JIJI Press/ AFP/ Getty Images
This solemn bow is Liberal Democrat Party member Akihiro Suzuki apologising the day before yesterday for sexist comments made against Your Party member Ayaka Shiomua at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Assembly on the 18th June. Discussing solutions for Japan's well-documented low birth-rate, Shiomura was calling for more support for women in child-raising issues and infertility issues. She was heckled in a very painful way for a woman in her situation with comments like "Can't you even bear a child" and "You are the one who should get married".
Since then debate has exploded all over the world. Politicians, feminists, journalists are all participating eagerly. Both the blogsphere and social media are buzzing with commentary about the whys, the shoulds and the what-nexts. It was thanks to internet activity on the change.org online site (which collected over 90,000 signatures) that the LDP were coerced into finding out who made the comments and taking action.
Shiomura said this apology comes too late and prominent Japanese politicians are saying that this affair has brought shame on Japan, but I don't agree. I couldn't put my finger on why I didn't agree, until I saw this picture. There is something beautiful about this gesture. A man respecting a woman in a patriarchal business context. Yes, he may have been forced to do so, but he did it nonetheless and on the world stage at that.
Don't worry this is not going to be a feminist rant. I am of course a feminist, I am a woman. I am a working Mum balancing an intense job and mothering my baby girl Amelia. As I write I am on leave from my job with burnout. I haven't found a solution to the balance. Through my own blog Space4Mum I see that this is a burning issue for men and women everywhere.
As we all know comments like this are not just happening in Japan. Comments like this are the tip of the iceberg in a global debate. As Shiomura was alluding to as she was being heckled there is a real dilemma for women, and society. It is almost impossible to balance being a Mum and looking after children unless you are superhuman/rich or self-employed. This is a quote from a paper entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" written by Anne-Marie Slaughter former woman director of policy planning at the State Department Washington. It is one of the most intelligent pieces on the subject and in my view worth 100 "Lean In"s.
The last phase of feminism for me culminated and burnt out with Sandberg's book "Lean in". This call to war for women is laudable but it negates the role of Mother in society. It forgets that there are some women, and a part in a lot of us so-called "Career women", who want and need to be with our children. There are times in the child's life when they need to come first and we need to put them first. This needs to be respected. Motherhood (whether carried out by the mother or a new generation father) needs to be respected and seen as a career in its own right. It is all-consuming work and very important work. If it is done well, society will thrive.
Equality is being taken more seriously in Japan at the moment. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to promote the role of women in business and society and implementing a scheme called Womenomics. As a Japanophile (made up word?) I am happy to see these rumblings of change. Moreover the fact that this symbolic gesture took place in Japan is telling. Japan has some history of matriarchy and it seems apt that the next phase of feminism begins here in Tokyo, Summer 2014. I think the feminist (or should I say humanist) textbooks of years to come will have a page showing this image and what followed.
I am very impressed by the way Japan have dealt with this and I think we need to use this as a springboard for the articulation of how culture needs to change going forward as we move out of the old patriarchal paradigm into a new chapter with new norms. We won't get there by fighting. This is new territory and we need to get a debate going, listening to the problems that are being encountered by men and women alike. And to clarify, this is not just a feminist issue. This is a human problem and is about how to integrate the female voice into society and culture going forward, as this bow shows, that won't happen because a louder and more powerful voice can shout down the softer voice.