In Japan, a Revolution Over Childbearing

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Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP / Getty

A mother carries her baby in Tokyo, Japan.

Sen. Joseph Biden has some company — it turns out serious political gaffes aren't just for bumbling American presidential candidates. On Jan. 27 Japan's Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa gave a speech on the country's shrinking population in which he referred to Japanese women of childbearing age as "baby-making machines." He went onto explain that arresting population decline was difficult "because the number of baby-making machines and devices is fixed [in the population]; all we can do is ask them to do their best per head." The 71-year-old Yanagisawa did add, however, "that it may not be so appropriate to call them machines."

No kidding. Even in Japan, where chauvinism is often an accepted part of public life, Yanagisawa's comments touched a nerve among Japanese women. The country's fertility rate is just 1.29, one of the lowest in the world, which puts Japan on a course for depopulation over the next several decades. Japanese women are regularly harangued by mostly male politicians to help slow the population decline by bearing more children — even though getting married and having a baby often means sacrificing their career and their independence, even in 2007.

It's not surprising that most take a pass on becoming rent-a-wombs for the nation. "I find it ridiculous," says Kyoko Tanabe, a 32-year-old translator in Tokyo. "I feel less and less enthusiastic about delivering a baby of my own into this world."

Opposition political parties were quick to turn the gaffe into a weapon against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, calling for Yanagisawa's resignation. The minister apologized repeatedly but has refused to resign, and so far Abe has stood behind him — calculating that he can't afford to lose a second cabinet minister just four months into his first term. (Genichiro Sata, minister of administrative reforms, resigned in December over a political funding scandal.)

In protest, the opposition parties have begun to boycott budget sessions in the Diet legislature. "We cannot accept that the ministry that deals with grave social issues like decreasing population is headed by someone who has demonstrated a complete lack of respect for the people," says Yoshiaki Takaki, head of the Diet policy committee for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Neither Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) nor the DPJ can claim sterling feminist credentials — women are largely absent from leadership positions in either party — but this battle is less about baby-making machines than a suddenly struggling Prime Minister. Abe's approval rating feel to a new low of 40.3% in a survey taken over the weekend, down from a height of nearly 70% when he took office. More than 50% of respondents in the poll said they wanted to see Yanigisawa resign for his remark — and with elections coming up in July that could decide the control of the Diet's upper house, many of Abe's own party members feel the same way. LDP ethics committee chairman Takashi Sasagawa told reporters that Yanagisawa "should quit quickly like a man" — thus demonstrating that Sasagawa was slightly missing the point of the whole sexism thing. But today Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki, Abe's right-hand man, confirmed that Yanagisawa was staying, which will only exacerbate divisions with the LDP.

Abe has bigger problems than a gaffe-prone health minister. The rest of his cabinet is suddenly proving willful to the point of disloyalty, perhaps sensing the Prime Minister's weakness. Last month Abe had to rein in his defense minister twice after Fumio Kyuma first called the American invasion of Iraq a mistake, then later told Japanese reporters that Washington should not be so "bossy" over a planned relocation of a U.S. military base on Japan's Okinawa island. Kyuma's remarks were not welcome in Washington, which has grown accustomed to Tokyo's uncritical alliance, nor were Foreign Minister Taro Aso's comments on Feb. 3 that the American plan for Iraq had been "very immature." Both Kyuma and Aso were echoing what a majority of Japanese feel, but their statements seemed almost calculated to cause embarrassment to their boss — a staunch supporter of the U.S. — while currying favor with the public. Shiozaki, who should be keeping Abe's team in line, was left to protest to reporters last week that "we are not a cabinet with its members saying whatever they like." Perhaps he was preparing a set of muzzles.

With reporting by Yuki Oda/Tokyo