Japan gender equality-promoting politician says okay to ask women why they're unmarried

TOKYO (AFP) - The Tokyo politician tasked with preventing sexism in the city's assembly ran into trouble on Wednesday after making light of an episode of sexist jeering that drew outrage in Japan and beyond.

Mr Zenji Nojima, the chairman of a gender equality conference, generated fresh controversy on Tuesday by saying it was fine to ask a woman why she wasn't married - although the question shouldn't be posed in public. "I would say 'why don't you get married?' in private when I'm talking with women," Mr Nojima, a 65-year-old member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party, reportedly said at the conference as it was convened for the first time in five years.

The lawmaker on Wednesday apologised to his fellow Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians for his “inappropriate comments,” the Sankei Shimbun reported, citing an LDP assemblywoman.

Tokyo politicians' outmoded views on gender came under the spotlight in June when a young assemblywoman was heckled during a debate on helping the city's mothers. Shouts of "Why don't you get married?" and "Are you not able to have a baby?" erupted in the chamber when Ms Ayaka Shiomura, 36, was speaking. The episode cast a light on the ingrained sexism of Japan's political classes at a time that Mr Abe claims to be championing the cause of women and says he is determined to help them into the workforce.

Ms Shiomura and her supporters said that the catcalls came from a part of the assembly occupied by members of Mr Abe's LDP.

One Tokyo lawmaker eventually came forward to confess his part in the heckling, but no other member of the LDP was ever publicly identified and the party refused to offer anyone up.

Mr Nojima, who could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday, reportedly said that the problem with the attack on Ms Shiomura was that it was done in a public forum, and not in private.

The apparent gulf in understanding was leapt on by Ms Shiomura's colleague in the opposition Your Party.

"I feel slightly worried about the prospects for this conference," Ms Minoru Morozumi told AFP. "(Nojima) seems to have different ideas from the majority of younger people, who don't want to be scrutinised for their personal matters."

Ms Sumire Hamada, a member of Tokyo-based rights group Asia-Japan Women's Resource Centre, said "it's unbelievable that (Nojima) thinks the comment made in private is no problem".

"Women got angry not because the jeers were made in public, but because of what was said to Ms Shiomura, exactly when she was asking questions about the situation for women in Tokyo," she said.

The incident came just days after Japan hosted the World Assembly for Women, a global conference promoting female participation in the workplace, whose key speaker was International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde.

Japan has one of the lowest rates of female workforce participation in the developed world and most economists agree it badly needs to boost the number of working women.

But a lack of childcare facilities, poor career support and deeply entrenched sexism are blamed for keeping women at home.