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.