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SHIMAMOTO, Osaka Pref. — A small office near Minase Station on the Hankyu Line was filled with applauding women late Sunday night as eight female candidates triumphed in the Shimamoto Municipal Assembly election.

Kaoru Hirano (second from left) and Makiko Sawashima (fourth from left) are applauded by their supporters.

The 18-member Shimamoto assembly now has a higher percentage of women than any other local legislature in Japan.

“I think it is a big step toward creating a local assembly where the number of women and men is the same,” remarked Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a Lower House member of the Social Democratic Party.

In Sunday’s election, 20 candidates — including nine women — vied for seats. Voter turnout was 66.83 percent.

Following the result, the proportion of female members in the assembly reached a record high 44.4 percent, exceeding the 41.7 percent in the Awaji Municipal Assembly in Hyogo Prefecture.

While supporters of the female candidates expressed hope that the election here will influence other local assemblies, Shimamoto, which is located near the border of Kyoto and has a population of about 30,000, is seen as having a more politically active female population than is typical.

Women here have established groups to address issues such as child-rearing, nursing care for the elderly and environmental concerns. They have a wide network and a relatively high awareness of social issues.

Three of the eight women elected to the 18-member assembly are not affiliated with any political party.

Two of them — Makiko Sawashima and Kaoru Hirano — won seats on the council on their first attempts. They were both active in volunteer activities before forming a group 12 years ago to support assemblywoman Yumiko Nanbu, who served 12 years as an assembly member but failed in her bid to be elected mayor Sunday.

Hirano, a 46-year-old mother of three, said, “In the process of bringing up my children, I came across many problems, including environmental destruction due to the development of golf courses, and budget cuts in education and welfare matters.”

Sawashima, 43, said her decision to run for the assembly was the natural outcome of her increasing frustration at the town and the assembly’s failure to meet residents’ needs.

“Petitions from citizens were turned down many times, and I cannot just wait for somebody else to do the job,” Sawashima said.

Both Hirano and Sawashima said that, although women previously have been reluctant to get involved in politics, this attitude has changed in recent years. This is evidenced by the female voter turnout, which has been higher than that of men in recent elections. In Sunday’s poll, female voter turnout came to 69.83 percent, while the male turnout was 63.56 percent.

The Shimamoto assembly saw its first female member in 1969.

Since then, the number of female members has steadily increased, with six having served on the assembly since April 1989.

Shimamoto assembly members are, however, paid relatively poorly. According to Mieko Kato, who has served eight years as a member unaffiliated with any party, they earn around 330,000 yen a month, which is equal to half that paid to members of the neighboring Takatsuki Municipal Assembly.

Kato won the highest number of votes in Sunday’s election.

“Not many men want to be an assembly member because they cannot support a family with only these earnings,” she said.

Among the eight women who won seats, one was backed by the Liberal Democratic Party, two were backed by New Komeito, two had backing from the Japanese Communist Party and three were independent.

While the SDP’s Tsujimoto believes that an increased number of women in politics will bring many benefits, including increased transparency and efficiency in local administration, Kato said the issue of whether female members can cooperate beyond party lines is the key to a better assembly and having better policies.

“We had six female members (before the election), but we could not cooperate. I don’t know if we can do it just because the number has increased to eight,” she said.

“In the coming four years, there are pressing issues that will determine the fate of the town, such as a possible merger with (the neighboring city of) Takatsuki. If we cannot make use of the opportunities (of an increased number of women), I fear a backlash.”

For their part, local residents said that it does not matter whether assembly members are male or female.

A 65-year old man said he supports those who actually do the job by listening to the voices of the residents and are not bound by party politics.

“I don’t trust those who say good things only during election campaigns. It does not matter whether they are men or women, but I find women tend to do the job better,” he said.

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