This week in the UK, all eyes are on David Cameron has he reshuffled his cabinet to make it less 'male and pale' in the run up to the next election. As a country, we don't have a great track record for promoting gender equality in politics (until today there were just three women in the cabinet, only 23 per cent of MPs are women, and let's not forget the time David Cameron told Labour minister Angela Eagle to 'calm down, dear' during a debate in the House of Commons). But if you think we've got it bad, all of that pales into insignificance when you consider the political culture in Japan.
Last month male politicians, including assemblyman Akihiro Suzuki, heckled a female colleague as she called for greater support for women around fertility rights. Ayaka Shiomura was told to bombarded with shouts like: 'Can't you have babies?' and told to 'hurry up and get married.'
The incident has caused a storm, with politicans falling over themselves to denounce the jeers. Suzuki has since apologised and offered to quit the party. But what's clear is that Shinzo Abe – the Prime Minister who's been championing women in the workforce – is facing a battle against widespread sexism.
For Abe, it's an embarrassment. He's realised that it doesn't make economic sense to scaffold the glass ceilings, and recently he's called for tax incentives for companies that hire women and provide support such as childcare for working mothers to address Japan's workplace inequalities. (He even wrote an op-ed in Wall Street Journal last year extolling the virtues of 'womenomics.') With women holding just 1.6 per cent of executive positions in public companies, he's also set a 2020 target for 30 per cent female representation in company boards.
But he may be at risk of being undermined by his own Liberal Democrat Party with his radical moves - because that jeering we mentioned came from his own corner. And yet while the row may have shocked the politcial system, having lived in Japan for over a year now it didn't surprise me at all.
Sexism in Japan manifests itself in strange ways. In any convenience store you'll find 'his and hers' bento boxes and my personal favourite, Men's Pocky – the popular chocolate-coated biscuit sticks, only in a manlier flavour. Who knew dark chocolate could be so masculine?
In any store you'll find 'his and hers' bento boxes and my personal favourite, Men's Pocky - the popular chocolate-coated biscuit sticks, only in a manlier flavour
Arbitrarily gender-specific confectionary seems to fall on the more harmless end of the sexist spectrum, but even that slightly silly-sounding cultural quirk gives some insight into how tightly strict gender roles are woven into Japanese society.
It reflects the narrow and strictly divided boxes men and women are expected to inhabit: men must be masculine, strong and financially stable; women should be feminine, well-maintained and maternal.
It's a common thread that's particularly jarring to see when you're reminded just how advanced Japan is in other areas. Take technology, for example: Fujitsu's pale pink 'floral kiss' laptop for women, complete with floral edging and daily horoscopes. Nauseating, I know.
Japan's lagging gender equality in the face of this digital innovation was thrown into sharp relief in January when an academic journal illustrated a feature about artificial intelligence in daily life with a pretty, broom-wielding, 'female' robot. In the ensuing row, it was clear that associating women with servitude touched a nerve, but some people simply didn't see the problem. One Twitter user summed up the casual objectification of the opposing argument, saying: 'If you are to create an android, the prettier the better.'
While it would be cynical to interpret this as meaning that a woman's role is purely decorative, the inescapable fact is there are standards for how women should look – even at work – that go beyond being merely 'presentable.'
Asami, 32, told me that she wouldn't expect to be taken seriously at work without a full face of make-up. I'd heard an anecdote that if a woman doesn't wear heels to a job interview, she won't get the job. 'I'd say that's probably true,' she conceded.
If a woman doesn't wear heels to a job interview, she won't get the job
Another student friend once said to me that if she woke up too late to put make-up on before class, where heels and false eyelashes are a staple for many female students, she'd stay home. Meanwhile, Kotoyo Obikawa, an office worker in Tokyo, told Time magazine how she's expected to do secretarial work and is obliged to pour drinks for men at parties. Despite the fact that she's a project manager. 'Sexism is deeply rooted in Japanese culture,' she said. 'A lot of people unconsciously discriminate against women.'
These old-fashioned ideas about women's role in society form the foundation of the workplace inequalities that the Prime Minister is trying to tackle. Because raising children is considered women's responsibility, around 70% leave their jobs after their first child, leaving only around a third of mothers in the workforce – often in lower-paid or part-time positions.
Attitudes are beginning to shift, though – for example, a group of women in Japan are organising a sex ban against any men who vote for Yoichi Masuzoe – a notoriously sexist politican who is running in Tokyo's gubernatorial elections in January. He once said women shouldn't hold places in the highest levels of government because they have periods – and the fact that he's already had a fairly sucessful, 16-year career as a politican shows just how easy it is to get away with statements like that.
A notoriously sexist politican once said women shouldn't hold places in the highest levels of government because they have periods
But although women have more freedom now to put off marriage and children so they can further their careers, for many, it's still a choice between the two. Simply put, 'bosses don't want to promote women who they think are going to go on maternity or quit when they have a baby,' Mizuki, 21, told me. 'I think women are changing faster than men. I know a lot of women who want to work and have a family too, but I think men still think more traditionally. More women work now, but most men wouldn't accept a wife making more money than him.'
It's a depressing picture. Still, the overwhelming outcry against the hecklers shows that even the more staunchly set in their ways may soon start to come unstuck, and a prime minister-led push for working women's rights can surely only be a good thing. But this scandal highlights how desperately political support is needed.
One thing's for certain: if Abe's serious about implementing change, he needs to get his own house in order first.
** Follow Beckie on Twitter @Beckie_Smith_**
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.