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Japanese women press for equality

"Our task now is to gain actual equality for women, as distinct from the legal equality we won after World War II." Mayumi Moriyama spoke crisply in her small, neat office just behind the British Embassy. Trim, businesslike, immaculately groomed, she seemed the quintessential Tsuda graduate, which indeed she is -- an alumna of the prestigious women's college established in Meiji Japan (corresponding to the Victorian period in England) by Umeko Tsuda, pioneer worker for women's education and rights.

But Mrs. Moriyama is also much more. The wife of a wellknown politician, she has just been elected in her own right to the House of Councillors, upper chamber of the Japanese Diet (parliament). Before that, she was a career bureaucrat in the Labor Ministry for 30 years. She is thoroughly acquainted with all aspects of women's position, legally and in practice, and has worked consitently to improve it.

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Before World War II, Japanese women were legally inferior to men in matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. They could not vote. Yet, interestingly enough, inside the home they were often supreme.

"Home was a woman's castle, and in it she exercised full powers," Mrs. Moriyama said. Many husbands simply handed their monthly paychecks to their wives, who in turn gave them allowances, as they did for the children.

Today, in all but a few areas -- notably nationality law -- women are legally the equal of men. (Children take the nationality is often left stateless). Yet , whereas before the war the appearance of inequality cloaked large areas of considerable power for women, today the appearance of equality hides continuing discrimination, particularly in jobs.

Slowly, the barriers are falling. Mrs. Moriyama ticked off some recent changes. The Maritime Safety Agency -- equivalent of a coast guard -- is now taking women, as does the Meteorological Service. As of 1980, the National Tax Administration, the Imperial Palace police, and air traffic controllers are admitting women as offcers. The Defense Academy -- equivalent of West Point and Annapolis -- still does not.

The biggest barriers are largely unspoken, as in politics. Women have had the vote since 1946 and compose more than half the electorate. Yet there have been only two Cabinet ministers -- both appointed for breif periods in the early 1960s. A Japanese Margaret Thatcher is still far in the future, according to Mrs. Moriyama. She herself, when asked to become a Liberal-Democrat candidate for the upper house, hesitated at first. Her husband, a lower house member of the same party, had been a Cabinet minister. One politician in the family seemed enough.

Yet the circumstances of this election were special. The Liberal-Democrats, perennially in power, had been plagued by a succession of scandals nad badly needed to refurbish their image. Mrs. Moriyama was as horrified by scandals as any other citizen, but there seemed no practical alternative to Liberal-Democratic government.

Perhaps, as a woman, she could help to waft a fresh breeze both of political and environmental purity into the encrusted corridors of party politics and power, she reasoned. For years she had told her fellow-women not to shrink from difficult tasks. Was not this the moment for her to follow her own preaching?

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She obtained her husband's consent, neither of them then dreaming that he too would be up for re-election because of the dissolution of the lower house following the unexpected passage of a vote of no confidence.

"The double election was tough," Mrs Moriyama recalled. "We had to split our volunteer workers, half for my husband, hald for me. We all worked like dogs. Somehow, we both managed to pull through."

Now that she has been elected, what are her goals? Mrs. Moriyama thought a moment, then, "I think the most important thing in politics is morality," she said firmly. After all, she reasoned, in these complicated times it is not easy to devise policies that are resoundingly different from others.

What is important is the individual who carries out the policy and how he carries it out. Men are often blinded by ambition, whereas women are more apt to demand cleanliness in politics, according to this politician. "That was the basis on which I was elected, and I intend to remain faithful to this demand to the end."

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