Japan will this year mark 70 years since the nation saw women win Lower House seats for the first time in April 1946.
Since then, however, the country has failed to make much progress in increasing female ranks in the Diet and lags far behind other industrialized nations when it comes to closing the political gender gap.
Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pet policy to create a society “where all women can shine,” male chauvinism dominates Japan’s political arena.
Here are questions and answers on the gender balance in Nagata-cho, Japan’s political district, and hurdles female candidates face when running for a national election.
What is the female representation in the Diet?
As of Feb. 2, women held 45 seats in the powerful Lower House, accounting for a mere 9.5 percent in the 475-seat chamber. The figure is only six seats, or 1.1 points up, from the 39 seats won by women in the 1946 Lower House election.
By party, the Japanese Communist Party has the highest ratio of female decision-makers, at 28.6 percent of all JCP Lower House members, followed by the Democratic Party of Japan at 12.7 percent and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito at 8.6 percent.
In the 242-seat Upper House, the percentage is slightly better with women holding 38 seats, or 15.7 percent of the total.
How does this compare with other countries?
Japan has one of the worst levels of political gender equality among developed countries.
According to a 2015 survey by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) on the percentage of female lower house members, Japan was ranked 119th among 190 countries — lower than China, at 58th, and North Korea, at 88th.
As of December, IPU data show about 22.7 percent of lawmakers around the world were women, about 10 percentage points higher than Japan.
Mari Miura, a political science professor at Sophia University and a gender equality expert, said many countries that have a much higher percentage of female lawmakers than Japan have implemented gender quota systems to raise the ratio of women. She said it was about time that Japan followed suit.
“Female lawmakers won’t increase by waiting for things to turn around naturally,” she said.
Explaining that the latest worldwide push is to bring up the percentage of female lawmakers to 50 percent, Miura said Japan will lag even further behind other countries if it does not take concrete measures to seriously reverse the situation.
What are the hurdles to increasing female MP ranks?
Observers say one of the major reasons behind the wide gap between female and male decision-makers is the traditional conservative “men at work, women at home” mindset many people still carry today.
While married men usually get full-fledged support from their wives during election campaigns, many female candidates find themselves without such help from their spouses, they said.
Also, due to a lack of understanding, female candidates often face criticism from voters for running for an election when their priority should be homemaking or raising children.
“People have this mindset that politics is the prime example of public work, and that is (the) men’s job,” Miura of Sophia University said.
Women also tend to lack the financial resources necessary for running for a national election when compared to men, she said.
Koji Nakakita, professor of political science at Hitotsubashi University, also pointed out the lack of enthusiasm among Japan’s major political parties, especially the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to increase female ranks in the Diet.
What measures should Japan adopt to close the political gender gap?
Experts say a quota system is effective.
Although some people criticize this method, saying it would give women an unfair advantage and could possibly field poorly qualified female candidates just to fill a required number, experts said that without such decisive legislative reform Japan will never be able to achieve the global standard for gender equality.
Miura of Sophia University also pointed out that men have long enjoyed privileges, such as the full support and understanding of their families and voters, and decisive legislative reform is necessary to change the political landscape.
“Parliaments should reflect the diversity of society. Otherwise the decision-making process will be distorted,” Miura said.
In the past, Japan New Party, headed by former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, adopted a gender quota to make the ratio of female party members more than 20 percent.
But the party disbanded in December 1994, about two years after its launch.
Is anything being done now in the Diet to rectify the situation?
A cross-party group of nearly 60 Diet members, headed by DPJ member Masaharu Nakagawa, is planning to submit a bill revising the election law to the current Diet session ending June 1, before the Upper House election.
The bill urges efforts be made to field the same number of female and male candidates. Although it is not an obligation, observers said voters can see how serious each party addresses the issue by looking at the ratio of female candidates, and that could pressure the parties to make an effort on the issue.
Whether the bill will get enough support to clear the Diet is yet to be seen.
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