The ratio of female candidates for the upcoming Upper House election hit a record high, but whether the country can achieve its target of raising the percentage of female lawmakers in the Diet to 30 percent remains uncertain.
A total of 104 women are running for office in the July 21 election, making up 28.1 percent of the candidates, compared with 24.7 percent in the previous poll for the chamber in 2016, showing a gradual change in a country where men have historically dominated politics.
In terms of female representation in the Diet, Japan came in last among the Group of 20 major economies and 164th overall in a global ranking by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2018. The proportion of women in the Lower House stood at 10.2 percent, while that in the House of Councilors was at 20.7 percent as of January.
To address the imbalance, the government has set a target of raising the ratio of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020.
The country also introduced in May last year a law calling on political parties to set targets for female candidates, although it is nonbinding and does not penalize violators.
“There is a possibility that the ratio of elected women would come close to 30 percent when combined with the figures for proportional representation,” said Shin Ki-young, an Ochanomizu University associate professor specializing in women’s representation in politics, noting that opposition parties have jointly fielded female candidates in some areas.
For the first election since the law took effect, a number of opposition parties have set targets, some beyond 30 percent, in the proportional representation system, under which voters write in either the name of a political party or a specific candidate from contenders registered by parties in an open-list system.
But the Liberal Democratic Party and its ruling coalition partner Komeito did not set targets as their candidates are largely incumbents who are men.
Of the nation’s 45 electoral districts, 13 have no female candidates. All 13 were constituencies with one seat being contested, in contrast with those in highly populated areas such as Tokyo, where six of 20 candidates for six contested seats are women.
Rumi Ichikawa, 35, voiced her dissatisfaction over the absence of alternatives to older male candidates in her Toyama constituency, which has not had a female Upper House lawmaker since World War II.
“Because the candidates are men of much older generations, I can hardly relate to politics or the election,” said Ichikawa, who lives in the city of Toyama.
“Political parties appear as if they take lightly women’s opinions. I want to see more women and young politicians so they can consider policies from diverse standpoints,” she added.
Voters can still choose female candidates in the proportional representation system, but individuals running in the electoral districts tend to be more sensitive to issues unique to each area.
Hiroshi Shiratori, a professor at Hosei University’s Graduate School of Public Policy and Social Governance, said if local assemblies do not have many women, candidates for national elections tend to be mostly men.
“The more diverse candidates are, the more meaningful debates will become,” he said, stressing the importance of having various candidates to reflect a range of opinions.
Many countries have introduced mandatory measures for keeping the number of female candidates above certain levels. France introduced a parity law requiring political parties to make the number of male and female candidates equal, while other countries have quotas.
In addition to the nonbinding aspect of the law in Japan, women who seek to join the political arena also face a number of hurdles even before running for elections.
Kimiko Kubo, the director of Ichikawa Fusae Center for Women and Governance, said there is a view in Japan that “politics are for men” and that has discouraged women from running for office.