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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

It's Japan, for Crying Out Loud

Many are upset over premier's remark--after official's outburst--that tears are the ultimate female weapon.

January 31, 2002|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — This land of stalwart samurai and knife-wielding ninja is getting positively teary-eyed.

The spigots opened a few days ago, before Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka was fired Tuesday for squabbling with political rivals. As the pressure mounted, the nation's top diplomat, a woman so tough she's been called "an untamed stallion," cried in public.

The next day, archrival Muneo Suzuki, a conservative lawmaker credited with helping engineer her downfall, shed a few of his own tears. Whipping out a handkerchief, he told voters in his constituency how hard his early life had been compared with many of his political colleagues--i.e., Tanaka--who were born into elite political families.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has admitted to getting misty-eyed himself listening to Elvis songs or seeing romantic movies, added to the ruckus by volunteering that tears have long been the ultimate female weapon.

That prompted a countercharge Wednesday from opposition lawmaker Tsuyoshi Saito, among others, that Koizumi's comments were decidedly sexist.

The government's four remaining female Cabinet ministers were then paraded before parliament to give their views on tears, women and weaponry. Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama acknowledged that women's tears can be a powerful force in weakening men's resolve. Then again, she added, men's tears can have the same effect on women.

Chikage Ogi, Japan's strong, steady transportation minister, said she cries a lot and finds it cathartic. "I think tears are little treasures," she said. "They're like jewels."

Tears have sometimes played a prominent role in the U.S. political landscape, undercutting at various times the careers of former lawmakers Edmund S. Muskie and Pat Schroeder, even as a discreet sob at a funeral or disaster site has boosted the fortunes of others.

But Japan, with its often sharp distinction between public and private behavior, has long considered public tears by prominent social and political figures a major faux pas. This tradition dates at least to the nation's long feudal period.

"Suppressing your emotions in Japan has been a mark of the samurai spirit," said Takashi Tomita, psychology professor at Komazawa Women's University. "Keeping your eyes dry has been a virtue."

Virtually the only acceptable form of male tears in Japanese literature or Kabuki theater occurs when a master says goodbye to a loyal subordinate after losing a great battle, mindful that the two will never meet again, said Masahiro Ueno, communications professor at Shizuoka University of Arts and Culture.

"Even kamikaze pilots during World War II would only tie a banner on their heads and say goodbye," Ueno said. "While they may have cried in secret, they never did so in public."

After World War II, more women entered politics, bringing with them a less militaristic mind-set. As newcomers in a traditional world, however, they were also under strong initial pressure to conform.

"Women didn't cry in the political arena," independent political analyst Minoru Morita said. "It was important to look tough in a man's world."

A lot has changed as the nation debated whether Suzuki and Tanaka's tears were even real--one political satirist quipped that the foreign minister must have used eyedrops--and as another weepy episode down the road at the sumo ring is earning unabashed praise.

In a sport known for its tough, loincloth-clad giants, sumo fighter Tochiazuma sobbed on national television Sunday evening after unexpectedly winning a tournament. "Seeing his tears, I felt his passion for victory," gushed one fan in the daily Tokyo Shimbun newspaper.

In the last few years, Japanese society has been softened markedly, with several men turning into veritable weeping willows. A key juncture came in November 1997, when Shohei Nozawa, then president of the failed Yamaichi Securities, sobbed in shame at a news conference announcing the firm's bankruptcy. Although fellow executives criticized him at the time, the depth of his emotion moved many Japanese.

In mid-2000, the governor of Kagawa prefecture cried at the suffering of local residents when a long-standing industrial waste lawsuit was settled. In March 2001, Japan's defense minister wept while apologizing for a rape by a Japanese soldier. And Sunday, a food company executive cried after admitting a scheme to defraud taxpayers.

"Over the past five years, things changed a lot," said Isamu Saito, social psychology professor at Tokyo's Rissho University. "Men started crying all over the place. The price of men's tears has become quite cheap."

Political analysts say sobs from a strong woman such as Tanaka arguably engender stronger public sympathy than male tears these days, particularly among her middle-aged female supporters, of which she has many.

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