The unified series of local elections in April will be the first nationwide voting to take place since legislation aimed at closing the gender gap in politics was enacted last year. Though nonbinding, the legislation urges political parties to equalize as much as possible the number of male and female candidates that they field in national and local elections and to make plans to achieve that. Behind the enactment of the law is the sluggish representation of women in the Diet and local assemblies — accounting for a mere 10 percent on average — a rate that lags behind most other countries. The upcoming races will test whether the parties — which unanimously endorsed the legislation in the Diet last May — take the gender gap as a serious issue that needs to be fixed.

Japan ranked 165th among the 193 countries in the world in terms of women’s parliamentary representation in a report compiled by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union. According to the IPU report, women occupied an average of 24.3 percent of the seats in lower or single parliamentary chambers in the countries surveyed in 2018, an increase of 13 points from 1995. Japan, where women account for a mere 10.2 percent of Lower House members, was outranked by every other Group of 20 country.

The situation facing women in prefectural and municipal assemblies, some of which will be contested in the April elections, is little different from national politics. Women account for 12.9 of the seats in local assemblies across the country. Among prefectural assemblies, women hold 28 percent of the seats in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, but that is one of the few exceptions among the nation’s 47 prefectures. Female members account for less than 10 percent of the seats in the assemblies in 28 prefectures. The lowest rate is in Kagawa, a mere 2.6 percent.

More than 130 countries worldwide are reported to have introduced a quota system that seeks to increase the ratio of women among candidates and parliamentary seats to certain levels. Such a system, if implemented properly, is shown to pave the way for gender equality in parliamentary representation, the IPU says. The law enacted in Japan last year also seeks to boost the number of women in the Diet and local assemblies by equalizing the number of male and female candidates fielded by parties — although it leaves this up to the voluntary efforts of each party.

As it is, the legislation does not appear to have made much of a difference as parties prepare for the series of local elections, which come up every four years. Women account for 12.3 percent of the candidates projected to run for seats in prefectural assemblies in April, according to a media forecast as of last month — little changed from the figures four years ago.

While the government has a target of raising the ratio of women among candidates in Diet elections to 30 percent by 2020, women accounted for only 17.7 percent of those who ran in the snap Lower House election in 2017. The ratio was the lowest at a mere 7.5 percent in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while the figure was the highest at 24.4 percent for the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), though still shy of a quarter of its total candidates.

According to the Cabinet Office, there are 349 municipal assemblies — about 20 percent of local assemblies across Japan — that currently have no female members. The small city of Tarumizu, Kagoshima Prefecture, has never had a woman serve in its assembly since it was established in 1958.

Local assemblies, particularly in parts of the country outside big metropolitan areas, are said to have long been dominated by prominent members of the local community — usually men — who took advantage of their power base to maintain majority control of the assemblies.

In a Cabinet Office survey last year asking female members of local assemblies why the number of women in these bodies did not increase, about 60 percent of the respondents pointed to a deep-rooted stereotype that politics belong to men. Other reasons cited by a large majority of the respondents were “difficulties in keeping up both the job as an assembly member and family life” and “trouble in obtaining support from family members and others” around them to pursue political activities.

Whether women can overcome these and other hurdles to increase their presence in politics will depend a lot on the efforts by political parties to narrow the gender gap in the choice of candidates they field in elections. The nationwide local elections next month will serve as the first test of those efforts.

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