In Japanese, "obachan" is a word that means aunt, but is sometimes used to refer to a middle-aged or elderly woman in a derogatory way. There is no good translation in English, but the image is of an eccentric, loud, irritating busybody long past youth or beauty.
Not many women would choose to apply this word to themselves, but a new political party has emerged out of Osaka that is proudly claiming ownership of the word and attempting to reform the image of Japan’s obachans. We went to find out more about this All Japan Obasan Party.
Vice Presidents Hiroko Inokuma, a journalist and professor at Tokyo City University, and Tomoko Saotome, an obstetrician and gynecologist, spoke at Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents Club to introduce their party and what they hope to accomplish for women in Japan. They were joined by member Kyoko Takada, a university professor.
AJOP was started just six months ago and sprang out of a Facebook group, but has quickly grown to over 2,000 members. According to the speakers, the larger purpose of AJOP is to close the gender gap in Japanese society, but they are starting much smaller by just providing a forum where women can talk politics, learn to express themselves effectively and raise awareness about how politics are connected to their daily lives, all without any quelling male presence.
The need to encourage women to speak their minds might seem like a hopelessly outdated idea, but despite Japan’s modern image, conservative notions about gender roles are still alive and well in the society.
“If we particularly focus on comments given by our regional members, people who live in rural areas, quite often women say that they have been prohibited from speaking out about politics or even having an opinion about politics. Quite often, the pressure comes from the mother-in-law, who takes a very strong stance that women should stay in the home and not think about or talk about politics,” says Inokuma.
“The first thing these women realize when they join our forums is that they can talk about these things, they can have an opinion, and it’s really a revelation for them.”
Last year, Japan ranked 101 out of 135 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Rankings, the lowest by far of all the G8 nations and just above countries like Nigeria, Kuwait and the UAE. The percentage of female legislators hovers around just 13%, depending on what levels of government are included, and this astounding gender gap persists despite a highly educated female majority.
The AJOP membership covers the spectrum of political opinion, so it’s hard to say that they have a platform in the traditional sense, but they do have eight points they would like to promote, which they are calling the obachan hassaku or Auntie’s Oranges, a pun on the Japan Restoration Party’s much touted "ishin hassaku" or Eight Policies for Restoration.
The Obachan Eight Policies for Restoration
- No more lives of children wasted in war
- Tax reform asking the wealthy to pay their fair share
- Recovery from natural disasters
- No more nuclear waste
- Strengthen the community to better raise children and help seniors
- Protect workers and their rights
- Minority opinions should be taken seriously
- The opinion of obachans should be reflected in politics
The platform is perhaps on the vague side, without specific targets or timelines, but the obachans warn against falling back on prefixed ideas of what a political organization should be.
“What we are trying to propose is another kind of organization, very different from the male-oriented or male-designed organizations we’ve had in the past,” says Saotome.
“There is a term in Japan 'idobata kaigi,' or a chat around the village well. In other words, women doing their washing and exchanging opinions. We are thinking about an organization that is much looser in form.”
Still, the speakers cautioned that they are only six months in and AJOP is still very much in flux as the membership grows and defines itself.
One thing is for sure: these ladies have a sense of humor, despite their earnest goals. Oh, and if you men were feeling a bit left out in all this, the AJOP has an ancillary support group for men called the O-chan (uncle) Supporters.
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