National / Politics

Record number of women win seats in Japan election, but female voters wary of government's empowerment pledge

Kyodo

Despite a record number of women winning seats in Sunday’s Upper House election, some female voters have expressed doubts about the government’s commitment to empowering women.

In Sunday’s election 28 women won seats, matching the figure seen in the previous Upper House election in 2016 and accounting for 22.6 percent of candidates elected overall.

However, with a total of 104 women having run this time around, their 26.9 percent success rate was lower than the 29.2 percent seen in 2016 and the 36.1 percent seen for male candidates.

Sunday’s election was the first nationwide contest to be held since a law was enacted in May last year to promote women’s participation in politics, urging political parties to make efforts to field an equal number of male and female candidates.

But considering Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has pledged to raise the proportion of women in leadership positions in society — including as lawmakers, corporate managers and professors — to 30 percent by 2020, the ratio of female candidates who won seats in the election was still low.

Constituencies in Akita and Ehime prefectures saw their first female Upper House members elected in postwar history, according to election boards of both prefectures.

In the Tokyo constituency, three out of the six elected candidates were women.

Among them was Ayaka Shiomura, 41, a candidate for the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

The former Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member came under the spotlight in 2014 when she was heckled by male members after asking questions about maternity support measures during a plenary session.

“I’d like to tackle the issues of nonregular employment and fertility treatment in the next six years,” Shiomura said in a speech Monday morning in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward.

By party, 10 out of 12 female candidates fielded by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party won seats, while 6 out of 19 female candidates of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan were elected.

Tamayo Marukawa, a well-known LDP incumbent who has served as Olympics minister, not only won but also secured the most votes of all candidates in Tokyo.

Some female voters have expressed dissatisfaction over the government’s record for addressing issues related to gender inequality, such as the wage gap between men and women and whether to allow different surnames for married couples, despite female empowerment being one of the main issues of the election.

“Though there are many women who are anxious because of unstable employment, no specific measures were presented” during the election campaign, said 46-year-old Naoko Mogi, who lives in Kawasaki.

“Women are treated as if they don’t socially exist,” said Mogi, who voted for a female candidate, hoping they would have a better understanding of the issues typically faced by female nonregular workers.

Mogi was employed as a dispatch worker for around 20 years, but her contract to work at a foreign bank was terminated last month leaving her without a means to cover her living costs.

In Japan, women account for around 70 percent of nonregular workers, even though the number of women with jobs is around 30 million, according to a government survey.

The annual income of 80 percent of women working as nonregular employees is less than ¥2 million, and their salaries tend to be lower than those of their male counterparts.

“There is a deep-rooted belief in ‘the division of labor by gender’ in society, where men are considered breadwinners and women take the roles of household workers and caregivers,” Mogi said.

Although the government upholds women’s empowerment, “it would end up just being a centerpiece policy without substance, unless it faces up to the reality of nonregular workers,” Mogi said. “I want companies to hire more nonregular workers as regular employees.”

In the election, whether to allow separate surnames for married couples was also an issue.

It was good to see people speaking up and saying that “they actually didn’t want to change their family names” when they married, said a 45-year-old woman in Tokyo. Though she and her partner held a wedding ceremony in 2001, they remain common-law partners.

According to a government survey conducted in 2017, 42.5 percent of respondents were in favor of allowing separate surnames for married couples — surpassing the 29.3 percent who were against it.

Though the Justice Ministry prepared bills in 1996 and 2010 to allow different surnames for spouses, they were not submitted to the Diet due to opposition by conservatives, including the LDP, who argued it “would destroy family ties.”

“Our three children use my husband’s family name, but I don’t feel we lack family ties,” the woman said. But she was concerned that their ongoing common-law status could put her in a difficult situation when it comes to things such as inheritance.

“I cannot expect the introduction of the measure for a while under the Abe government,” she said. “It seems as if the government is urging women to go on and become successful while stepping on the hems of their skirts.”

The government could start by eliminating the obstacles women face, she said.

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