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It is time to stop making, and accepting, excuses for Japan’s snail-paced progress in granting women a significant voice in decision-making in the public and private sectors. One obvious solution would be for women to have more opportunities to become involved in politics. A new government white paper by the Prime Minister’s Office sees hope in women’s growing political participation at the local and national levels. However, the white paper also notes the embarrassing fact that as of last year Japan ranked 38th among 102 nations in giving women responsible posts in politics and government and management-level positions in business.

Educational advances have many women fully prepared and eager to play meaningful roles in society outside the home. Yet the not always subtle intransigence of many tradition-bound men continues to make Japanese women one of this nation’s most obviously wasted resources. The government hails the fact that from 1986 through this year the proportion of female members in the House of Representatives increased from 1.4 percent to 5 percent and in the House of Councilors from 8.7 percent to 17.1 percent. Those figures may seem impressive for Japan, but the white paper was also forced to note that statistics for other developed nations show far higher percentages. In political terms, the 14 years since 1986 is a very long time.

The gender-equality report was intended to demonstrate what improvements Japan has made since the government instituted its plan to promote equal treatment for men and women in 1996. It is the first such report since a law to encourage equal participation in society by both sexes was passed by the Diet last year. Perhaps aware that it would present a picture of progress only slightly more rapid than glacial, the Prime Minister’s Office earlier this year also undertook another in an ongoing series of surveys of public opinion on gender-equality issues. What it revealed in no uncertain terms is that public thinking is far ahead of actual conditions.

Nearly three-fourths — 74.3 percent — of all respondents thought more women should be elected to the Diet or to prefectural assemblies and have a greater say in policymaking. In a similar survey a decade ago, the figure was 66 percent. Broken down by sex, the figures in the latest poll were 77.1 percent for women and 70.9 percent for men. Only 19 percent of the respondents thought men and women are treated equally, a decrease from the previous survey’s 22.4 percent.

It is still true, of course, that any political ambitions Japanese women might hold are often hampered by their duties in raising children and caring for aged relatives, which in this country remain almost entirely female responsibilities. Yet shifts in attitudes are taking place. While the Prime Minister’s Office has been conducting surveys on gender equality for a number of years, the latest has the most distinct surprise, at least for political and social conservatives. Close to half of all the respondents — 48.3 percent — no longer hold the traditional image of men as breadwinners and women as housewives. Only 25 percent supported those stereotypes. Even allowing for standard margins of error and respondents saying what they think their questioners want to hear, those are unexpected numbers.

Since only by playing a larger political role can women be assured of the equal rights they are told they are entitled to, there may be more surprises in store after the June 25 Lower House election. The prospects for women candidates are promising. Although the total number of candidates, predicted to be around 1,300, is lower than in the election of four years ago, the number of women running is expected to surpass the record of 153 set in 1996. The election earlier this year by Osaka and Kumamoto prefectures of the nation’s first and second woman governors set a precedent that has put established politicians on their toes.

Many Japanese women are satisfied with the traditional roles of wife and mother. But for those with broader horizons who have called for more opportunities, there are growing indications that slowly, step by step, their pleas are being heard. One is the sudden apparent willingness — at long last — by the leader of the Japan Sumo Association to accept the possibility of one or more women members of that advisory body for the sport with a 2,000-year history of keeping women at arm’s length. More up-to-the-minute perhaps is the revelation from a United Nations report that access to the Internet among Japanese women jumped from 1 percent of all users here in 1997 to 36 percent in 1999. Internet access may prove to be even quicker than politics as a way to close Japan’s gender gap.

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