Say it like you mean it.                                                                                           Source: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Say it like you mean it.                                                                                           Source: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

On June 23, a middle-aged male Japanese politician, dressed in the traditional dark suit and '80s-retro haircut, walked in front of a waiting line of news cameras, to where a younger female politician waited. As the cameras flashed, he apologized to the woman, and bowed deeply; she looked on gravely.

To a naïve Western observer, this scene might look like just another day in the byzantine, hidebound world of Japanese politics. But I’ve been watching Japanese politics and civil society for more than a decade now, and when I saw Akihiro Suzuki bow to Ayaka Shiomura, I caught my breath. I knew what I was seeing was big. Epochal, even.
The background: On June 18, Assemblywoman Shiomura, who belongs to a small minority party, was speaking to the Tokyo city assembly about the need for programs to support working women -- a point that has been a main theme of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration. While she was speaking, someone from Abe's dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) yelled: “You should get married!” and “Can’t you even bear a child?” Shiomura, visibly disturbed, finished her speech, after which she returned to her seat and began to cry. After the incident, Shiomura and other opposition politicians requested that the LDP find and punish the heckler, but party officials responded that they didn’t know the identity of the heckler, and hence could do nothing.

In the Japan of the 1990s or early 2000s, that probably would have been the end of the issue. But not this time. Soon, the story was all over the Japanese news, and complaints began pouring in. Petitions appeared and circulated, demanding that the offenders be found and forced to apologize (about 100,000 people signed). A network of feminist groups, using the petition-gathering platform Change.org, made the issue a rallying point. A few days later, the LDP caved, identifying Akihiro Suzuki as the man responsible for (at least some of) the heckling. The historic apology followed soon after. But that didn’t stop an angry man from egging Suzuki’s house!

This incident is only a symbol, but it points to a larger underlying trend -- the metamorphosis of Japanese women from a subservient caste, valued only for their delicate beauty and homemaking skills, to full-fledged equal members of society. Prime Minister Abe, of course, is making a name as the chief booster of women’s economic equality, but it turns out that he’s jumping on a trend that’s been building for a while. Working-age women’s employment has been climbing steadily since the early 2000s, and is now higher than in the U.S. Slowly, Japanese companies are hiring more female managers and executives, and Japanese voters are electing more female politicians.

Meanwhile, social change is happening as well. Popular TV shows now depict women as tough, smart lawyers. Child pornography -- which exploits large numbers of teenage girls -- was finally banned this month. The man who egged the sexist politician’s house is an example of a growing trend of “white knighting” (men standing up for women who are being bullied in public) in a country more traditionally known for train groping.

Of course, all change is generational; some older, conservative Japanese men still view women as inferiors, to be bullied and humiliated at will (much like in the U. S.). Just a couple of weeks after the Shiomura incident, a female politician in Osaka was heckled in a similar incident. And Japan still lags far behind most other rich nations in gender equality.

But there are two forces driving social change in Japan. The first is the changing of the guard. As Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Council has noted, the 76er generation – Japan’s equivalent of America’s Generation X – is far more liberal in its outlook than the older baby boomers. Feminists such as Mariko Bando, Chizuko Ueno, and Akie Abe (yes, the prime minister’s wife!) have gained national celebrity, and a new generation, such as writer Renge Jibu and activists Asako Osaki and Emmy Suzuki Harris, are gaining in prominence as well. Meanwhile, younger male executives, politicians and academics are also talking much more openly about the need for women’s equality.

The second force is economic, and here Abe becomes the central figure. Abe’s reforms include moves toward shareholder capitalism, free trade, lower corporate taxes, and deregulation -- a sort of delayed Reagan-Thatcher revolution. Those measures, even if partly successful, will put pressure on Japanese companies to hire women (who offer more productivity per dollar than men), to reform the rigid labor systems that are biased against working mothers, and to ditch the expensive drinking sessions that preserve the “boys’ club” mentality.

Many Westerners and Japanese people alike tend to view Japan as an ancient, unchanging samurai culture, bound eternally in traditional feudal values. But Japan is turning out to be much more like Europe and America -- a place capable of social as well as economic progress, a place capable of reinventing itself through both evolution and revolution.

To contact the author of this article: Noah Smith noahsmith.bloomberg@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.