National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Will Japan finally promote its female politicians?

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Next month’s local assembly elections will be the first opportunity to test a law passed last year to boost the number of female lawmakers. Japan has one of the lowest participation rates of women in national parliaments in the world, and the law is meant to remedy this deficit, even if it includes no enforceable quotas or penalties. Consequently, the media has been examining local assemblies and prospects for female candidates.

Tokyo Shimbun ran an article about the Chiba prefectural assembly in its Chiba edition. Of 95 seats, only eight are held by women, and they belong to parties with fewer seats. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its factions enjoy the greatest representation with 51 seats, all men. The Chiba Minshu no Kai has 11 seats, all men. And Komeito has eight seats, all men.

This time, the LDP is endorsing female candidates for the assembly, the first time the party’s Chiba chapter has done so. However, neither of the two potential candidates mentioned are LDP members, and both already serve on municipal assemblies, so even if they are elected it doesn’t mean there will be a net increase in the number of women politicians. The LDP is simply shuffling women from one legislative body to another.

Female candidates for the assembly will mainly be incumbents, with at most one new person endorsed by each party. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan said it would field three women, two sitting members and one newcomer. The Japan Communist Party (JCP) is the exception, with two new female candidates. Shin Miyakawa, a Diet lawmaker, told Tokyo Shimbun that it’s difficult to find women willing to run. He talked to six prominent women in his Chiba constituency and found no takers.

But if you look more locally, the portion of female participants grows. Tokyo Shimbun reports that of the 21 seats in the city assembly of Urayasu in northwest Chiba, eight are occupied by women, and that seems to be the case in many local assemblies in the prefecture. One reason for this discrepancy is the scale of Chiba. Campaigning prefecture-wide is more expensive and time consuming than campaigning for municipal office, and many women still have more obligations than their male counterparts in terms of work-life balance. As Tomoko Yamamoto, a member of the Chiba prefectural assembly and a politician for 20 years, told Tokyo Shimbun, there is still “an aversion” toward women who run for local office.

According to the new law, the parties themselves should actively promote more women candidates. The JCP, which is more powerful locally than it is nationally, has proven it can be done. As of Feb. 4, the party had 2,763 members in local assemblies, 1,000 of which are women, or 36.2 percent. Of the 148 JCP members in prefectural assemblies, 80 are women, or 54.1 percent. Of the 18 JCP members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, 13 are women. Only 5.4 percent of the LDP’s local assembly members are women.

Another municipality that has come under media scrutiny is Tarumizu in Kagoshima Prefecture. Kyushu has always been known for its male-dominant social customs, so the fact that Tarumizu’s municipal assembly has never had a single female member is seen as being unremarkable, but also emblematic of women’s participation nationwide.

In a March 8 Asahi Shimbun article, the chairman of Tarumizu’s assembly, Setsuo Ikeyama, took offense at the suggestion that the city somehow prevents women from being elected. Few women seek office, he says, and those who do fail to get enough votes.

One problem is that due to demographics, the number of seats over the past 20 years has decreased from 22 to 14, so it has become a game of musical chairs: incumbents scrambling for fewer positions, and since the incumbents have always been men, it’s more difficult for women to get involved. In addition, while Tarumizu employs female civil servants, none are in key supervisory positions, another stepping stone to political office.

The assembly chairman says he heard that these women refuse promotions when they are offered them, because division chiefs often have to answer assembly members’ questions. Even male civil servants refuse promotions for this reason. In a different Asahi Shimbun article, a female civil servant claims that women are not placed in positions where they can gain leadership experience.

Female civil servants tend to be relegated to welfare divisions, which are considered less prominent than general affairs, finance and planning — all male domains.

Another point is community activity, a common springboard to local politics. In a Kobe Shimbun article on Sept. 14 last year, Hideko Takeyasu, a professor at Kyoto Women’s University, while explaining the total absence of women in the Hyogo prefectural assembly, pointed out that neighborhood association chiefs are most often men, so women aren’t cultivated as community leaders.

Prefectural elections are heavily influenced by established organizations that tend to choose male candidates, but since the election rate for female candidates in municipal races is high, as much as 98.7 percent, the problem would seem to be a lack of female candidates. That’s why quotas are necessary.

Women politicians face other obstacles that are more clearly sexist in nature. A recent Mainichi Shimbun article described in shocking detail the amount of harassment elected women receive. And, as described in another Asahi Shimbun article, when they run for office, women already working risk a great deal in terms of benefits like health insurance and pensions.

Addressing these specific issues is important but, as Chiba prefectural assembly member Yamamoto told Tokyo Shimbun, nothing will solve these problems as effectively as simply having more women in office, because then “society would change,” presumably since those women would pass legislation that benefits women. However, given that the new law has no teeth, it’s unclear if actual social change is the government’s goal.