NIIGATA – When anti-nuclear activist Junko Isogai ran for office in Niigata, her campaign had an awkward dimension: not just speeches and chats with constituents, but efforts to entertain potential backers.
“I was asked to pour sake, make flattering conversation and act in a way men wouldn’t dislike,” Isogai, 45, a mother of two teenage girls, said. “It was like being a bar hostess.”
Such traditional campaign practices — heavy on face-to-face interaction and personal ties — are among many barriers women face when trying to enter Japan’s male-dominated politics, candidates and experts say.
Other hurdles include a lack of role models, social norms discouraging women from speaking out, and the burden of maintaining an intense, full-time job in a society where women are expected to be responsible for housework, child-rearing and elder care.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made bringing more women into the workforce a policy pillar. But politics remains male-dominated.
Since Abe took office in December 2012, Japan’s global ranking of women in the national legislature has fallen to 164th from 122nd among 193 countries. His conservative Liberal Democratic Party has a smaller percentage of women in the Diet compared with the main opposition party.
Sunday’s Upper House election will be the first national poll since the passage of a gender parity law that set nonbinding targets for parties to field equal numbers of male and female candidates. A record 28 percent of candidates are women.
But only 15 percent of LDP candidates are women, compared with 45 percent for the main opposition force, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP).
Sakura Uchikoshi, a Tokyo-based lawyer making her first foray into politics, is among the opposition candidates.
Niigata, a rural prefecture known for its rice industry, has a tradition of strong female politicians, including outspoken former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka. And it currently has three female opposition lawmakers.
Uchikoshi, who unlike many men in the party did not rise through the ranks, suffers from her image as an outsider. She was born in Hokkaido and pursued her career in Tokyo.
That’s a stark contrast with her LDP rival, Ichiro Tsukada, a Niigata-born incumbent whose father was also a lawmaker.
“My lack of name recognition is the bottleneck,” Uchikoshi said in an interview before a rally.
“Male candidates have networks and … the lack of that for rookie female candidates makes it difficult,” she said, adding she was grateful for support from the three incumbent women.
Politicians, especially in the LDP, typically rise through the ranks from local assemblies to the Diet, creating their base along the way. That path can be tough for women, who are expected to raise families rather than shake hands.
“Individuals have to cultivate networks themselves,” said Sophia University professor Mari Miura. “Many women, who have to interrupt their careers for child-rearing and struggle with work-life balance, can’t afford such energy.”
Uchikoshi’s backers hope she stands out as a fresh alternative to Tsukada, said Hiroshi Sasaki, a university professor and civic activist advising her campaign.
Tsukada’s reputation was dented when he bragged about securing funding for a highway project in Kyushu as an anticipated favor for Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso. He resigned as a deputy of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry over the fuss.
“Usually, I vote for the LDP, but this time I think they are making fools of us and I’m angry,” said 63-year-old Niigata retiree Susumu, who declined to give his last name.
Uchikoshi’s husband, a lawyer, and their teenage son are living in Tokyo for the duration of the campaign, which officially kicked off on July 4.
“My son didn’t seem to realize I’d have to stay in Niigata,” she said.
By contrast, experts and politicians say, men don’t tend to see family duties as a barrier to entering politics.
“If a woman is a full-time housewife and her husband runs for office, she can take care of the home,” said CDP leader Yukio Edano. “Unfortunately, the burden of child-rearing is heavier for women so the cost of running is bigger.”
Isogai, who lost her bid for the Niigata Prefectural Assembly and is supporting Uchikoshi, said she often felt guilty for leaving her teenage daughters behind to campaign.
“When I saw them with a button missing, I felt sorry,” said Isogai, who moved to Niigata from Fukushima after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Her husband, often away for work, wasn’t used to doing the household chores, she said.
“When it comes to campaigning, it is overwhelmingly easier for men,” she said.
Proponents say more female lawmakers would help Japan focus on key policies such as child care, education and welfare.
“I’m a working mother myself and the issues of child care and elderly care are very personal,” Uchikoshi said. “To prioritize such issues, we need more women legislators.”