Promoting Women in Politics: Japan’s Tepid Approach

Last year’s passing of a non-binding act to promote more women to run for political office was a first effort to address Japan’s long-standing issue of gender inequality. Yet, 2019’s local unified election results proved this act to be more of a legislative gesture than a decisive gamechanger. Despite a “record” number of women winning local assembly and mayoral seats, relatively speaking, female representation in Japanese politics is still extremely low. For Japan’s political landscape to pave the way for inclusiveness, a quantitative increase in female politicians would only constitute a fractional solution to deep-rooted barriers. After all, achieving political gender parity demands breaking the mold of political conduct.

An Electoral Reality Check

While far from breaking boundaries in
increased female political representation, the numbers do appear – albeit
faintly – favorable. Six out of a total of 59 mayoral positions were won by
women. The total number of female politicians increased to 18.4 per cent.
Tarumizu city saw the first ever female candidate win an assembly seat. Moreover,
women increased their chances of winning seats to 88.9 per cent. However, given
the intrinsic barriers to increased female political participation this could
be looked back on as a rare victory. Barriers set by social norms and
traditions run much deeper than any legislative hurdles.

If April’s elections have proven
anything, it is that the non-binding act to promote more women to consider
political careers is toothless. Even though Prime Minister Abe himself has been
at the forefront with his “Womenomics” strategy, his own party did not
live up to the promise. Among those candidates who received LDP backing, a mere 3.5 per cent were female. Complicating the
matter further, the two female candidates running for Chiba prefecture assemblies were neither LDP members
nor were they new to the political sphere. Both had served in political office
prior to being reshuffled to local assembly posts. Accordingly, the LDP’s
strategy did not equate a net increase in female politicians who receive party
endorsement.

The main opposition party, attempted
to translate words into somewhat-palpable action
by fielding more women among their chosen candidates. However, even these efforts did not challenge the LDP’s continuous strong-hold
over fragmented, and internally divided, opposition parties. Particularly in
Japan’s many rural constituencies, the ruling LDP saw many of its incumbent
candidates re-elected. Among them, two female candidates
were able to retain their seats in Nagano and Mie prefectures. Both, however,
secured another term by default. This year alone, a majority of rural assembly seats
went entirely uncontested
. Not only does this effectively hamper real chances for
local power alteration breaking the LDP’s iron-fist electoral standing. With a
ruling party unwilling to voluntarily promote more women within its own ranks,
it significantly weakens the chances for women across Japan to push for gender
parity in this regard. 

Strictly enforced gender quotas, not voluntary rhetorical commitments, can represent a realistic paradigm shift. As neighboring South Korea demonstrates, adopting electoral quotas, although not outright ideal, meant that political parties were under constraint to address gender parity. Even if it might not break the LDP’s superiority, at the very least, it would pressure Japan’s ruling party to back more female candidates internally.

Beyond the Paper Tiger

Gender quotas, however, do not solve
the wider issue by themselves and should really be seen as a means to an end. Only when they are supplemented
with non-quota measures will it ensure that women in Japan can start to be on par
politically.

Tomomi Inada, former Japanese
defense minister under Abe, in a recent interview indicated that she will run
for the lead post of the LDP to “take on the boys club”. A career bureaucrat, Ms. Inada’s well-established
position allows her to become somewhat of a role model within the LDP.  With the inauguration of an all-female Diet member’s group to support aspiring female
candidates, it is a good first step to increase women’s visibility in a sphere
still dominated by men. And visible political role models, according to a Swiss study, increases the overall number of
women willing to run for seats. Although the study cautioned that the surge
would only be temporary, the ripple effect of having a leading a role model coupled
with an electoral quota could offset inherent electoral barriers.

With Japan set to host the W20 prior to the G20 meeting this
summer, promoting role models does not have to be limited to the domestic sphere.
With the annual World Assembly for Women (WAW) held in Tokyo this March, 2019 seems ideal for female role
models to gain ground.

Yet, enticing women alone does not
satisfy the requirements for gender parity. A first-time assembly
member in Fukuoka
, Emi Naruse was meant to juggle being a mother as well as a
candidate during the election campaign. While she was able to garner support
through family and friends, it still embodies the traditional role expectations
placed on women. After all, only by breaking the “walls of
tradition”
, can Japanese women move beyond equal access to effectively
operating in a field of equal representation. Although expecting women to stand
up for issues related to their women’s interests might not strike a chord with
those advocating to overcome traditional gender roles, it might be a way
forward, nonetheless.  As evidence from the U.S. and Argentina suggests, women are more likely to bring up women’s
rights
and interests compared to their male counterparts.
Thus, instead of seeking to reform the predominantly patriarchic Japanese
political system top-down, reform may be more likely to bear fruit when started
from within. Or, as one female lawmaker put it, “hardships in lives sometimes become
wonderful topics for policy-making”
.

Even if April’s local elections were
not the long-awaited turning point for Japanese women, they did reignite a wider
debate concerning male-dominated politics. It is positive to see that women are
not entirely deterred to run for political office and given time, this number will
hopefully increase simply due to wider cultural shifts. In the short-term,
however, a more comprehensive approach is needed to provide access and
opportunity for women seeking political careers. Implementing strict
legislation alongside the existence of leading female political figures will be
the much needed stepping stone to offset the current gender imbalance and
create a more competitive and engaged political environment in Japan.