Japan’s Struggle behind Political Inequality

After World War II, Japan, much like Germany, quickly caught up with the richest of countries in terms of economic development and standards of living. Yet, unlike Germany, and indeed any other highly developed democracy, Japan still lags significantly in one such indicator of human development, namely female political representation. While this discrepancy could be extended to various corners of society, perhaps the most striking and meaningful, both in a symbolic and political sense, is the underrepresentation in the country’s legislative bodies. Only 45 out of 465, or, in other words, roughly a tenth of the total number of legislators in the lower House of Representatives are female, and the upper house does not fare much better. One popular argument or excuse, rather, is that there must surely be a cultural factor unique to Japan behind all of this. Although there certainly are striking examples of sexism emanating from high up in politics or business, this is not necessarily helpful in understanding the institutional barriers for female political participation.

Formal institutional factors

The reality is that there is a number of real and tangible institutional, rather than the elusive cultural, hurdles for aspiring female politicians. Perhaps the most obvious formal factor is Japan’s rather confusing electoral system. Following a deluge of scandals and calls for anti-corruption reforms, the short lived anti-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) coalition implemented in 1994 a reform  of the electoral system and the country soon found itself with a mixed proportional and single-member electoral system. Consequently, the 465 available seats in the lower house are divided into 289 single-member districts in addition to 176 seats chosen by proportional party lists. Single-member districts are, in general, infamous for their inability to allow for multiple candidates from one party and subsequently discourage intraparty competition. In other words, well established and incumbent candidates will almost always have an advantage of party support as any challenge from the same party might allow an opposition candidate gaining the advantage due to split votes.

Another striking aspect of Japan’s political landscape is the one-party dominance of the LDP, which lends internal party institutions a large influence, such as the different party factions as well as leadership structures. This is not exclusively an LDP phenomenon as it also proved to be an obstacle for women when the Democratic Party of Japan led the government, despite an increase in successful female bids to the parliament. Much of Japanese politics is guided by power struggles between different factions within the political parties. These dynamics were very recently put on display when a new LDP president was to be chosen prior to last year’s general election, where the choice of Fumio Kishida to a large extent was determined by faction allegiances.

Informal institutional factors

Another dimension of institutional hurdles is more informal in nature. One such obstacle to female representation is the dynasticism that colors the country’s elections. While this is not unheard of in other countries, it is one defining characteristic of Japanese elections, and perhaps one which amplifies the problem inherent in the single-member districts. It is no surprise, for instance, that the country’s new prime minister can trace his lineage to several former members of the Diet, with even former Prime Minister Miyazawa happening to be a distant relative. Another illustrative example is that of recent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose maternal grandfather was Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi, while his father Shintaro Abe has served as foreign minister and with his younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, currently serving as defense minister. Indeed, only four out of 32 of Japan’s post-war prime ministers have had no relatives in politics.

The koenkai, or local support groups are manifestations of this sort of dynasticism in which career politicians, and indeed their heirs, have been able to build up a political base, both in terms of finance and organization, which discourages any potential challenger. This also translates into the area of fundraising, a key component in a successful bid to parliament, where women may find themselves at a disadvantage. An interesting case is that of Makiko Tanaka, who herself benefited from political heritage and soon became the country’s first female foreign minister. In a world where the word politician itself carried a male undertone, language came to be one of the hurdles she had to face as a high-profile politician. She did not enjoy anywhere near as much success as her father and Tanaka’s story may serve as a showcase that significant political heritage is not necessarily enough for political success as she inherited, but could not successfully make use of, the political base of her father Tanaka Kakuei, otherwise known as the shadow shogun because of his considerable influence within the LDP.

While the electoral reform introduced the single-member districts, replacing a system of multi-member districts, as a compromise, it also introduced an allocation of seats by a proportional system of party lists. Herein we are presented with a good example of how not all impediments are formal, but also informal. Party lists themselves are not necessarily instruments of gender equality in of itself but may, unlike first-past-the-post systems, at least allow for it more readily. For instance, while Sweden, for a long time made use of party lists, it was not until the 1990s that political parties, as a result of mounting pressure, both popular and intraparty, introduced the concept of varannan damernas, i.e., every other candidate on the party list was to be female.

An untapped market in the electorate

Japanese women are the single largest group of unaffiliated voters and hold decisive power as an electoral group. For 2022’s upper house election, the Constitutional Party of Japan announced that they were aiming for half of its candidates being female, perhaps sensing this untapped market. Whether formal or informal, something has to change in order for female representation in the legislature to mirror the electorate. There are many other aspects of female empowerment which lie outside the immediate political arena, as issues of equality range from economic to societal ones. For instance, economic considerations as fundamental as childcare may prove disastrous for starting a political career. Among candidates for the most recent lower house election, less than 20 percent were female. Indeed, in 18 of the 289 aforementioned single-member districts, there have never even been a female candidate running for office.

And while there may of course be elusive cultural forces at work, the institutional problems present in the electoral system are identifiable and changeable, albeit doing so may not an easy endeavor. A remedy to the institutional barriers to entry into politics will not solve all issues of equality in Japan, but a gender-equal parliament is surely one of the most fundamental prerequisites for ensuring that legislation is not only made in line with a male worldview.