Thursday, July 31, 2014

Japan and Working Women: The Swelling Wave of Abe’s 'Womenomics'

Via The Economist.

The situation of working women has been tenuous in Japan, which ranked 103 out of 136 countries in World Economic Forum's 2013’s Global Gender Gap Report. This is due in part to traditional gender roles that expect women to tend for her family at home. And while more women have joined the workforce in modern times, they are still expected to return home after marriage and childbirth. (A July poll found that 40 percent of both men and women in their 20s to 40s believed that husbands should work and wives should care for the home.)

This had not gone unnoticed to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. After his election in 2013, Abe outlined his economic growth strategy dubbed “Abenomics”, saying, “Private consumption and investment will come much sooner than we expected,” and  "to enhance Japan's productivity" and "to retool Japan's economic structure... Women should be given much greater opportunities." A year later, his revised plan gave more details (and urgency) to the initiative.

“Under my administration, women’s active participation constitutes the core of the growth strategy, rather than social policy,” he said during a speech in the OECD Forum held in Paris in May. “By encouraging the advancement of women in society we will raise our growth rate and promote ‘womenomics.’”

The term “womenomics” was first coined by managing director of Goldman Sachs Japan Co Kathy Matsui over a decade ago, and became a keyword in Abe’s economic plan.

“Abenomics won’t succeed without ‘womenomics’,” he said during the opening ceremony of 2014 Women in Business Summit in Tokyo. “Half of all consumers are women and by making use of women’s ideas there will be new innovations.”

Abe’s “womenomics” initiatives include creating up to 400,000 new daycare facilities within the next four years, as well as having increasing women in leadership positions for public and private sectors at least 30 percent by 2020.

The Japan Times reported that 399 women out of 1,918 applicants (20.8 percent) passed the civil service exams in 2014, a record number of women to pass the exams and the second-highest percentage after 2012 (22.9 percent passed), showing an increasing number of women willing to work.

Japan analyst Devin Stewart, a former head of business and policy programs at Japan Society, wrote in The Diplomat that attitudes on gender roles have slowly been shifting in Japan.

“Surveys in Japan show that particularly younger Japanese are less tied to traditional gender roles – including a greater desire to pursue careers and a more accepting attitude toward divorce – and are also more tolerant of gays and lesbians,” Stewart said.

He added that in addition to younger Japanese adapting more liberal attitudes, events such as the March 11 earthquake and tsunami have left people rethinking their lives.

“People now question the value of long-suffering, dreary careers in the bureaucracy and corporations,” he said.

Since Abe’s statements, some companies have jumped into employing more women. In June, delivery company Sagawa Express stated that they will employ around 10,000 housewives as part-time delivery staff around their neighborhood by 2016. This arrangement, they said, would help housewives earn extra income as well as still manage tending for their homes.

Additionally, the Japanese government is also considering cutting a tax benefit that dependent spouses, mostly housewives, receive, hoping to incentivize women to seek full-time employment. (Households receive more tax deductions when one spouse does not work or works part-time, compared to when both spouses work full-time.)

However, there are still many difficulties ahead for working women in Japan. In June 2014, lawmaker Ayaka Shiomura received sexist heckling during a Tokyo assembly debate by Assemblyman Akihiro Suzuki and other unidentified members of the Liberal Democratic Party while discussing conditions for working mothers.

After receiving much criticism in both Japanese and international press, Suzuki publicly apologized to Shiomura.

Akihiro Suzuki publicly apologizes to Ayaka Shiomura. Via Quartz

In response, the Tokyo Metropolitan assembly approved a resolution that would prevent discriminatory comments towards assembly members.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Shiomura said that her “head went blank” upon being heckled and that no one appeared to think the remarks were inappropriate.

“Overall, I support [Abe’s] policies. However, in relation to this incident, I think policymakers need to listen to and understand the voices of the actual women that the policies target,” she said. “The male members’ offensive remarks indicate they think women who aren’t married, or can’t bear a child, aren’t worth listening to.”

Shiomura called for a need for more female politicians to prevent such instances and to pay better attention to politicians that people vote for.

Additionally, various reports show that it is still an uphill battle for working women. According to government data, over half of all Japanese women attend college (similar to that of men), but after university, only 63% of them work, and 70% of those who work stop working for ten or more years after having children (compared to 30% in America), and often end up quitting permanently.

The Daily Journal reported that many Japanese companies still overtly discriminate women in hiring, promoting, and pay, reporting that women were paid 70 percent of that of men for equal work, according to government data.

Japan Times also published an article saying Abe’s “womenomics” is not substantive to improve the situation of working women in Japan, noting blind spots such as companies conventionally using loopholes of Equal Employment Opportunities Law to create two-tiered career tracks and pushing most women in second-tier careers.

They also reported that “womenomics” would have little impact on small and midsized companies, which lack resources to provide family-friendly policies unlike big firms, and in academia, where networking within the “gentleman’s club” determines employment more than actual hiring processes.

Shihoko Goto, the Northeast Asia Associate of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Asia Program, said that Abe’s administration needs to be more attentive.

“First, Abe’s team must understand that mothers of young children who need day care centers make up only a small percentage of the potential female labor force,” Goto said, saying older women also wish to be involved in their children’s lives. “Teenagers, meanwhile, may spend more time at school and with their peers after class, but they need adult guidance more than ever.”

“[T]here also needs to be a national dialogue about the role fathers play in family life, and how there can be a true partnership between mothers and fathers in raising their children.”

“The impact of Abe’s stimulative Abenomics policies is still questionable but his “womenomics” rhetoric has sparked a conversation,” noted Devin Stewart. “The notion that a leader like Abe can make a decree like that may sound dirigiste to some Western readers, but it seems to be having a significant impact on the mindsets of some professionals.”

--Younjoo Sang

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

DEEP CUTS: The Head and Heart of JAPAN CUTS 2014

© 2013 “Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days” Production Committee

A selection of films from JAPAN CUTS 2014 (through July 20) provides deep,  illuminating commentary on contemporary Japanese society, from social shifts and inequalities to the ramifications of natural disasters.

More than three years after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis continues, with the amount of radiation and its effects still a subject of much debate.

The burakumin were a lower social caste that traditionally dealt with butchering and other professions dealing with death. Although the caste system was abolished in the 19th century, many still face discrimination even today.

Two powerful documentaries in the JAPAN CUTS lineup examine these disparate, divisive issues. Particularly fascinating is how both films use animals to tell their stories, notes festival programmer Joel Neville Anderson.

“Nonhuman beings’ appearance on film and television is often relegated to anthropomorphism, in which they are observed for qualities shared with people,” he said. “However, in Yoju Matsubayashi’s Horses of Fukushima and Aya Hanabusa’s Tale of a Butcher Shop, animals (horses and cows, respectively), feature specifically as animals. They are approached with respect for their long history living alongside humans and contemporary intersection with tragedies precipitated by the nuclear power industry, as well as the prolonged discrimination of oppressed communities of people.”

The Horses of Fukushima, which screened yesterday follows rancher Shinichiro Tanaka’s horse, Mirror’s Quest, after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Tanaka takes in his surviving horses from Fukushima despite the government’s order to kill them, and cares for Mirror’s Quest and the other horses exposed to radiation.

Tale of a Butcher Shop (Jul 19) follows the Kitade family, who has been running a butcher shop for seven generations, and their struggles to stay afloat as corporate supermarkets threaten their business. At the same time it is a look into burakumin issues as the family participates in the buraku liberation movement.

Another significant aspect of social relations that comes to light in this year's JAPAN CUTS is the tension between rural and urban life in Japan. People – especially youth – increasingly leave rural towns for schools and jobs in the city, and those living in the countryside face issues of both aging populations and competition with urban areas.

While the lighthearted comedy Wood Job!, which screened last weekend, follows a high school graduate who leaves the city to attend a one-year forestry program in Kamusari, the sprawling drama The Tale of Iya (Jul 20) tells a more common story.

The film depicts a rural community in Iya Valley that is shrinking and seeing a traditional lifestyle threatened by modern society. Haruna, a high school student living with her grandfather in the town, has to choose whether to stay or move to the city after finishing school.

“Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s Tale of Iya is remarkable not only for the dwindling community it is set in – in which scarecrows outnumber people – but also for the means by which the film was produced,” Anderson said.

“The director is a strong proponent of shooting on 35mm, and it shows beautifully in this epic work, with wonderfully composed frames and performers’ movements orchestrated in coordination with the camera. The film’s haunting and hopeful images of a landscape nearly emptied of people is perfect for this story of family life in transformation.”

Equitable treatment of women in the Japanese workforce has been a much discussed talking point in Prime Minister Abe's controversial economic growth plan. So it's serendipitous that JAPAN CUTS 2014 features five films directed or co-directed by women, the largest number of female directors in the history of JAPAN CUTS.

However, the increasing presence of working women is juxtaposed with the still-vulnerable position of women in Japanese society, as shown in the protagonist of 0.5mm (Jul 17), a home helper named Sawa, who loses her job and survives by taking advantage of older men and accessing their wealth.

“Momoko Ando’s 0.5mm expands from this seemingly simple premise to become a massive, by turns profound and hilarious journey across Japan’s embattled sexual landscape,” Anderson said. “But to reduce this work to such synopsizing does not do justice to the experience of watching, as 0.5mm continually shifts in tone, changing and changing until it reaches a profound depth few films touch.”

Japan's aging population and general population woes are much reported, but there is so more to the story than quarterly figures. In Pecoross' Mother and Her Days (July 20), one such story follows middle-aged manga artist/singer-songwriter/salaryman Yuichi, who watches out for his elderly mother, a constant source of comic energy and annoyance. As Yuichi decides whether to install her in a home for the elderly, the film jumps back in time to show her life in the tumult of the latter half of the 20th century--being raised as one of 10 brothers and sisters, surviving the war, and having to push her alcoholic husband along in life.

Pecoross’ is directed by the oldest active film director in Japan, Azuma Morisaki (b. 1927), who creates an emotionally complex work that is only the more profound and life-affirming for its seemingly lighthearted portrayal. As Anderson notes, “Another consummate two-hanky melodrama, Pecoross’ swept 2013’s prestigious film magazine awards, honored with best Japanese film by Kinema Junpo and Eiga Geijutsu.”

While they may not show all sides of the issues, and while they may raise more questions than answers, films such as these engender a conversation about important social issues affecting Japan and the world at large. Check-out the full JAPAN CUTS 2014 lineup for all these films and more.

--Younjoo Sang

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

JAPAN CUTS Genre Genetics: Diversifying the DNA of Japanese Film

Snow White Murder Case © 2014 “Snow White Murder Case” Production Committee

“Film genre in Japan could, and often is, thought of in terms of the nation’s much discussed ‘Galápagos syndrome,’” said Joel Neville Anderson, curator for JAPAN CUTS 2014, which boasts an especially diverse selection of films, ranging from outré thrillers and comedies to dramas and documentaries reflecting social issues.

He's referring to the phenomenon where many Japanese products have been developing differently from the rest of the world due to Japan's geographical and cultural isolation, much like the unique wildlife of the Galápagos Islands.

The majority of Japanese film productions, said Anderson, evolved from pre-existing manga, novels, or plays. And even the original productions have a quality that many perceive to be distinctly Japanese – such as the peculiar, off-the-wall comedy, sophisticated sword fights, and raw, gut-churning thrillers and horror films.

However, there are some signs of change: international films have slowly but surely been influencing the Galapagosized Japanese films.

“While the industry may appear to develop and mature independently, there is and always has been considerable influence from and on foreign cinemas,” Anderson said.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the thriller/action films of JAPAN CUTS 2014, running July 10-20 at Japan Society.


"This year foreign influence is especially evident in two impressive remakes, " said Anderson, "Hideo Nakata’s supernatural thriller Monsterz adapted from the Korean film Haunters, as well as Sang-il Lee’s Unforgiven, a samurai-Western adapted from Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed original." Another example is Man from Reno, a Japanese and American co-production of a gender-flipped, fresh look into film noir.

Monsterz (Jul 13) is a paranormal thriller involving a mind-bending man, and Shuichi, the only one mysteriously unaffected by this power. Unforgiven (Jul 15) is the remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film, where the American West changes to Meiji-era Japan and a former samurai, after having sworn off his sword, goes on one more mission he can’t refuse. Man from Reno (Jul 19) is a Japanese-American film that reverses the gender roles of a typical thriller movie, with a female crime novelist visiting San Francisco becoming involved in a series of events after a night with a handsome stranger.

Other notable movies, all co-presented with action-thriller purveyors at the New York Asian Film Festival, include The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (Jul 10), about an undercover cop infiltrating a yakuza gang, The Snow White Murder Case (Jul 11) follows a mysterious murder which blows out of proportion from social media exposure. Miss Zombie (Jul 12) follows a zombie who works for a family and is exploited, and then have the tables turned against them. All-Round Appraiser Q: The Eyes of Mona Lisa (Jul 13) is reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel as it follows an appraiser and a magazine editor who must solve a mystery threat to steal the Mona Lisa.


“Melodramatic form has recently received new forms of mass-spectatorship through the online streaming of television dramas from Japan, Korea, and greater East Asia; however melodramas were a cornerstone of the golden age of Japanese cinema in the postwar period,” Anderson said.

My Little Sweet Pea (Jul 19) follows an aspiring anime voice actor tracing her long-lost mother’s life as her mother suddenly returns to her life and leaves just as abruptly. Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days (Jul 20) show a heartwarming story of a middle-aged manga artist looking after his senile mother and looking back at her life. The Extreme Sukiyaki (Jul 16) is a slice of life movie with four aimless friends going on a trip to the beach with just a sukiyaki bowl.

“Films such as My Little Sweet Pea and Pecoross address new changes in contemporary society, such as divides in urban and rural life, youth aspirations in anime and the entertainment industry, divorce, as well as aging society and care for elders,” Anderson said.


Even in the uniquely absurd brand of Japanese comedy films, the keyword appears to be “variety”. A notable comedic movie is Neko Samurai (sold out), where a lone samurai is assigned to assassinate a white cat, but fails and befriends it, causing him to be roped into a feud between cat lovers and dog lovers. 

“This year we celebrate the incredible versatility of international star Kazuki Kitamura, who goes from playing sinister to heroic to comical roles with seeming ease,” Anderson said, as he stars in the mystery thriller Man from Reno, the comedic Neko Samurai, as well as the festival’s surprise screening of the Indonesian-Japanese horror-thriller Killers.

Hello! Junichi (Jul 20) is a coming-of-age story of a third-grader and his friends who put on a concert with the help of their apprentice teacher. “Hello! Junichi is a fantastic mash-up of genre and influences, as director Katsuhito Ishii takes the humor of his previous films specifically for adult audiences Funky Forest: The First Contact and The Taste of Tea and perfectly adapts to a story that's incredibly fun for cinephiles of all ages.”

As for comedic films with an unusually dark or erotic twist, check out Maruyama, the Middle Schooler (Jul 11) following Maruyama, a sex-crazed boy who injures himself after attempting “self-fellatio”, and with a new neighbor in town and mysterious incidents, he reimagines his surroundings as a manga-like fantasy world. Greatful Dead (Jul 18), follows Nami, a woman who takes selfies next to dead, lonely elders, sent to a murderous rage after a lonely old man she was prizing finds a new life with Christian volunteers. The Passion (Jul 18) is about Frances-ko, a woman raised in a convent longing to know about love and sex, but after calling out a sign from above, finds a human-faced growth between her legs that constantly insulting her, and she tries to adapt to her new situation.

Check-out the full JAPAN CUTS 2014 lineup for more on these films, and even more genre favorites.

--Younjoo Sang