Are Women Japan’s Hidden Conservatives?

Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s efforts to add more women to Japan’s shrinking workforce and into managerial positions has attracted strong criticism as many women juggling childrearing take on temporary or part time employment with few opportunities for career advancement. The Abe administration’s ambitious economic structural reforms dubbed “Womenomics” aimed to create a society where women “shine,” but the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has also seen as many as 700,000 female workers in “nonregular positions” lose their jobs as the economic gains of “Womenomics” have begun to unravel.  Japan has also fallen flat on a number of gender equality goals on both the domestic and international domain under Abe’s tenure. But despite the lack of progress, an unexpectedly large number of women are going online to express their support of the Abe administration.

Although public opinion polls have showed the Abe administration was more popular among men than women, there is still a significant number of Japanese women who felt reasonably content under the Abe administration. Research surveys suggests that the majority of Japanese women enjoy a high sense of wellbeing and responded that they “do not feel that they are struggling” nor do they “feel powerless and frustrated.” While some conservative women who might presumably support Abe have become increasingly politically active, understanding this apparently “silent majority” by analyzing so-far overlooked social media forums challenges some of the mainstream information and some of Japan’s “hidden” female voters.

Despite the frequent criticisms of Abenomics, there is still a significant number of Japanese women who felt reasonably content under Abe

Girls Channel is self-described as a “next generation” social media platform where women in their 20’s and 30’s anonymously post topics for discussion ranging from questions on women’s health, experiences in the office, childrearing tips and fashion advise, etc. The site, launched in 2012, serves as “an anonymous messaging board of the girls, by the girls, for the girls”. It’s a relatively simple and stripped backed forum that features pastel pink hues and appeals to women who are active smartphone users but not necessarily internet-savvy. Registered users post a question or topic and other users can leave comments anonymously or show their approval/disapproval by choosing “+ (plus)” or “- (minus)” icon next to a comment.  In March, Girls Channel attracted some one million page views in March 2020  and has garnered 155 million comments in total.

The activity on Girls Channel on the day Abe announced his resignation (August 28) revealed that users were broadly supportive of his tenure, displaying a sense of sadness or sympathy towards the announcement. The thread “PM Abe decided to resign” (安倍 首相 辞任の意向固める) attracted 39,177 comments as of September 17 along with 1,085,375 “reactions.” For example, the comment with the highest positive engagement was “Mr. Abe…??”(安倍さん…??)with 11,267 “+”s and the comment with the second highest positive engagement was “He was my favorite prime minister in history. Sad” (歴代で一番好きな総理でした。悲しい) with 8,344 “+”s. The comment with the highest negative engagement (2,093) was “I started to hate him after Moritomo, Akie & face mask so it was a good thing” (森友と昭恵とマスクで大嫌いになったから 良かったと思ってる), referring to three of the scandals related to the second Abe administration, and the comment with the second highest negative engagement (1,982) was also the comment with the second highest positive engagement (8,344), “He was my favorite prime minister in history. Sad”. Other trending words included “Ishiba,” referring to former defense minister and LDP presidential hopeful Ishiba Shigeru, as well as “Japan”, “Really”, “Corona”, “China” and “South Korea.”

The Girls Channel thread covering Japan’s September LDP presidential election highlighted the unpopularity of Ishiba Shigeru – an outspoken critic of Abe. With 52 potential candidates listed throughout the thread, former Defense Minister Kono Taro was named a key favorite among users, followed by former Prime Minister and former Finance Minister Aso Taro (known for making offensive and sexist public remarks in the past). Suga Yoshihide who was eventually elected winner and Abe’s successor appears to have been a dark horse ranking 6th with only 21 mentions.

Among Girls Channel users, Abe’s popularity was clear and it appears to have stemmed not from his progress on Womenomics but his position towards China or South Korea. Contrary to public opinion polls, Girls Channel users appear to appreciate Abe for his “strengths” on the diplomacy front. Users praised Abe for “standing strong” against China and/or South Korea, and also made comments on his “good looks” as well. On the other hand, Ishiba’s Pro-China and pro-South Korea leanings lost political favor among Girls Channel users. 

Abe’s popularity was clear and it appears to have stemmed not from his progress on Womenomics – but his position towards China and South Korea

The Girls Channel online thread contradicts research that has consistently shown that Japanese women’s electoral choices are driven by livelihood such as welfare and employment. Girls Channel demonstrates how users – if following the logic of the existing research – perceive Japan’s relationship with China and/or South Korea as threats to their livelihood – an idea that does not hold up well from a practical perspective and sounds more in tune with the fringes of the internet’s far-right. It is also worth pointing out that Girls Channel users are mostly of generations that have been exposed to and have interactions with China and South Korea through travel, pop culture, social media, or academic exchange programs, making it hard to believe that they could see places that they’ve become so familiar with as a threat to their livelihood, or that they would prefer a political leader that would “stand strong” against these places. 

Does this mean Japan’s twenty- and thirty-something women harbor latent far-right ideas that they only feel safe to express on an anonymous messaging board in pastel pink? More research into Girls Channel would be needed to understand if and how its users represent Japan’s “silent majority” – not least of all understanding whether users are truly made by “girls” in their 20s-30s as the company claims. But it strongly suggests that many Japanese women are driven politically by more than economic and gender issues. It might be easy to dismiss Girls Channel as frivolous or not representative of the mainstream, but this would shut ourselves off from a valuable source for understanding grassroots opinion and opinion-shapers.

Aki Tonami is an associate professor at the University of Tsukuba's Faculty of Business Sciences with research interests in narrative policy analysis, economic diplomacy, and governance of the Polar Regions. She is a specialist in foreign policy, having worked as a research advisor for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. She holds a PhD in global environmental studies, an MA in economics from Kyoto University, and a BSc in operations management & information systems from Santa Clara University in California. You may follow her on Twitter at @atonton28

Yukie Sano is an assistant professor at the University of Tsukuba's Faculty of Engineering, Information, and Systems. She specializes in network science and socio-econophysics, mainly in research about social media. She received her BA and MA in physics from Nara Women’s University. After working as a system engineer, she returned to academia to obtain her Sc.D in computational intelligence and systems science from Tokyo Institute of Technology. You may follow her on Twitter at @zerosano

Kyoko Tominaga is an associate professor of sociology at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto where her research focuses on social activism. She holds a PhD and MA in sociology from the University of Tokyo and a BBA from Hokkaido University School of Economics and Business Administration. Her recent publications include "A New Liberal Class in Japan: Based on Latent Class Analysis" in Economic and Social Changes: Facts, Trends Forecast. You may follow her on Twitter at @nomikaishiyouze

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