roads to hell are paved with good intentions.

It is unclear though, if the intentions of Leela Rose, an actress and self-proclaimed activist/Youtuber, were purely altruistic as she claims.

On September 30th, last year, Rose unleashed a now infamous video (trigger warning) titled Kissing Guys In Tokyo  an instant sensation on the internet that went viral in a chickenpox kind of way. She prefaces the video with her sentiment that “white women can find Asian men attractive and that Asian men are not represented in Hollywood to her liking as romantic leads”. She declares that by going around Tokyo and kissing Asian men in Tokyo she wants to help fight the stereotype that Asian men are not desirable.

At this point, which is only the prelude to a white privilege nightmare, so many questions come to mind. How is a video of a white woman kissing random men on the street going to change the minds of those who run Hollywood? Moreover, her tone is completely devoid of any perspective from Asian actors who are fighting this stereotype on a daily basis, she speaks on the issue as a savior for the powerless who, conveniently are the object of her desire.

Does anyone remember Julien Blanc? Raise your hand if you do. Some are called Leela Rose a female version of the Pick-Up Artist—aka Juliette Blanc—but that is missing the point.

As her “social experiment” begins, there is a stream of horrific imagery of a blond woman forcefully launching surprise attacks on the faces of many bewildered Japanese men.

Many, after a stunned moment, go along with it.

The video continues to make the rounds on the internet but it has met with some harsh criticism, as well as scattered praise.

Japanese American playwright Leah Nanako Winkler, a vocal critic on the lack of Asian American representation in the US entertainment industry, weighs in on the issue.

“I think this white woman exemplifies clueless American entitlement–and reeks of privilege in such a destructive way that is embarrassing for our country. She is claiming to represent all western women-and I genuinely think she believes this because of the exact cultural biases she is claiming to criticize: she’s white and blonde and fits into the ‘ideal’ female beauty standards perpetuated in American culture -when in reality she cannot speak for anyone except for herself. As an American Woman- I’m mortified people like her are the clueless avatar for our country.”

Winkler further dissects “She is still fetishizing Asian men because she’s conflating all Asian identities into one- and making assumptions about an entire country (Japan) and its social politics regarding male desirability. Men in Japan as a whole don’t have problems getting laid in Japan.* How dare she assume they want her? It’s a level of entitlement that is next level honestly. American white women need to educate themselves before they speak up on Asian American issues…look what happens. It’s like white savior complex dressed in glitter and stupidity.”

It is worth repeating that Asian-American culture/people and other Asian cultures/people are not the same thing as Leela Rose assumes. Sexualizing one does not elevate the status of the other. In other words, objectification has never been empowering.

Another angered viewer, Greek woman Persephone Narra and her Korean American husband Kim Du Han uploaded a Youtube video in response. Han claims that if he was suddenly kissed on the street by a white woman he doesn’t know “he would know that she invaded my privacy and that it was sexual harassment and completely inappropriate.” Persephone stresses that if this were a man kissing random women, it would be sexual assault and the man would be in jail. She concludes the video saying, “No one in Hollywood is going to consider Asian men desirable because a girl sexually harasses them on the street.”

They go further by confronting Leela Rose on Facebook. When pressed to take the video down, Rose claims that she has apologized multiple times and that, “I’m not taking anything down because what I feel that I’m doing is right and I’m taking a stand for something that I care deeply about! I’ve gotten too much positive remarks from the Asian men to take this down. I will continue to try my best to promote more leading Asian men in the film industry whether people agree with my method or not.”

In other words: Watch out Asian men! Blond Face Sucker is on the loose!

As an Asian woman, writer and actor, I thought I’d ask Rose a few questions. She has yet to respond and she may never do but here they are. Some food for thought.

-Do you have Asian actor friends?

-Have you had conversations with them about their lack of representation in the industry? If so what was their response to your video?

-Have you gotten any positive feedback from the Asian American actor communities?

-Did you know that this would be controversial when you were making it? Were you surprised that some people are offended?

-Did all the men you kissed in the video consent to you before the shooting? (It seems in one instance you are informing them of the shoot after you have made out with them)

-Some people are drawing comparisons to you and Julian Blanc, a dating coach, who went around in Tokyo pushing Japanese girls’ faces to his crotch and preaching that foreign men can get away with this in Japan. How would you differentiate yourself?

-What other things can you do to help the Asian actors on their lack of representation?

-Would you recommend that other white females make these videos too so it becomes a movement?

-Other than Hollywood not thinking Asian men are desirable/fit for lead roles, what other problems are causing lack of representation in your view?

-How do you feel about the lack of representation in Hollywood for Asian actresses?

-You have said in other interviews that you are sexually attracted to Asian men. Would you say, you took advantage of this cause to help them being acknowledged as an opportunity to simultaneously fulfill your personal desires/agenda?

-In a different interview you stated you are attracted to Asian men. In your mind are Asian Americans and Asians for instance Japanese men the same? You point out that Japanese men are shy to approach women but also rail against the stereotype Hollywood has given them as nerds and losers. If you wanted to change the image of Asian American men, would it not be more effective to carry out this “experiment” in the US on Asian American men?

Gentle readers, how would you answer these questions?

*The writer would like to point out that while this is true, not many people in Japan are having sex these days but this is another issue entirely.

How did Japan’s Whalers Of The Past Feel About Their Job & The Whales They Killed?

Despite the popular opinion that Japan’s dedicated pro-whaling community comes from a background of legendary, barbaric whalers who slaughtered whales without mercy, some reports show that pre-harpoon whalers were actually very considerate for the feelings of these giant creatures. Sociologist Hiroyuki Watanabe’s book titled Japan’s Whaling, takes a broad look at the entirety of the country’s Whaling history. One section in particular covering the early modern period, Watanabe discusses how fishermen have, from then to the modern day, evolved into holding rituals repenting the slaughter of whales.

The section focuses primarily on a book from 1840 by whaler Hoshute Riyu, titled Ogawajima Keigei Gassen (The Battle with the Whales at Ogawajima), which, while depicting whales as the sworn enemies of the fishermen, also implements a Buddhist mindset to lament their deaths.

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According to Hoshutei’s account, there existed “a consciousness among the people of the day that it was heartless to kill and make use of whales.” Hoshutei’s book, from the excerpt taken out, shows genuine anguish for killing the whales as being very equal to humans:

“How merciless it is to feel no pity for that resounding cry of pain as they face west to die, then row the carcass in to shore, cut it up in the barn and then immediately boil the meat or grill it before serving it and savoring the taste.”

The fact that Hoshutei describes the whales who “face west to die” is due to the Buddhist principle that the religion’s paradise is located to the west, showcasing a belief that all creatures are equally capable to reach the so-called “best” afterlife.

In some ways the excerpt resembles biblical writings that lament our inability to avoid sin, in an attempt to save ourselves from an unforeseen judgmental deity. The book was written with the intent to donate it to a shrine, Watanabe points out this could be possibly to avoid punishment for their killings. Hoshutei deals with the hypocritical nature of a whale fisherman lamenting his profession by adding that it’s a sad part the cycle of life and death that requires us to take advantage of nature’s resources (whale meat) before they leave us in their short existence.

He also describes the cries of the whales as they are slaughtered as heart-rending.

What followed Hoshutei’s very heartfelt consideration to the whales, we see a downward spiral that lead to the mindset we’ve come to see today that whales are just another fish to be caught and controlled by the Japanese as their own product.

With the implementation of Norwegian style harpoon hunting, whales began being killed much more rapidly. Along with the Meiji Restoration that led to the destruction of many Buddhist temples and its influence on the public, this boost in whale-killing technology led fishermen to conduct memorial services from time to time, such as donating a bell, as a way to honor the whales.

It’s unclear how common it was for someone like Hoshutei to make a beautifully hand-illustrated book detailing how beautiful whales are both before and during their killing.  The “bleeding hearts and Western imperialists” who seek to protect the whales are often believed to overly humanize these warm-blooded cetaceans but it seems that the Japanese fishermen of old also felt compassion for the animals, and remorse for killing them. They at least honored the animals by making full use of all the parts.

It’s a far cry from today’s state supported whaling, for meat that no one wants to eat. There are now several tons of it in storage. That shows a lack of respect for the whales and for Japanese taxpayer money wasted on a “tradition” that only hardcore nationalists and people getting kickbacks want to preserve.