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.