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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:54 03/09/2007
News Review #381: February 1, 2007

Japan PM Backs 'Birth-Machine' Minister

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

Japan PM Backs 'Birth-Machine' Minister
(Reuters) The Australian,20867,21148745-1702,00.html


Gaffe has returned in the Japanese political scene. Hakuo Yanagisawa, Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare was reported as saying in the speech given last Sunday that "The number of women between the ages of 15 and 50 is fixed. The number of birth machines (and) devices is fixed, so all we can ask is that they do their best per head."

Of course, he was right in a sense, in pointing out that men - in fact all of them - as well as very young and very old women are not capable of having babies. The only problem was that he used the word "machines" to signify a certain portion of the population comprised of human beings.

The timing was perfect, too. Just as the diet had convened a few days earlier, and the opposition parties were looking for anything to throw at to encounter the Cabinet and the ruling LDP. The issue was also simplistic enough to make it an easy sell to the public, and the media, to mobilize a large number of people in actions to condemn the minister, and Prime Minister Abe.

Whether he quits or not is not known at this point. But Mr Yanagisawa has certainly won the honor of being added to the long list of politicians making inappropriate comments. Among them, arguably the most gaffe-prone was the former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. One of his comments, made when he was the PM, drew fire when he suggested childless women should be denied welfare payments in old age.

However, the real issue in Mr Yanagisawa's remarks - significantly more serious than throwing in a wrong terminology at the wrong spot - is the fact that it exposes his thinking that it is the responsibilities of those women to revive the dwindling birth rate in Japan. Of course, the act of giving birth can only be carried out by women. But whether they would (want to) have babies depend largely on the environment, and that more in social terms rather than natural in the case of human beings.

Look at France. It was announced that last year, more babies were born than any of the past 25 years. The fertility rate in France had been dropping much like any other developed country including Japan until 1996. Then it turned around and has been constantly rising since, with the figure now about to exceed two babies per woman. The cause of the turnaround is still being scrutinized, but there is a consensus that the policies adopted in early 1990s to ease the burden of - and even encourage having babies, such as universally affordable day care and generous parental leave, had a lot to do with it.

Even if women were machines - and they are not unless men are also machines - calling so by skewing the semantics of the English (and Japanese) language, they need fueling and greasing and decent maintenance and appropriate ambience to function properly in the way the operators (whoever they are!) wish.

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