A key issue female Japanese voters focus on in election season is whether the men who dominate politics are serious about welcoming more women to their ranks.
More female lawmakers are needed to speak for Japanese women at a time when the nation faces challenges such as an acute shortage of places at children’s day care facilities.
Out of 389 candidates in Sunday’s Upper House election, 96 are women, down nine from the Upper House election three years ago. The ratio of female candidates to males is up by 0.5 percentage point to 24.7 percent because the overall number of people running has fallen from 433 to 389.
The figures suggest politicians are moving at a snail’s pace when it comes to tapping female candidates, even though most people agree, at least on the surface, that Japan needs more women lawmakers.
Seventy years after women won the right to vote and run for office, there has been little progress in getting greater female representation in politics.
In the first postwar Lower House election, held in 1946, women won 39 seats, or 8.4 percent of the seats up for grabs; today, they occupy only 9.5 percent of the seats in the Lower House. In the Upper House, women hold 38 seats, or 16 percent of the total.
Even after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe trumpeted a policy of what he dubbed womenomics, or a society in which females can shine, Japan has made little progress.
As of June, Japan ranked 155th out of 193 countries in a ranking by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a measure of women serving as Lower House lawmakers or the equivalent in nations with unicameral legislatures.
Japan remains the worst of all Group of 20 countries.
Endorsing more female candidates requires strong political will. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi aggressively sought female candidates to attract voters. As a result, in the 2005 general election, 26 female Liberal Democratic Party candidates won seats, almost tripling the number of female lawmakers in the party.
But Mari Miura, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, believes Abe is not committed to bringing female talent into politics.
“Abe sees the female workforce as a way to boost the Japanese economy, but he is not really serious about putting more women in politics,” Miura said. “Men feel threatened if more female candidates are elected, because they could lose their seats.”
The LDP’s campaign platform promises to increase the number of female politicians. But the party has officially endorsed only 12 female candidates, or three more than in the previous election — about 16 percent of the 73 LDP-ticket candidates.
The Democratic Party, the main opposition force, is fielding 11 female candidates out of its total of 55, up by just one from the last Upper House election, when it was the Democratic Party of Japan. The DP has pledged to pursue equal numbers of male and female lawmakers.
The Social Democratic Party has endorsed two female candidates out of 11, one fewer than the election three years ago.
Part of the reason for the scarcity of female candidates fielded by the opposition parties is their joint election strategy, in which they are fielding a unified candidate in each of the single-seat constituencies in a bid to defeat the LDP and prevent Abe from amending the Constitution.
Together, opposition parties have endorsed 10 female candidates for the 32 single-seat constituencies.
Political scientists say a country needs at least 30 percent female representation in politics to reflect the voices of women voters. Japan has a long way to go to achieve that goal, given the small number of candidates running and the even smaller number who get elected.
Miura of Sophia University said Japan should introduce a quota system like that in more than 120 countries worldwide.
Norway, Costa Rica and East Timor, which have quota systems, have 30 percent female representation in politics. Female lawmakers in Rwanda, where the constitution mandates 30 percent female representation, account for more than 63 percent of the legislature.
A bipartisan effort has been afoot to rectify the situation in Japan. Both the ruling and opposition camps were considering a bill to push parties to field an equal number of male and female candidates.
They also weighed amending the Public Offices Election Law to elect female and male candidates alternately from the lists of proportional-representation constituencies in elections to both the Upper House and Lower House.
Formed in February 2015, the bipartisan group sought to submit the bills to the ordinary Diet session that ended June 1. However, disputes over wording doomed the measure.
The DP sought a goal of candidacy parity, albeit nonbinding, but the ruling LDP argued against this.
The LDP floated a concept of kinko (gender balance). Experts say kinko does not necessarily mean equality and its interpretation can be fluid.
In the end, the DP submitted its own bill, angering other parties.
The LDP and DP are likely to seek middle ground on this issue in the extraordinary Diet session this fall.