Japan again faces international criticism for its lack of progress in eliminating discrimination against women

A United Nations panel has recommended “immediate action” to correct a wide range of problems, from legal inequality and wage gaps to pornographic publications.

Calling government efforts to address problems “insufficient,” the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) set a two-year time limit for Japan to act in such fields as Civil Code revisions.

The committee made the recommendations in its Aug. 18 report following a review of Japan’s implementation of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Japan has indeed made little progress since the panel’s previous review six years earlier.

Even as regular workers, women only earn 60 to 70 percent of men’s wages. Under the Civil Code, only women face a waiting period before they can remarry. And pornographic video games and cartoons are still rampant.

In a July review of the Japanese government report at the U.N. headquarters in New York, panel members were scathing about the enduring problems.

One asked if the Japanese government might in fact regard the convention simply as a declaration that is not legally binding.

While busy answering questions, the Japanese government representative, Upper House member Chieko Nohno, had to admit Japan had been late in tackling the issue.

In the 2003 report, the committee recommended that Japan amend its Civil Code to allow married couples to choose separate surnames so that women–or men–could keep their original family names if they wanted to.

It also called for changes to provisions that keep women from remarrying for six months after divorce, and that discriminate against children born out of wedlock.

But moves to revise these and other provisions have been stalled.

The wage gap between men and women is narrowing, but it is still among the biggest for advanced nations.

As a result of the Aug. 30 election, the percentage of female Lower House lawmakers climbed into double digits for the first time, reaching 11.25 percent. Even so, that represented a rise of just 3 percentage points from the first postwar election in 1946, when women accounted for 8.4 percent.

The government in 2005 said it would aim to raise the percentage of women in significant social positions to 30 percent by 2020. At present, that remains a very ambitious target.

In its latest report, the committee recommended a wide range of steps that Japan should take, and pressed the government to raise awareness of the convention’s aims in the judiciary, parliament and government, not just among officials in charge of gender equality.

It also called on Japan to take urgent steps to incorporate the definition of discrimination against women, as contained in Article 1 of the convention, into domestic legislation.

Article 1 states that “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex” that impairs gender equality or women’s rights constitutes discrimination. Incorporating this definition would thwart moves to maintain discriminatory systems by calling them “distinctions.”

As a follow-up step, the panel requested that Japan provide detailed written information on the progress it makes on amendments to the Civil Code within two years.

It imposed the same deadline for a report on progress in temporary special measures to increase the representation of women in decision-making positions at all levels, with numerical goals and timetables.

The panel also expressed concern about the lack of data on Ainu, buraku and other minority women, and urged Japan to appoint women from these groups to decision-making bodies.

Encouraged by the panel’s report, and heartened by the recent change of government, women’s groups in Japan are increasing their calls for progress.

“Setting a deadline for the follow-up will help get things done,” said Yasuko Yamashita, who represents the Japan NGO Network for the CEDAW (JNNC).

“I’d like to see an expert panel on elimination of discrimination against women set up within the Council for Gender Equality to oversee how government measures are being implemented.”

Women’s groups have also responded to the committee’s call for the government to ratify the convention’s Optional Protocol. This allows requests for an investigation to be filed with the committee when all domestic remedies, including court trials, are exhausted.

Two hundred and sixteen groups, including the Working Women’s Network, have handed to the Democratic Party of Japan administration a request that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announce his intention to ratify the protocol at a U.N. general assembly session that opens on Wednesday.

Yoko Hayashi, a Japanese lawyer and member of CEDAW, said the panel’s latest report is a clear indication that the international community wants Japan, an economic power, to demonstrate its commitment to gender equality as an important human rights issue.

She noted that in August, Guinea-Bissau became the 98th nation to ratify the Optional Protocol, leaving Japan increasingly isolated from the international community.

As the report pointed out, Japan is considered to be tolerant of pornographic expressions and publications featuring sexual violence, she said, so much so that in other countries those who like pornography are even sometimes called hentai, a Japanese word meaning pervert.

“To change this image of Japan, efforts are needed to review discrimination in our daily life,” Hayashi said.



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