Tokyo Report | Politics | East Asia

In Japan’s Post-Abe Era, Addressing Political Gender Inequality is Essential

A more uncertain and competitive political climate could lead to urgently needed quota legislation for female politicians.

By Nick Stores for
In Japan’s Post-Abe Era, Addressing Political Gender Inequality is Essential

Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, center left in front row, and his cabinet members walk down the stairs for photos following the first Cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

Credit: Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Pool Photo via AP

When Suga Yoshihide was announced to the world as Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s successor, nobody was surprised. The chief cabinet secretary had been the strong favorite to prevail over fellow Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) stalwarts Ishiba Shigeru and Kishida Fumio. It was noticeable though, if not particularly shocking, that no female politician seem to have been considered a serious contender.

And when Suga unveiled his new cabinet on Wednesday, only two of the 20 minister posts were held by women, a step back from the (still dismal) three of 20 rate in the previous cabinet.

Back in 2016 there appeared to be an encouraging number of women working in the upper reaches of government, with Inada Tomomi appointed minister of defense, Koike Yuriko elected governor of Tokyo and Noda Seiko (recently tapped by Suga as the LDP’s deputy secretary general) proving to be a rising star. Yet the reluctance of LDP party factions to consider these women when the top job became available is reflective of a political system severely lacking in female representation at all levels.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s online database for 2020, just 9.9 percent of Japan’s House of Representatives are women, around the same level as much less developed nations like eSwatini and The Gambia. This leaves Japan languishing in 166th place out of the 194 nations on their list. In East and Southeast Asia, only Brunei, a highly conservative absolute monarchy, performs worse than Japan.

Over the last 10 years, neighboring countries have seen numbers of female members of parliament rise while Japan has actually regressed from a high of 11.3 percent a decade ago. South Korea has improved from 14.7 percent in 2010 to 19 percent in 2020; China from 21.3 percent to 24.9 percent over the same period; and Taiwan from 30.1 percent in 2008 to 42 percent in 2020.

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Are Old Fashioned Values to Blame?

In assessing this dilemma, explanations tend to revolve around Japan’s conservative, traditional culture. Some argue that the role of Confucianism as the philosophical and moral bedrock of contemporary Japanese society has helped consolidate an expectation that women should look after the home and raise the family. In a 2019 interview with CNBC, Inada lamented the fact that “there’s still a mentality that politicians should be male.” Accordingly, many Japanese women either do not feel comfortable pursuing an ambitious career or simply do not have the time to do so while also raising a family, leaving men to dominate the realm of politics.

As a result, women entering politics can face a barrage of mistreatment ranging from misogynistic expectations of how they dress and interact with constituents, to outright sexual harassment. Additionally, male politicians have formed cliques, which they then rely upon whenever the secretive candidate selection procedures of Japanese political parties begin. Female politicians have always been too few in number to form factions of their own and unable to convince their elderly, traditionalist colleagues to support them over male counterparts, a predicament which apparently put a quick end to Inada’s recent bid for the premiership.

Evidently there are strong socio-cultural obstacles to addressing this gender imbalance, but it is important to remember that every country and continent in the world has a legacy of patriarchal governance systems, not least of all Japan’s culturally similar neighbors. Confucianism reached Japan after spreading throughout East Asia and firmly influenced the way of life in China, Taiwan, and South Korea. The difference between these countries and Japan is that, in spite of this, all three have managed to consistently increase numbers of female politicians. They have done so by introducing legally binding gender quota laws.

Gender quota laws generally ensure that a fixed number of seats are reserved for women, or that a specific number of female candidates are nominated by parties, aiming to create at least a critical minority of 30 to 40 percent of the government. With greater numbers, women will be able to balance the cronyism of male counterparts with factions of their own on key votes and debates and hopefully be enough of a presence to see intimidating, misogynistic mistreatment become less accepted. As the percentage of female parliamentarians grows over time, the concept will become normalized, establishing role models for the next generation and the traditional cultural expectations of a woman’s role in society will begin to feel antiquated.

Gender Equality Progress in Vibrant Democracies

So why has Japan not gone down this path already? The answer lies in the dangers of a stagnant political scene. In South Korea, the heated democratization process of the 1980s saw populist politicians reach out to the female electorate. This contributed to the ratification of the Women’s Development Act in 1995 with the goal of promoting “gender equality in all areas of politics, economy, society and culture.” By the late ‘90s the issue had become a crucial electoral topic, with all the major parties promising to allocate at least 30 percent of their seats to women before the 1998 local elections. The South Korean government introduced a quota for all parties in 2000, with stronger enforcement procedures following in 2002 and 2004.

A similar story developed in Taiwan, where martial law was halted in 1987 and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sought success by holding the ruling Kuomintang’s (KMT’s) feet to the fire on a variety of societal injustices, including this one. Although Taiwan has actually had gender quotas since the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1996, when the DPP adopted a 25 percent gender rule for its candidates, that women began to carve out a larger role in politics. The DPP’s narrow victory in the 2000 election meant the KMT was forced to adapt too, bringing in their own quota for parliamentary elections later that year. Then, in 2005, Chen Shui-bian’s administration oversaw a constitutional amendment requiring women to make up at least 50 percent of each party’s list (although this equated to only 15 percent of parliament).

It is no coincidence, then, that promises to focus on female empowerment have also coincided with fleeting periods of political competitiveness in Japan. In the run up to the 2003 election, one of the most hotly contested in Japanese history, the LDP announced its long-term aim of increasing women in leadership roles to 30 percent by 2020. When a transition of power finally occurred in 2009, it was followed two years later with moves by Naoto Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan government to bring in a gender quota. This goal was never realized due to the LDP’s resounding win in 2012, but it is telling that Abe focused on female workforce involvement as an essential pillar of his journey toward that victory.

Stagnant Politics But Hope for the Future

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Unfortunately, these examples are rare. The LDP has been in power for all but four years since 1955 and has comfortably won the last three elections. The result is a leadership that can take voters for granted and sees ambitious, progressive policies as an unnecessary risk. The departing prime minister has shown that, while he pays lip service to the importance of “Womenomics,” he simply does not take gender equality seriously enough.

In October 2018 Abe appointed only one woman to his reshuffled cabinet, unashamedly commenting that Katayama Satsuki had “the presence of two or three women.” When legislation promoting women in politics was finally pushed through it was non-binding, thus having almost no impact. Earlier this year the government delayed its 30 percent female leadership goal until 2030. The LDP appear to enjoy the positive press they receive from making bold promises on this issue but rarely feel enough electoral pressure to follow through with decisive action.

The recent change in leadership, however, could be an opportunity. After Abe’s record-breaking period in power, Suga will be charged with taking Japan into a new, unfamiliar era. While a snap election will help him to capitalize on his predecessor’s popularity for now, in the long term the LDP will need fresh ideas and will have to appeal to a broader section of society.

On a personal level, a brave new position on the gender quota issue would be a smart way for Suga to win over female voters unhappy with his controversial comments on childbirth back in 2015. Conversely, any opposition parties hoping to challenge the current government as it transitions to new leadership would do well to harness the dissatisfaction Japanese women feel at the LDP’s failure to move the needle on gender equality.

Why Fairer Gender Representation Matters

Unsurprisingly, a bill to improve female representation in parliament would likely be extremely popular with Japanese women because studies show that such an increase corresponds with greater progress on women’s issues. Perhaps the most pressing of those issues at present is the lack of effective workplace anti-sexual harassment legislation, with Japan being one of the few OECD countries yet to impose this type of law.

A breakthrough also needs to be made with regards to the gender pay gap, another area where Japan worryingly underperforms relative to other developed nations, ranking 110th out of 149 countries in 2018. Additionally, the campaign to allow women to keep their surname after marriage has been gathering steam too.

Considering that women constitute over 50 percent of the population, addressing the institutionalized prejudices they face should be a priority for any government, in and of itself. Given what we know about the LDP, however, they probably require some extra persuading, and the economic benefits of greater female participation might appeal to the party’s traditional raison d’être.

Research indicates that female politicians are generally tougher on tackling corruption and have a better track record in overseeing the completion of major infrastructure projects. In addition, they show significantly more investment in solving the aforementioned issues of workplace harassment and pay inequality and generally contribute to creating better public childcare options for busy parents. In turn, these advancements allow more women to enter the workforce and contribute to the economy, which could boost Japan’s GDP to the tune of $550 billion. As the country faces up to the financial devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, such an obvious economic stimulus should be hard to ignore.

From a wider societal perspective, female politicians have proven to be more collaborative when in power and better at reaching out to the opposition to form a consensus, while they also seem to pay more attention to improving health care systems. Noda has even speculated that if parliament consisted of more women, Japan’s infamously low birth rate could be better dealt with, since policies aimed at improving salaries and working conditions for women would reduce the anxiety and stress of bringing up children.

Gender quotas are not an ideal solution. Female politicians in Taiwan still have to contend with patriarchal factionalism, harassment, and old-fashioned media coverage. There are also concerns that such laws are undemocratic and that qualified candidates are sometimes cast aside due to their gender. Yet a quota system at least provides a starting block for female politicians to fight back against discrimination and, although there is a degree of legitimacy to accusations that it is unfair, the currently employed alternative is considerably more so.

As it stands, women are kept out of the political system, which, through outdated societal conventions and intimidating, impenetrable cronyism, has been deliberately stacked against them to the detriment of their own and the national interest. The lack of headway in Japan in women’s political participation over the last decade, especially when compared with culturally similar neighbors, clearly indicates that progress will not materialize without a helping hand.

Once the quota legislation has served its purpose by creating a critical minority and an accompanying change in cultural norms, it can always be dispensed with. Before then, though, such a law would benefit Japan’s economy, society, healthcare system and the lives of the 51 percent of the country currently represented by just 10 percent of parliamentarians. We must hope the post Abe era brings the type of political competitiveness necessary for sufficient action to be taken.

Nick Stores received his Master’s degree in international relations at Leeds University. He writers about political issues in East Asia.