Photo/IllutrationJapanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, left, and her Australian counterpart Marise Payne, second from left, and French Minister of the Armed Forces Sylvie Goulard, far right (Takashi Ishihara)

  • Photo/Illustraion

SINGAPORE--When Defense Minister Tomomi Inada shared a podium with two of her international contemporaries at a security summit here, it was a striking symbol of women’s progress in world politics--until she started to speak.

Inada made an attempt at lighthearted humor in her opening address, but her remark fell flat, perceived as “sexist” and “bizarre” by foreign reporters who attended the June 3 event.

Inada stepped onto the stage with defense ministers Marise Payne of Australia and France’s Sylvie Goulard at the 16th Asia Security Summit, also called the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue.

She started by saying she was “truly honored” to be attending the event, and praised Singapore as a beautiful country particularly suited as a venue to discuss the Indo-Pacific regional order.

Then, a strange atmosphere suddenly filled the room.

“As you can readily see, Minister Payne, Minister Goulard, and I have much in common. We belong to the same gender we belong to the same generation and most importantly, we are all good looking!” said Inada after looking toward the two ministers.

Reporters exchanged glances. Inada’s fellow ministers did not react, but looked startled, with frozen facial expressions.

A journalist from French newspaper Le Monde expressed her thoughts on the matter, saying: “I thought it was badly received. The point that they were all women, or the same generation was good, but that they are good looking? I mean, who cares how the ministers look like when they are here to talk about security?

“It’s not a big issue, but I think it was not very tactful. It was like a male comment, a sexist comment, and coming from a female minister, it was weird and I was surprised.”

Comments that judge the value of women based on their looks are generally considered inappropriate in the world today.

The French reporter added: “At yesterday’s dinner we talked about it and a number of us thought it was very bizarre.”

A male reporter from a British newspaper also commented. “I had the impression that that was the only part of the speech she wrote herself,” he said.

“The rest seemed not very personal, like she was just reading from the script but I could be wrong. I guess she was making a joke, and I suppose it broke the ice.”

And Inada’s comment did trigger laughter--but not all of it seemed to be the comfortable kind.