A law enacted last week marks a symbolic first step in the effort to boost the number of female members in the Diet and local and prefectural assemblies — an area where Japan lags far behind most other advanced nations. It is nonbinding legislation that urges political parties to try to “equalize as much as possible” the number of male and female candidates they field in national and local elections. This means that whether the law will have any effect is up to the efforts of each party.
Since the legislation won unanimous endorsement in the Diet, all political parties need to make serious efforts to make good on its objectives. The targets that the law urges each party to set should serve as a guide for voters in judging where they stand on the issue.
Politics remains a male-centric world in this country. The government has set a target of increasing the ratio of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020, but politics is the area where progress appears to be the most lacking. The gender imbalance as it stands is undesirable, especially because tough challenges confronting the nation require policy responses from more diverse perspectives than male-dominated politics can offer.
When women in Japan gained the right to vote at the national level in 1946, 39 women were elected to the Lower House that year, accounting for 8.4 percent of all successful candidates. More than seven decades on, 47 women were elected to the Lower House in the snap election last October, occupying 10.1 percent of the chamber’s seats. Japan ranks 158th out of the 193 countries surveyed by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union in terms of the ratio of female members of the lower house of parliament. Its rank is the lowest among Group of Seven countries and below those of China and South Korea.
The small number of female legislators is not just a problem at the national level. According to a 2016 study by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, women occupied a mere 10 percent of all seats in prefectural assemblies across the country, 15 percent of the city and ward assemblies and 10 percent of the town and village assemblies. As many as 32 percent of town and village assemblies nationwide had no female members at all. The poor presence of women in politics is a major factor behind the nation’s sluggish performance in the latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s gender equality report, which ranked Japan 114th out of the 144 nations polled.
Behind the problem is the fact that political parties field too few women to run as candidates in the first place. Despite a government target of raising the share of female candidates in national elections to 30 percent by 2020, only 17.7 percent of those who ran in the last general election in October were women, though that ratio did mark a postwar high. The ratio of female candidates was the lowest for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party at a mere 7.5 percent. Even among opposition parties that tend to field more women, the figure was 24 percent for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Japanese Communist Party — which advocate that political parties should field an equal number of men and women in elections to narrow the gender gap in political participation.
A law that took effect in 2016 to promote employment and promotion of women requires government organizations and large companies to set and disclose nonbinding targets for increasing the proportion of women in recruitment and management ranks, but the law set no such obligation in the political sector.
A gender quota system — which sets targets on the proportion of women in political parties’ candidates in elections and in parliamentary seats — is known to have contributed to increasing the number of female lawmakers in many countries where it has been tried, and scholars and former Cabinet members have formed a group to advocate introduction of such a system in Japan.
A variety of reasons are believed to lie behind the slow progress in women’s participation in politics in this country, including a deep-rooted sense in many parts of society that politics is a sphere that belongs to men. In a Kyodo News survey conducted on female members of prefectural assemblies two years ago, many said that legislative action such as introduction of a gender quota system would go a long way toward breaking this stereotype and rectifying the gender gap. Enactment of the latest law should set the stage for more public discussion on such policy measures.