Over the weekend the 71-year-old Japanese Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa caused quite a stir in the media by referring to women as "birth-giving machines" (kodomo o umu kikai) during his speech to local assembly members of the LDP in Matsue. While talking about the declining birthrate in Japan the health minister said (Japanese text):
"The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head, although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines."
To many here the minister's comments would still have been seen as sexist and missing the point even if he had not called women "birth-giving machines." Most people feel that a woman does not have any obligation to produce children, of course, and that the real discussion should be on how to improve work-life balance in Japan and improve support for families who would like to have children (or more children) and keep on working but can not due to a lack of day care facilities and myriad other difficulties. One of Japan's leading writers, Izumi Momose, said that she is "extremely provoked" by the minister's comments and went on to say that "Women have children not because they want to resolve the declining birthrate issue but because they want to feel happy by having children."
The health minister is getting slammed in the media today and has since apologized for his remark, though he says he used the term to make it "easier for people to understand the demographic situation." He said he spoke metaphorically, referring to women as "birth-giving machines," to make his point easier to understand. But did this subject need to be simplified in such a manner? Unless he was speaking to a group of small children, who in the audience would not understand the issue of a declining birthrate, and that the remedy (in terms only of numbers) is that women and families will need to have more children on average if the birth rate is to increase over time? Women feel insulted though because the solution to the problem — assuming you think it is a problem — is far more complicated than asking women to do their best to have more children.