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Can Japan Fix the Gender Gap in Its Politics?

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Can Japan Fix the Gender Gap in Its Politics?

Japan remains hesitant to formally tackle its male-dominated political system. But one woman might beat the odds and force real change.

Can Japan Fix the Gender Gap in Its Politics?
Credit: Facebook/ Yuriko Koike

It is not an exaggeration to argue that Japanese politics has been substantially dominated by male politicians despite some trials including “Womenomics” and other relevant policies aiming to creating a “Japan in which women can shine.” Currently, only 10 percent of Diet members in the House of Representatives and around 20 percent in the House of Councilors are female politicians. The number of Japanese female lawmakers is much lower than the global average of 25 percent, representing a political gender gap in Japanese politics. The fact that 18 out of the 20 minister posts are occupied by male politicians in the Suga administration also represents the gender inequity in Japan. Moreover, inappropriate remarks by Mori Yoshiro, former chief of Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, who complained that meetings with female board directors would “take a lot of time,” epitomize the national anachronism regarding the gender role in the Japanese society.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 released by the World Economic Forum on March 31 this year, Japan’s ranking in the gender gap index turned out to be 120th out of 156 countries in the world. And Japan is ranked even lower, 147th, in the field of women’s political empowerment, measured by the number of female politicians. In the face of the report, some Japanese parliamentarians mentioned that they felt ashamed of the status quo. For instance, former Defense Minister Inada Tomomi, one of Japan’s most prominent female political figures, stated that “half our voters are women, but there are few women in parliament… We’re not representing our people, and that’s a problem for democracy.” Inada has critically described the gender inequity in Japanese politics as a “democracy without women.”

Previously, Japanese Diet members enacted the Act on Promotion of Gender Equality in the Political Field on May 28, 2018, in order to “effectively and positively promote gender equality in the political field and thereby to contribute to the development of democratic politics in which men and women jointly participate.” Notably, the act aims to “achieve numbers of male and female candidates as equal as possible in elections of members of the House of Representatives, House of Councilors, and in the assemblies of municipal governments while securing freedom of political activity for political parties and other political organizations.” The enactment of the act itself was regarded as a significant first step toward the gender equality in Japanese politics.

However, the act is merely a conceptual law that does not include penalties. It does not even require political parties to increase the numbers of female candidates and politicians. Since there are no legal obligations for political parties to promote political gender equality, the act has been critically described as a “paper tiger” by an international observer. Other gender equality-related policies and legal frameworks in Japan, such as its paternity leave system, have also been criticized as “toothless legislation” for their dysfunctional implementation in the male-dominated Japanese political culture. In reality, it is not easy at all for most ordinary male workers in Japan to take real paternity leave. Although Environmental Minister Koizumi Shinjiro took paternity leave, it was an exceptional case, and his decision was criticized by some conservative polemists.

These issues fundamentally stem from deep-rooted public attitudes toward traditional gender roles in the patriarchic Japanese society. Indeed, a recent survey by the Nippon Foundation shows that there are negative opinions about the roles and abilities of women in Japanese politics. Some respondents, non-regular workers in their 30s and 40s, explained that “men are superior because they have logical thinking” and “many women are emotional and not clever.” In response to a question concerning “reasons why women are not going into politics,” most respondents pointed to these five factors: 1) difficulty in balancing Diet member activities and family life; 2) attitude that politics is for men; 3) underdeveloped environment for fostering female politicians; 4) attitude that men should work, while women do housework and raise children; 5) discrimination and harassment against women politicians.

Through the parliamentary deliberations regarding the improvement of political gender equality and empowerment of women, the Act on Promotion of Gender Equality in the Political Field was revised on June 10, 2021. The revised act explicitly bans gender discrimination and sexual harassment against female politicians and candidates. Nonetheless, so-called “gender quota system” for political candidates was dropped from the amended legislation, because conservative lawmakers of the ruling LDP and the opposition Japan Innovation Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai) opposed the introduction of the legally obligatory quota system, which might weaken the voting foundation of conservative male politicians. A gender quota system would guarantee future unemployment for some of the current male Diet members.

The introduction of a gender quota system for political candidates might not be a perfect remedy, but it could have a tremendous impact on male-dominated Japanese politics, given the experiences of other countries trying to close their gender gaps. The quota system was first introduced by a political party in Norway in 1974, and the number of female politicians in the country has gradually yet considerably increased. In this context, Gro Harlem Brundtland finally became the first female Norwegian prime minister in 1981. Nowadays, more than 130 countries have introduced the same or similar political quota systems, and these countries succeeded in increasing the numbers of female politicians. Some of them also elected female presidents and prime ministers.

Japan, meanwhile, has yet to have a female prime minister. Inada Tomomi and former Internal Affairs Minister Noda Seiko both expressed their wills to run for the LDP presidential election when former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo suddenly expressed his decision to resign from the position of premier in August 2020. However, both Inada and Noda were shut out of the selection process, because they failed to secure the 20 endorsements necessary to become a candidate for the presidential ballot. The gathering of the necessary 20 signatories is “basically difficult unless a woman becomes the head of a faction,” as pointed out by Lully Miura. And since the LDP has governed Japan nearly continuously in the post-war period, with few exceptions, the LDP’s internal presidential race is tantamount to election as prime minister.

Does this mean that it is impossible for a female politician to become a prime minister in Japan?

So far, the only woman to vie for an LDP presidential election was Koike Yuriko, the first female governor of Tokyo, who ran in the LDP’s leadership race in 2008. Koike served as Japan’s first female defense minister, but left the LDP in 2016, formed a new political party, and won a remarkable victory in the governor’s race. As Tokyo governor, Koike has strenuously committed to hosting the Olympics and Paralympics in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, while showing leadership skills in dealing with the prevention of the coronavirus spread. Some observers, such as Craig Mark, have explored the possibility that Koike might become Japan’s first female prime minister in the near future. Indeed, a possible future scenario where Koike takes bold action after success in hosting the Olympics and Paralympics and comes back to national politics to bid for the premiership cannot be ruled out. As Doshisha University Professor Gill Steel argues, “allowing women to succeed would certainly not magically improve gender inequality in Japan.” Whoever becomes Japan’s first female prime minister, however, would be well positioned to break the nationwide gender anachronism in Japanese politics.