This guest article from Doden Aiko is part of the Asia program’s Women’s Voices from the Indo-Pacific Project. John E. Merow Senior Fellow Sheila A. Smith features influential women in Japan’s political, economic, and social fields.
After three decades in broadcast journalism, people see me as a news anchor, a former correspondent, and a commentator, and I am happy that my career encompassed all of these opportunities in broadcast journalism. When I joined NHK in 1988, women often did not stay on until retirement, because juggling work and home became too demanding.
As an anchor for Newsline in Depth on NHK, I am grateful when people recognize me because it means they have watched the programs I present. It is even more gratifying when people recognize me as a former correspondent and a reporter in the field, because that was my real passion. Those viewers saw me report from remote areas of the world, on a village school in India, a women’s empowerment program in Rwanda, or a drug eradication project on the Myanmar-China border.
At the beginning of my career, I was assigned to present NHK’s evening news show as a solo anchor. This made headlines because it was more common for a junior woman to be a co-anchor alongside a senior male anchor. However, as I read the news on the Bosnia War, the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, and the elections in Cambodia, I felt the urge to study the substance of the news and the stories behind the news that I was reading. I decided to study for my master’s degree at Columbia University. To my surprise, this decision prompted colleagues to ask, “What more do you want than being an anchor while you are young and pretty?” This profoundly affected me and made me realize the fundamental biases facing women in journalism.
My classes at Columbia were like a microcosm of the world. I met a budding economist from China, a South African writer and activist, scholars from the former USSR, a former refugee from Cambodia, a defense specialist from Israel, and many more from around the world. I realized that each and every one of them had a story to tell that was an integral part of the substance of the news that I was reading. My professor said journalism should not only be about parachuting into a conflict zone to report, but also about presenting the big picture. His words have stayed with me since.
A Journalist’s Calling
I can say with certain precision the most compelling moment as a journalist: May 6, 2002. I was then a correspondent based in Bangkok covering Southeast Asia. Myanmar’s democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under house arrest, and there was a strong rumor that she could be released anytime. A rumor is not good enough to file a report, but I had credible information that the release was imminent.
Since the military government did not allow foreign correspondents to be based in the then-capital Yangon, journalists had to make a laborious effort, often in vain, to get a visa to enter the country. I somehow managed to secure visas for the entire NHK team to enter the country, one by one, in time for the day. The coverage ended up as a scoop story for NHK with a live report from Yangon on the democracy leader’s release. A wire service asked if they could use our footage.
What I often vividly recall is the heat and the humidity of that day as I was waiting in front of National League for Democracy Headquarters in Yangon. I was pushed this way and that way in a huge crowd.
In the crowd behind me, a petite elderly woman pushed me hard on my back so that I could break away from the crowd and have a better view. She told others around her, “She is a journalist. Let her see so she can report.” In a country where freedom of press was severely restricted, and perhaps because of it, that auntie knew the significance of the journalist’s mission to report. I have felt since then that once you are in the field to witness and report the world, you are not allowed to look away ever. That principle still holds to this when the situation in Myanmar looks increasingly precarious since the 2021 military coup.
No Need for Superwomen
Looking back, what I feel most important is that women should not be expected to be “superwomen” to stay in the workforce. Simply put, they have the right to work and to make the most of their potential, just as men.
I am among those who entered the workforce in the late 1980s when the Equal Employment Opportunity Law came into force, which gave women equal employment opportunities. It did not automatically mean equal pay or promotion. I belong to the generation where women had to work extra hard to prove that women were equally as competent as men. Yet we should not forget that there is a large pool of highly educated women who chose to be homemakers in Japan. This is a reflection of the fact that it was often extremely difficult to juggle work and manage a household to retain a work-life balance.
Change is taking place, but to be frank, not fast enough. More corporations now understand that empowering women is not only about accommodating their needs, but about embracing diversity. They understand that it makes business sense as well to do so. More men are coming on board too. Where do we stand in terms of concrete figures? The reality is that although the government pledged to increase the number of female executives in major companies to 30% by 2030, the ratio stands only at 11.4% according to a 2022 Cabinet Office Survey. One out of five companies surveyed had zero female executives.
Laws to promote men to take parental leave have been put in place, but the actual outcome can be patchy until there is a shared societal understanding among men and women that overwrites the conventional mindset that “a woman’s place is at home, while a man’s place is at work.”
There is a famous work by Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei titled “Sunflower Seeds,” in which the floor of a museum is carpeted with 100 million handcrafted ceramic sunflower seeds. All the seeds look the same but each is individual, like the population of China. Of course, the underlying context is different, and every society is inherently diverse. People point out that there is pressure for conformity in Japan, which is true. It gives more reason for outliers to raise their voices and nudge change. Change should not be a lonely effort. Not all may have the courage to raise their voice and demand change, but we can all take part in creating an environment where different voices will not be silenced. When that happens, an outlier will no longer be considered an outlier.
Abroad, there is a common misperception that Japan is simply a follower of the United States. Japan cannot be a quiescent follower of the United States given the stakes in current geopolitics. Japan may need to play a different role. The question is how.
One is for Japan to make the most of its longstanding ties with Southeast Asian countries. The cornerstone of Japan Southeast Asia relations can be traced back to the 1977 Fukuda Doctrine, in which the then Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo reached out to the rest of Asia. Fukuda pledged that Japan is a country committed to peace, would never become a military power, and that its relationship with the Southeast Asian countries will be based on mutual confidence as equal partners, what he coined as “heart-to-heart relations”.
The G7 Summit at Hiroshima was a good example where Prime Minister Kishida took the initiative of inviting the leaders from India, Indonesia, and Vietnam, key countries that are part of the southern hemisphere countries often referred to as the Global South. Almost half a century later, Southeast Asia is now a vibrant region, a key player in the Global South that has a decisive role in shaping the global order. The region has gained economic and political clout that G7 countries cannot ignore. Japan can stand up to the task of proactively engaging this critical important region.
Second, Japan’s foreign and security policy needs to be articulated so that its aspiration in building and securing peace be better understood. There should be more focus on the concept of human security, a human-centered approach to security which Japan has long committed itself to in the context of building peace. However, in the wake of Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy and National Defense Plan, it is common for the security debate to center around Japan’s strike capability and increased military spending and less about building and securing peace. Headlines in the media focus on hard security, ranging from references to Japan’s “biggest military build-up since WW2” or questioning “Will Japan fight?” rather on Japan’s contributions to global human security.
Equally important in understanding Japan’s foreign policy is the June 2023 revision of Development Cooperation Charter. The Charter stated Japan will continue to position human security as a guiding principle in its developmental cooperation and stressed that Japan will work together with developing countries to address challenges common to all humankind.
The Global South may have gained clout and agency, but no country or region is spared from the humanitarian crises caused by climate change or a global pandemic. Disparities within and among countries are evident and widening, putting human security at risk. The world is faced with compounding crises, a daunting challenge in itself. Japan and the United States must strengthen all dimensions of our partnership. It is not a matter of choice, but a matter of shared responsibility.