[Guardian] ‘There are almost no women in power’: Tokyo’s female workers demand change

Last week, after Yumi Ishikawa’s petition against being forced to wear high heels at work went viral around the world, responses ranged from solidarity – with some cheering Ishikawa and denouncing “modern footbinding” – to surprised disappointment. In 2019, in a liberal democracy such as Japan, could the issue of women’s rights still be stuck on stilettos?

But the global spotlight on the hashtag #KuToo (a pun on a word for shoes and a word for pain) may have obscured what’s really happening in Japan. “It’s so trivial,” says one senior female publishing executive, who wished to remain anonymous. After all, on the streets of Tokyo, there is a growing movement for real change for women, not merely more comfortable footwear.

“We are so surprised that overseas media paid so much attention to the high-heel issue,” says a member of abuse survivor organisation Spring. “There is a much more serious and deeper issue: Japan’s sex-crime issue.”

On Tuesday night, bearing placards reading “Say no to sex crimes” and “Judges need human rights education”, hundreds of women and men gathered near the Imperial Palace. The “flower demonstration” is a peaceful monthly protest against sexual violence, sparked by a string of recent acquittals in sexual assault cases.

One of the highest-profile women to attend was Mizuho Fukushima, a member of the House of Councillors and a former chair of the Social Democratic party. “More attention needs to be on the offenders, while victims shouldn’t be judged,” she said at the protest.

It is a big progressive step for a country that remains mired in deep-seated conservatism when it comes to gender roles. Japan remains a shocking 110th in the world for gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum. At the recent abdication of Emperor Akihito, women were not even allowed into the ceremony room, let alone eligible for the Chrysanthemum throne.

Last year nine medical schools admitted rigging entrance exams to exclude female applicants. In the world of sumo, an outcry erupted after female medics, who had rushed to the aid of a stroke victim, were ordered away from the ring, a male-only space.

But if Japanese women have often been stereotypically portrayed as submissive and weak, this idea may be dissipating at the start of the new Reiwa era. The flower demonstration is the highest-profile example, and was set off by an unusually cruel court verdict. The case involved a father who was accused of repeatedly raping his 19-year-old daughter. The court accepted that he had nonconsensual sex with his daughter – but said it could not prove that she resisted, and acquitted him.

Similar protests have been held in nine cities across the country, and more than 40,000 women have signed petitions demanding justice. Many sexual assault survivors have started to speak out about their experiences, including Jun Yamamoto, head of Spring.

“We hope to create a society where victims will be warmly and emphatically told: ‘We believe you. It’s not your fault,’ and be strongly supported,” Yamamoto says. “To that end, a victim-centred approach must take root in Japan.”

Yamamoto is a leading lobbyist for a change in the sexual assault law, which the government rewrote in 2017 for the first time in over a century. The new law included forced anal and oral sex in the definition of rape, raised the minimum sentence for rape to five years from three, and made prosecution possible even if victims do not press charges. But there is lots more to be done, she says, including greater support for victims.

Another target is institutional discrimination. Last week, 36 women filed suit with the Tokyo district court against Tokyo Medical University, seeking a combined 143m yen in damages. The school is one of nine that admitted rigging entrance exams to systematically exclude female applicants, favouring less-qualified men.

After it was exposed, some people defended the policy, using the rationale that because some women would leave the profession to have children, more male doctors would stave off a future labour shortage. The scandal prompted a government investigation, and plaintiffs hope the suits will discourage similar gender discrimination in future.

Meanwhile, even something as apparently straightforward as being allowed to wear whatever shoes you like continues to prove tricky. In response to the #KuToo petition, Japan’s minister of labour, Takumi Nemoto, told parliament that requiring high heels in the workplace was perfectly acceptable – sparking further outrage at the government of Shinzo Abe, whose “Womenomics” policy is supposedly attempting to bring more women into the workforce.

“‘Womenomics’ is BS,” says the publishing executive. “They need to work on raising the level of women first. But it’s so hard to speak out publicly. In private we complain to each other, but in public the atmosphere is so difficult: men control everything. It’s so deeply rooted. There are almost no women in power, so of course you think: is it only because of my ability that I don’t advance? Or is it something else?”

Many such challenges remain at the highest levels of politics. The former Olympics minister Yoshitaka Sakurada recently urged all Japanese women to have “at least three children”, prompting women on social media to point out that blaming women wouldn’t solve Japan’s record-low birthrate.

And despite Abe’s policies, only one in 10 politicians in the lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives, are female, and there is only one female member of the 20-member cabinet, an actual decline from the beginning of his tenure.

A record-high 70% of women are working, but the wage gap with men remains a stark 25.7%, according to a 2017 OECD report. Four out of five listed companies have no women on their boards.

Etsuko Kato, professor of cultural anthropology and gender studies at International Christian University in Tokyo, says a fundamental change in attitude is needed to create a female-friendly working environment.

“We need to change the sense of values – a good work ethic doesn’t mean long hours or even going to an office, if you start to think a talented worker is someone who can manage more work in less time,” she says. “Also, if you’re good, you are able to choose when and where you work, so this kind of attitude could change the system more effectively. With the development of the internet, it is possible to change such an attitude in many industries.”

There has been some movement in business. Traditionally male professions, such as sushi restaurants, have been a challenging field for women to break into. Some traditionalists say women’s hands are too warm to keep the fish fresh, while others say long hours are a barrier.

Hiroshi Abe, of Abe Sushi, which has seven restaurants across the city, is a rare restaurant owner who doesn’t care about the gender of his staff, and has actively recruited female chefs.

“There is a great chance both for women and men chefs, as the industry has been growing,” he says. “Female chefs are appreciated, as they take care of some details that male chefs don’t notice.”

There is also the persistent argument that Japanese women remain influential in areas of the domestic economy. Traditionally, they dominate household spending and childcare, with husbands bringing home pay and wives managing savings and spending, including a monthly allowance for the man. Even today, seven out of 10 households operate in this way, according to the Ouccino Research Institute.

That model looks increasingly old-fashioned, however. Kato says the gender gap has consistently narrowed for the past 30 years, a trend hastened by the discrediting of Japan’s male-dominated industrial model through years of economic malaise.

“There are young women in their 20s and early 30s who want differently,” confirms the publisher.

Nevertheless, Kato argues that more attention must be paid to men’s attitudes: no matter how loudly Japanese women speak out, nothing will change unless male attitudes do too.

“To create a truly more equal society,” she says, “we need to wait for conservative Japanese men over 50 to retire.”