So much for “womenomics”?

Tuesday’s reshuffle of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet reduced the number of female ministers to just one — the lowest number since the prime minister retook office in December 2012.

Not that there were many women in his previous Cabinet, which had just two. But in a nation where female participation in politics remains doggedly low, the number of portfolios held by women is always a topic subject to heavy scrutiny — especially because Abe himself has declared boosting the profile of professional women to be one of his top policy priorities.

In the latest overhaul, Abe has tapped Satsuki Katayama, a two-term Upper House lawmaker for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as minister in charge of regional revitalization and female empowerment. When asked about the dearth of female Cabinet members, Abe told a news conference on Tuesday that he admits “the percentage of women in my Cabinet is internationally low.”

“But then again, the society where women are truly engaged has just started off here in Japan, so I’m sure we will see more female talent grow and enter the Cabinet going forward,” Abe said, adding he believes the industrious Katayama can do the work of “two or three.”

Ever since his return to power, Abe has recruited at least two women for his Cabinet upon each reshuffle. His effort to do so culminated in September 2014 with the naming of five women, including former Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi, under the much-hyped slogan of “realizing a society where women can shine.”

Official records show that the last time the Cabinet had only one woman was October 2012, when ex-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, head of what was then called the Democratic Party of Japan, overhauled his team for a third time. Yuki Senda, a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, said Tuesday’s reshuffle revealed the apparent superficiality of Abe’s commitment to put more women in leadership roles. “Numbers don’t mean everything, but one woman in the Cabinet is just too few,” Senda said.

Observers say faction-to-faction competition seemed to heavily color Abe’s personnel decision this time around, with the leader assigning portfolios almost equally to those from four LDP factions that most loyally backed his successful candidacy in last month’s leadership election.Their support helped him earn up to three more years as the prime minister.

“It looks to me that Abe had only conveniently used women to advertise his policy. When the situation got tougher like this time, with him having to pay extensive attention to the severe, male-to-male power struggle, it seems his commitment to the concept of gender equality slipped away easily,” the professor said.

She also said Abe’s suggestion that Katayama alone is worth three recruits “verges on being a gaffe,” as it evokes the history of women being discriminated against under the logic they have to work “twice or three times harder than men to be recognized as their equals.”

One of the outgoing female ministers, Seiko Noda, bemoaned Tuesday what she called the Abe government’s apparently dwindling interest in female empowerment.

“I find it very worrying that the number of female ministers has decreased from three down to one in the last three reshuffles,” Noda, who held the post as internal affairs minister, told reporters.

Noda herself knows all about the glass ceiling in Japan’s political area, having twice failed to amass enough intraparty support to even run in the LDP’s leadership election. In her pre-campaign speech at a Tokyo hotel in August, Noda recalled what she was told by her senior, male lawmaker upon her first election as a Diet member in 1993.

“He warned me the world of Japanese politics is full of men — men who are so prejudiced that they wouldn’t treat us fairly, because they think women are fundamentally emotional creatures and prone to hysterics,” she recalled.

Times have changed since then, and the situation isn’t perhaps as pessimistic as before. But Japan still lags other countries in its effort to facilitate female participation in politics.

According to the latest data published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Geneva-based organization fostering cooperation between national parliaments around the world, Japan ranked 161st out of 193 countries as of September 1 this year for its percentage of seats held by women in unicameral parliaments or the lower house in countries with multiple chambers.

The data, reflecting the result of last October’s general election, showed women in the Lower House accounted for a mere 10.1 percent, compared with 39.6 percent in France, 30.7 percent in Germany, 19.6 percent in the U.S. and 17 percent in South Korea.

In an encouraging sign of progress, the Diet enacted a bill in June urging each political party to make efforts to “equalize as much as possible” the number of male and female candidates it fields for national and local elections. The bill, however, has no legally binding power, and a failure to achieve this goal would entail no penalty.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.