National / Social Issues

Hope, frustration as activists lament lack of women in Japanese politics

by Sawako Obara

Kyodo

Japan sharply lags other developed nations in female representation in politics, having made little progress over the 70 years since the first women were elected to the Diet.

In the April 1946 House of Representatives election, the first postwar Lower House poll, 39 women won seats, 8.4 percent of the total 466 seats, becoming the first female lawmakers under a revised election law granting women the right to vote and run in national elections.

But it took almost 60 years until that figure was surpassed, when 43 women won election in 2005.

Tenkoko Sonoda, one of the 39 women elected 70 years ago, spoke up about the low presence of women in the Diet, calling it a source of concern. She died on Jan. 29 at the age of 96.

With women accounting for only 9.5 percent of the makeup of the Lower House, Japan stands 113th among 190 countries for women’s representation, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.

“It is a shame. I didn’t expect that growth would be so slow,” Sonoda said in an interview two days before her death.

Sonoda was 27 when she won her first parliamentary seat in 1946.

“I was certain that the time would come when women would flourish,” she said.

“I felt so cheerful and proud of myself,” Sonoda recalled.

“I had this indescribable feeling of liberation because women were ignored and discriminated against for no reason before the war.”

A native of Tokyo, Sonoda herself suffered gender discrimination when she took the entrance exam for Waseda University.

“Women like you should stay in the kitchen,” one of the interviewers yelled.

But Sonoda explained that people’s values changed dramatically once Japan was defeated in the war.

“Men lost their confidence, while women were rather more positive and radiant,” she said.

Following the end of the war, Sonoda learned on the radio that people were dying of starvation in the Ueno district of Tokyo.

She rushed there and on her way home displayed her talent for public speaking, telling bystanders near Shinjuku Station, “We have survived the tragic war and we should not let any one of us die of hunger.

“We should join hands and ride out this critical moment together.”

She gave speeches and became the leader of a group taking action against hunger.

Sonoda was encouraged by fellow group members and others to run in the upcoming election. She did so, pledging to save people from starvation and bring the voice of women into politics.

She won three consecutive terms, but her career in a male-dominated world was far from smooth. And she alienated some supporters when she married fellow lawmaker Sunao Sonoda following an extramarital affair.

After losing consecutive elections, she decided to retire and concentrate on supporting her husband.

The number of female lawmakers fell following the introduction of the multiseat constituency system in 1947, dropping to single-digit figures.

Reiko Oyama, a professor of politics at Komazawa University, blamed the lack of women on the political parties themselves.

“If parties back more women as candidates, the number of female lawmakers would increase,” Oyama said. “It was something they could have done without revising any laws, but they made no such effort.

“The lack of women results in discrimination in parliament,” she said.

In one notable instance, Ayaka Shiomura, a 37-year-old member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, was ridiculed during a session in June 2014 while posing questions on maternity support measures.

“You should get married first,” and “Can’t you have babies?” the hecklers taunted.

Shiomura characterized the episode as an expression of a cultural norm.

“Men look down on women and that is what I always feel at the assembly.

“One assemblyman even said publicly that mothers should take care of their children at home — even though he won his seat with a pledge to reduce the number of children waiting to enroll in nursery centers to zero,” she said.

But Shiomura also said voters bear some responsibility for the situation. “If you don’t vote, your opinions will not be reflected,” she said.

Some women are now taking a stand and pushing for change.

In September, Ryoko Akamatsu, a labor ministry bureaucrat who later became education minister, founded a school for women aspiring to be politicians.

“Society will change if the number of women rises in places where important decisions are made,” the 85-year-old said. “We are hoping to send to parliament as many women as possible.”

Since the end of last year, some women, mainly mothers, have held discussion sessions under the banner of Ikareru joshikai (Gatherings of Angry Women) nationwide to talk about politics.

The sessions see participants sharing concerns within set discussion topics. One such subject is, “Under a possible military conscription system, will our kids have to go war?” Another is, “Is it really safe to resume operations of nuclear power stations before the Fukushima nuclear disaster has been cleaned up?” A third example is, “If we remain disinterested in politics, we won’t be able to protect our family.”

Sonoda left a message for women today: “Our country is now riddled with issues that defy any simple solution, but you must nurture lives and learn and act for the safety and security of citizens with a motherly heart.”

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