Gendered Sanctions

It might be expected that cost pressures and the mandatory nature of school lunches explained above would justify parental concerns. However, parents in the safe school-lunch advocacy groups, which pushed for the monitoring of school lunch safety faced significant criticism from the government, school authorities, and the general public.

I interviewed the leaders of five safe school-lunch advocacy groups (two in Tokyo, one in Kanagawa, and two in Fukushima). All five groups were founded after the Fukushima nuclear accident to persuade the municipal governments and school authorities to recognize the risk and take countermeasures. The interviewees were all female, and the groups’ memberships were also heavily feminized, although some fathers took part in them as well.

The most salient theme from the interviews was the criticism of fuhyohigai, of which all groups were accused. Fuhyohigai refers to declines in the sale of products from certain areas because of consumer belief that they may be contaminated, and the concept implies that this belief is erroneous. The government and mainstream media blamed fuhyohigai for causing major economic damage, which the government estimated at 13 billion dollars in 2011 alone.4 When the safe school-lunch movements raised concerns over the safety of radiation-contaminated school lunches, their actions tended to be seen as spreading fuhyohigai - fanning baseless fears over radiation, inflicting pain on food producers and the areas affected by the disaster.

Criticism of the safe school-lunch movement was also clearly voiced in media reporting. For instance, a viewer commenting on a national television programme on school lunch safety issues wrote, ‘Families who make children eat homemade lunch instead of school lunches are arrogant, selfishly concerned only about their own children. Not buying Tohoku produce is also a good example of fuhyohigai, because it is said to be safe’.[1] [2] Many school authorities chided parents who raised concerns over school lunches. The newspaper Mainichi Shimbun reported that the mother of an elementary school child in Fukushima who decided to prepare homemade lunches was phoned by the principal, who told her, ‘school lunch is part of education. It is important to share the same meal’. A report in November 2011 by the non-profit organization Human Rights Now found many schools did not allow home lunches to be brought in, and the majority of parents did not dare to ask for this option. A mother of three was quoted as saying, ‘I am afraid that people would see me as a “monster parent.” There are fewer people who will speak up - because the people who would speak up have already evacuated.’[3] Concerned parents have been criticized not only by the schools but also by relatives and friends. Bullying is a significant concern. Students are reported to have been bullied as being hikenmin (anti-prefecture) for not drinking milk at school.[4] Mothers sometimes have to fight within their own households to voice their concerns. The comments of a mother of two children in Fukushima point to how tension can emerge between wife and husband: ‘My husband says that my kids should not do differently when it is the government’s decision to provide local milk and rice. I am opposed, but I cannot evacuate or get a divorce to refuse him.’[3] Similar tensions between mothers and fathers were also reported by Morioka Rika.[6]

That the movement that raised the alarm over radiation was indeed highly feminized was indicative of the gendered nature of the fuhyohigai discourse. Because radiation contamination was rendered as a scientific problem, the fuhyohigai discourse amplified the prevailing sexist stereotype of women as being weak on technical and scientific issues and targeted women in particular as being guilty of spreading false rumours. For instance, Matsunaga Kazuki, the author of Okasan no tame no shokuhin anzen kyoshitsu (Food Safety for Mothers), argued that fuhyohigai was caused by women who acted on their ignorance of food safety risks. As she wrote, ‘After the Fukushima No. 1 reactor accident, it was women, particularly mothers, who were concerned and confused about food contamination’.[7]

Because the pollution concern was seen as baseless and anti-science, women who tried to alert the public were chastised in the name of countering harmful rumours. For instance, women in a group in Fukushima told me the following story: when they collected signatures to be submitted to the local government, the official petition had to list the real name of one of the members as the representative of the group. Using that name, an anonymous critic posted personal information about the member, including her address and photos of her house, on the web; the member also received anonymous faxes criticizing the group’s actions as fuhyo higai. When the members went to the police because they felt their safety was endangered, the police were not sympathetic at all, telling them, ‘You must have known that these things would happen, so we should give you crime prevention instruction’.

As feminist scholars have pointed out, the Western scientific paradigm tends to draw on a binary of men = rational vs. women = emotional, privileging the former as the backbone of science and reason.[8] Women’s activism against environmental pollutants often encounters sexist policing that chastises them for being unscientific and emotional.[9] It is in this context of patriarchal gender ideology that many women in the safe school-lunch movements faced intimidation as they tried to raise concerns as mothers.

Hegemonic femininity and its insistence on proper womanhood also coloured the way in which the groups - many of them were women - had to negotiate potential criticism of being overbearing and interfering. Schools have historically been a highly feminized area, where many women participate not only as teachers but also as the rank and file of Parent Teacher Associations. As part of child-rearing in the shadow of largely absent ‘worker bee’ fathers who devoted themselves to Japan Inc., schools were areas where mothers were expected to contribute: from the daily management of school operations to the organization of various school events. This was the expectation particularly for stay-at-home housewives or shufu in the post-war period. In the past few decades, Japanese mothers have become much more educated and the number of those working outside the home has been increasing; only 12% of women attended four-year university programmes in 1980, rising to 47% in 2014; moreover, 24% of women in the mid-1980s were in the workforce while 38% continue to work after childbearing today.[10] And yet, as the more educated and empowered women tried to participate in school matters, contemporary mothers tend to be seen as excessively ‘nagging’ and ‘interfering’.[11] This kind of dynamic has been theorised by feminist scholars as ‘the new sexual contract’ under post-feminism - while women are nominally empowered, requirements of hegemonic femininity still remain intact.[12] Women are expected to shoulder burdens of societal reproduction (via nurturing and educating children) but they have to act in a properly gendered way - not to be aggressive and demanding, but to be collaborative and docile.

  • [1] Office of Prime Minister, ‘Tokyo denryoku’.
  • [2] NHK, ‘Shutoken supesharu’.
  • [3] Human Rights Now, ‘Fukushima, Koriyama chosa hokokusho’, 15.
  • [4] Mainichi Shimbun, Hoshano busshitsu’.
  • [5] Human Rights Now, ‘Fukushima, Koriyama chosa hokokusho’, 15.
  • [6] Morioka, ‘Gender Difference’.
  • [7] Matsunaga, ‘Tekisei shohisha kihan’. Emphasis by the author.
  • [8] Harding, Whose Science?; Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science.
  • [9] Blum, Love Canal Revisited; Foote and Mazzolini, Histories of the Dustheap; see, for instanceGibbs and Levine, Love Canal: My Story.
  • [10] Gender Equality Bureau, Women and Men in Japan 2015.
  • [11] Wakakuwa and Fujimura-Fanselow, ‘Backlash against Gender Inequality after 2000’, 342.
  • [12] McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism.
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