On June 18, Ayaka Shiomura of Yui no To (Unity Party) was heckled and sexually harassed during a Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly meeting. Shiomura was in the middle of making statements on the issues of infertility, government support for mothers, and delaying marriage. During her presentation, shouts such as “You are the one who should get married first,” “She must be single,” and “Can’t you even have babies?” were heard from among the assembly. Shiomura later said the majority of the comments came from the ruling LDP’s section, which has 59 of 127 seats in the assembly.
Shiomura took to social media soon after to denounce the heckling, and the story was quickly picked up by both domestic and international media. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said a former teacher who had watched the meeting told her “The verbal abuse was similar to bullying at school. Someone who makes a stand in front of everyone gets harassed for things that are completely beside the point. No one stops the bullying, even though it’s wrong.”
The LDP’s national leadership was quick to respond, with the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Norihisa Tamura stating “No matter which party was jeering, it was offensive to women… From elected officials, this is absolutely unacceptable.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the issue was not endemic of national politics, but “if there were comments of a sexist nature, I would like the assembly to clean itself up.”
On Monday one of the LDP’s assemblymen, Akihiro Suzuki, apologized for the remark in which he told her to get married, but denied making any others. According to an AP report, Shiomura responded by saying that the apology was a step forward, but that those responsible for the other comments still needed to take responsibility. “I’m relieved by the acknowledgement at last, but I wish he had come forward sooner… I know Mr. Suzuki wasn’t the only one. It’s wrong to just find one culprit and call it an end.”
As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stated he seeks to increase the number of women both in the workforce in general and in management positions, this incident is particularly disconcerting for his administration. In May Abe pledged to “press forward in reviewing the system of labor that gives consideration to the work-life balance, creating a society in which women shine.” He also said he wants women to constitute 30 percent of all leadership positions in Japan by 2020. Indeed, Shiomura was addressing issues that Abe has said are important to Japan, such as “support[ing] marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing in a seamless manner,” so as to allow for greater participation of women in the workforce.
As one member of the LDP has already taken responsibility for some of last Thursday’s comments, and Shiomura indicates that other LDP members are likely responsible for some of the other statements, there will be questions as to how serious the government is about maintaining party discipline over this issue, and whether the government truly intends to make women more equal in the workplace.