The Diet on Wednesday passed a bill seeking to boost the number of female lawmakers and assembly members in a nation where women have long been underrepresented in politics.

The measure, approved unanimously by the Upper House, urges each political party to make every effort to try and “equalize as much as possible” the number of male and female candidates it fields for national and local elections.

Although it heralds a significant step toward increasing the presence of females in the male-dominated world of Japanese politics, the bill has no legally binding power, only stipulating political parties need to “make voluntary efforts” to even the playing field in terms of gender. A failure to achieve the goal entails no penalty.

At the very least, however, the bill will place pressure on political parties to honor its principle, making next year’s unified local elections and summer Upper House election the first barometer of how committed they are to achieve the 50-50 ratio.

“This is only a starting point,” independent lawmaker Masaharu Nakagawa, who has been one of the most active proponents of the bill, told The Japan Times soon after its enactment.

“Based on this law, we will have to move on to tackling legal revisions or hammering out more concrete frameworks — including discussing how to make it easier for female lawmakers to balance work and home life, and whether to introduce quota systems,” Nakagawa said.

The bill’s enactment didn’t come easily. It was originally supposed to have been passed in last year’s ordinary Diet session, but its deliberation got sidelined amid fierce political wrangling between the ruling and opposition parties over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s favoritism scandals that have dominated debate in the Diet.

Wednesday’s development also coincides with a nascent rise in the #MeToo movement in Japan, where public outcries have erupted over ex-top Finance Ministry bureaucrat Junichi Fukuda’s sexual harassment of a female reporter as well as Finance Minister Taro Aso’s subsequent remarks that appeared to downplay the severity of Fukuda’s misconduct.

Specifically, the bill defines the responsibility on the part of the central government and local municipalities to, among other things, probe and raise awareness of female participation in politics.

“Female empowerment is one of the Abe administration’s top priorities,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura said ahead of the bill’s passage. “We want to create an environment where women can play a vital part in the world of politics,” he added.

That said, Japan has traditionally lagged behind other countries in its effort to facilitate female participation in politics.

According to the latest data publicized by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Geneva-based organization comprising national parliaments from around the world, Japan ranked 158th out of 193 countries in terms of the percentage of women in unicameral parliaments or in the lower house of bicameral parliaments.

The data, reflecting the result of last October’s general election, showed women in Japan’s Lower House accounted for a mere 10.1 percent, compared with 39.0 percent in France, 30.7 percent in Germany, 19.5 percent in the U.S. and 17.0 percent in South Korea.

Japan also fared dismally in the World Economic Forum’s annual global gender gap report in 2017, ranking 114th — its worst performance ever — out of 144 countries due largely to a poor showing in the category of political empowerment.

A survey conducted last fall by the Cabinet Office of about 4,000 local assemblywomen, meanwhile, shed light on what factors are possibly contributing to a low proportion of female politicians in Japan.

Asked why they think women tend to be dissuaded from entering local politics, 78.6 percent cited difficulties achieving work-life balance, 73.4 percent the lack of understanding from family and 59.1 percent the deeply ingrained stereotype that politics is the domain of men.

Bringing female voices into politics is “no longer a matter of good or bad. Diversifying a male-dominated society is the global trend now,” Masako Hiramatsu, chairwoman of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs of Japan, said. “The fact the bill was passed unanimously means the old guard in the Diet can no longer complain of women running for elections,” she said.

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