In the 70 years since women in Japan gained suffrage at the national level, politics has remained male-centric. Women continue to account for a only small portion of the Diet seats, trailing behind much of the rest of the world. As the government hoists a goal of increasing the ratio of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020, female lawmakers occupy less than 10 percent of the Lower House seats and number not much more than the 39 who were elected to the Diet for the first time in 1946.

This gender imbalance is clearly unhealthy, especially as social values in Japan become increasingly diverse and tough challenges confronting the nation need more policy responses than what its male-dominated politics can offer. Both voters and lawmakers should stop and think about what’s behind the situation and what needs to be done to change it.

The 39 women who won Lower House seats in the first post-World War II election in April 1946 accounted for 8.4 percent of the total. The 45 women who won in the most recent general election in 2014 constituted a mere 9.5 percent of the 475 Lower House seats. According to an international comparison by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, Japan ranked 156th out of 191 countries in terms of women’s proportion in lower chamber seats of parliament as of February. The nation by far trails the IPU-estimated worldwide average of 22.7 percent of parliamentary seats occupied by women.

In fact, the 39 seats gained by female lawmakers in 1946 was an aberration. The proportion of women in the Lower House plunged quickly and remained in the 1 to 2 percent range from the late 1940s to the early 1990s — as recently as 20 years ago, in 1996, the ratio stood at 4.6 percent. It was only in 2005 that the record of 39 seats won in the 1946 race was broken, when 43 women were elected to the Lower House. The ratio hit 11.3 percent in 2009 as 54 women won Lower House seats, when the Democratic Party of Japan fielded a large number of female candidates in its path to take the helm of government through 2012.

After the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, touting a policy of creating a society “where all women shine,” attempted to name more women to his Cabinet. But while his LDP dominates 60 percent of the Lower House, female lawmakers account for a mere 8.6 percent of the party’s ranks in the chamber. The situation is not much different in the largest opposition Democratic Party, whose female ranks comprise 9.4 percent of its force in the Lower House. Among the major parties, the Japanese Communist Party comes the closest to a semblance of equality: 28 percent of its membership in the chamber are women.

The situation is a little better in the Upper House, but women still account for only 16.1 percent of the total.

There are a variety of reasons women remain a small minority in politics. In the first place, the mainstream political parties have essentially prioritized men over women in choosing their candidates. In a recent Kyodo News survey, female members of prefectural assemblies across Japan, where women reportedly account for 9.8 percent of all members, blamed a deep-rooted sense of gender-based division of labor — that politics belong to men — which makes it difficult for women to gain understanding and support from their families and relatives to pursue a political career. The respondents also cited the difficulty of balancing their political activities and family life. About 74 percent said it is “impossible” to achieve the government’s goal of women holding 30 percent of the leadership positions in the political sphere by 2020.

Last month, a new law pushed by the Abe administration took effect requiring government organizations and large companies to set nonbinding targets for increasing the proportion of women in recruitment and management ranks. However, the law sets no such obligations in the political sector. Discussions for introducing a gender quota system to set aside a certain proportion of political parties’ candidates as well as Diet seats to women — which proponents say has contributed to increasing the number of female lawmakers in many other countries — have yet to take off.

A supra-partisan group of lawmakers has recently put together a draft amendment to the Public Offices Election Law designed to increase the number of women in the Diet. The amendment would enable each party to submit multiple lists of proportional representation candidates for Lower House elections, and the winning candidates would be chosen alternately from the different lists based on votes won by the party. If a party submits one list comprising solely male candidates and the other female candidates, the party’s winners in the proportional representation race would have an equal number of men and women. A separate bill compiled by the group would urge political parties to equalize the number of men and women among their electoral candidates.

Though the proposed measures would place no obligation on the part of political parties, and actions by each party would be voluntary, they could possibly trigger broader public discussions on how to increase the number of women in politics. The bills deserve a substantial debate in the Diet.

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