National / Media | MEDIA MIX

How long can Japan's old mens' club last?

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Media coverage of the House of Councilors election campaign has been even more lacking in substance than usual. On July 2, Tokyo Shimbun noted how “low-key” the coverage has been on TV.

After the excitement of the money scandal surrounding former Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, ratings prospects for election-related news items were dim. The morning shows hardly mentioned it, and even legitimate news programs pushed reports to the end. A former NHK producer told Tokyo Shimbun that, given how the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is using the election to secure a two-thirds majority in the Diet to change the Constitution, it’s essential for the media to talk about it, but, in fact, TV seems to be “avoiding the subject” out of fear of angering the LDP. As a result, LDP president and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is, in effect, ruling the airwaves, said the producer.

This disinterest created a vaccuum that has been filled by analyses, in some media, of what the lack of concern reveals about the state of Japanese democracy. Some have made much of the fact that while the representation of women in the Diet has remained basically the same since they were given the vote right after World War II, the rest of the world has advanced in terms of greater gender parity. Japan is at the bottom of the international order when it comes to women in government, and though the ruling coalition has set a goal of ensuring women occupy 30 percent of “leadership positions” by 2020, there is little hope that today’s election will get the government any closer to that target.

NHK’s “Jiron Koron” editorial series provided a detailed explanation of how this situation came about, and why it is likely to persist. Other countries have increased political participation of women through mandatory quotas, while Japan’s goals have never been enforceable. In many cases, especially in Europe, mandatory quotas have also led to an increase in the number of women in private-sector executive positions, usually because corporations followed the lead of their governments.

Laws promoting more women in business have been passed in Japan, but none to promote women in politics, thus taking a tack opposite to what has become conventional wisdom. At present there is a bipartisan bill in the Diet that urges parties to set quotas for women candidates, who will then be given priority in proportional races. However, without making these quotas mandatory, it will be almost impossible to persuade male career politicians to risk their livelihoods for the sake of a political “ideal.”

The persistence of this obstacle was explained by University of Tokyo professor Masaki Taniguchi in the Asahi Shimbun. Taniguchi sent questionnaires to all the candidates in today’s election, and received replies from 357, who prioritized their top three policies from a list of 16. Seventy percent of female candidates placed policies regarding “education” and “child-rearing” in their top three. Only 50 percent of the male candidates did.

The survey also asked what could be done to solve the problem of Japan’s low birthrate. Candidates from almost all the parties said that a “balance” was needed between work and child-rearing through schemes such as building more day care facilities, as opposed to the other possible answer: “Support parents who raise children at home.” The exception was LDP candidates. While 90 percent of women LDP politicians said “balance,” only 50 percent of the men did, with the other half opting to not answer the question at all. The seriousness with which the ruling bloc addresses issues important to women is reflected in the number of candidates they fielded. Overall, 25 percent of the people running are women, but for the LDP and coalition partner Komeito, the portions are 16.4 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively.

As NHK’s presenter, Yumiko Samukawa, implied, the LDP’s cavalier treatment of half the population is not simply unfair, it is anti-democratic. Japan needs female lawmakers, she said, because the problems Japan faces are those that directly affect women with regard to the roles they are still expected to fill in Japanese society. Those who have a stake in a problem will be more intent to solve it.

The other development this election highlights is the political apathy of young people. For the first time, 18- and 19-year-olds can vote in a national election, though it doesn’t seem likely they will. The turnout of newly enfranchised teens for the recent mayoral contest in the city of Ukiha, Fukuoka Prefecture, was only 38 percent, well below the general turnout of 56 percent. One 19-year-old explained to the Tokyo Shimbun that he didn’t vote because he knew “it wouldn’t count for anything.”

In his Asahi Shimbun column, sociologist Eiji Oguma surveyed recent magazine articles pertaining to this topic and found that the traditional conservative-progressive axis means something different to people under 50. Whereas older generations may identify with a particular ideology, younger ones tend to think in terms of “organizational power.” “Conservative” to them doesn’t describe right-of-center viewpoints, but rather parties who have a dedicated following. Young people recognize that these parties’ organizational power is more important than their governing capabilities, and thus feel alienated because they don’t belong. Some of the writers Oguma cites draw a parallel between Japanese youth and the British voters who opted out of the European Union, not to mention the supporters of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. The difference is that young Japanese people aren’t expressing anger at the neoliberal elite who exploited their parents. They just don’t care.

In order to care, people have to believe that their interests have a possibility of being addressed, and that goes for women as well as young people. TV producers don’t see any point in covering the election because, ratings-wise, there’s nothing in it for them, which, in their minds, means there’s nothing in it for viewers.