Political parties are being tested over whether they are earnestly committed to gender equality in Japan’s male-dominated sphere of politics following a law enacted in late July.
The legislation was an “important step” forward for encouraging women’s participation in politics, said Fumio Kishida, chairman of the Policy Research Council of the governing Liberal Democratic Party.
The new law calls for political parties and groups to strive for achieving equality “as much as possible” in terms of number of male and female candidates in national and regional elections.
The law has no binding force, including penalties, and stipulates that political parties and groups should make “voluntary efforts” such as setting goals in order to meet its purpose. In other words, it tests each party’s seriousness about gender equality in politics. Next year’s unified local elections and the triennial election for the House of Councilors will serve as the first measurement of that commitment.
In 2010 the government adopted a plan to raise the ratio of female candidates running for office in both chambers of the Diet to 30 percent by 2020.
In the 2017 House of Representatives election, however, women amounted to 17.7 percent of all of the candidates. The ratio in the Lower House after the election was 10.1 percent.
In the Upper House, where half of the members are up for re-election every three years, women made up 24.2 percent of all lawmakers in 2013 and 24.7 percent in 2016. At present, only 20.7 percent of Upper House lawmakers are women.
According to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global organization based in Geneva, Japan ranked 158th out of 193 countries in terms of the percentage of women in the Lower House as of June 1.
Political parties in Germany introduced an electoral gender quota system in the second half of the 1980s. This has since raised its ranking to 46th, with women accounting for 30.7 percent of its lower chamber. France, which pushed ahead with legal measures for gender equality after amending its constitution in 1999, ranks 16th at 39 percent.
The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Democratic Party for the People, both opposition parties, have called for introducing electoral gender quotas as their basic policy.
“We welcome with open arms women eager to change politics,” said Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the CDP. “We want such women to continue knocking on the door.”
The Democratic Party for the People plans to provide up to ¥500,000 each to first-time female candidates who run in next spring’s unified local elections on the party’s ticket, in addition to regular endorsement funds.
In fact, political parties have increased the number of female candidates in recent by-elections for both Diet chambers and in gubernatorial elections.
But a lack of family understanding continues to dissuade some women from entering politics.
“To field a man as our candidate, we have a hard time winning support from his wife,” a senior member of an opposition party said. “But in the reverse case, the hurdle becomes much higher, because it involves the problems of both husband and child care.”
The LDP has another kind of headache, as it already has many male lawmakers in both constituencies and proportional representation districts in national elections, leaving little room for female candidates.
“We cannot force incumbents to resign,” a senior LDP lawmaker said. “We want to increase the number of women, but it’s not an easy goal.”
If political parties sit back and cannot show clear results in line with the purpose of gender equality law, a law to introduce a binding quota system may enter the debate, analysts said.