WOMEN in Japan don't take to the barricades in pursuit of rights; organizing, lobbying, and confrontation, in the manner of the National Organization for Women, aren't in the Japanese tradition. But a quiet revolution of sorts has been going on among Japanese women, and occasionally it breaks the surface. Japan's minister of finance, Ryutaro Hashimoto, learned this to his chagrin recently. According to colleagues, Mr. Hashimoto in a Cabinet meeting suggested a link between the rapid and worrisome decline in Japan's birthrate and the increasing number of women in higher education. The implication appeared to be that the government should not promote college education for women.
Reports of Hashimoto's remarks provoked an outcry by many Japanese women. In part, their anger was directed at what they viewed as an attempt to divert attention from government policies that contribute to the declining birthrate, notably the shortage of affordable housing for young couples. But the protests also were aimed at any suggestion that women's opportunities in education - and by extension, the workplace - should be narrowed. (Hashimoto quickly backed away from the comments attributed to him, saying he was misquoted.)
The changing place of women in Japan was also highlighted last year by the unexpectedly strong showing of female candidates in elections for the upper house of the parliament. Japan's Socialist Party, the main opposition to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is led by a woman, Takako Doi.
Gains for women in Japan shouldn't be exaggerated. Men still overwhelmingly dominate the nation's political and business life. Those conditions are changing, though. Women are emerging as one of the key groups whose demands will shape Japan's public policy.
Japanese women have more educational and career options than their mothers and grandmothers did, and - as Mr. Hashimoto learned - they aren't about to surrender those options.