Commentary / Japan

How to make politics a creative and attractive vocation

by Ichiro Asahina

The report “Women in Parliament in 2018” by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), originally established in 1889 and said to be the first international political forum for parliamentary members, placed Japan 165th out of 193 countries in terms of the proportion of women among members of the lower house of parliament. In Japan, a mere 10.2 percent of the Lower House seats were occupied by women — well below the global average of 24.3 percent and 19.6 percent among Asian countries. Only one woman, Satsuki Katayama, is in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, accounting for just 5 percent of its members and putting Japan at 171st out of 188 countries.

These figures may prompt some to say that the Diet is closed to women. But I have a slightly different opinion. The truth is that politics is rather not an attractive vocation for women. Or you could say that most Japanese people, both women and men, recently do not seem interested in becoming a politician.

In fact, nearly 27 percent of the seats in prefectural assemblies up for grabs in a nationwide series of local elections this month were decided without a vote because not enough candidates emerged to necessitate a contest. The ratio topped the previous high marked in the last nationwide local elections four years ago by about 5 percentage points. Given this reality, it is speculated that in the near future many small villages and towns will not be able to sustain their local assemblies due a lack of candidates seeking to become assembly members.

Why are the Diet and local assemblies not ideal workplaces for women or even for most people of either gender? My short answer is because they are not creative workplaces. Roughly speaking, a legislature has two important functions: checking government activities and making proposals to government. Sadly enough, however, most of the legislatures in Japan — both national and local — usually play only the former role.

If we stand in the shoes of the politicians, this phenomenon may be obvious and even reasonable from their viewpoint. If a politician belongs to the same party or the same party faction as the top leader of the government (either prime minister, governor or mayor), he or she will not say anything critical of the government’s plans or seek to amend them. All the politician would like to do, basically, is try to pass the legislation as quickly as possible. No creativity would be required of the politician in such a case.

Even when a politician belongs to a different party or a faction than the top government leader, what he or she tends to do in the legislature is still not creative — just being aggressive toward the government or its leader.

Members of a party opposing the government may toughly criticize the government when checking its plans, but most of the time they will not create counterproposals, budget, laws or treaties. Since politicians in opposition parties usually cannot use government staff or afford to retain their own policymaking staff, it seems almost impossible for them to make counter-plans. Often all they do is check and point out deficiencies in the government’s plans. The Diet and local assemblies may be arenas for a battle between the government and those politicians, but not a place for creative work.

And because merely checking the government’s plans (legislations, budget and treaties) may not be provocative enough to grab the attention of general voters, legislature members, especially those in the opposition, tend to focus on scandals such as corruption or sexual affairs involving top government leaders or senior officials, which are more easily spread by the mass media than detailed questions about policies.

A typical politician dedicated to worrying about how to win the next election, rather than worrying about the future of subsequent generations, tends to be quiet in the legislature (if he or she is from the governing party) or focusing on attacking the government by trying to reveal its scandals (if the politician is from the opposition camp). It does indeed seem like uncreative work either way.

One solution could be to create more think tanks that support politicians and political parties in their policy-making functions, but that may not be practical at least in the short run. I established my own think tank (Aoyama Shachu Corp.) eight years ago and it probably still is the only think tank dedicated to supporting politicians. That’s because the market demand is still relatively very small in comparison with other think tank businesses, which get most of their work from government or private-sector companies.

Another solution would be to drastically reform the Diet and local assemblies to turn them into more creative workplaces. Our think tank held a conference in February and invited several young Diet members not only from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party but also from two opposition parties. I served as a facilitator during the panel discussion on future reform of the Diet and had expected heated debate between panelists from the different parties. In fact, the three panelists easily reached a consensus that the Diet should have basically three frameworks; question time (intensive debate) between the heads of two big parties, a special committee dedicated to examining scandals and regular committees focused on policy discussions.

Under this three-track scheme, the last one, regular committees, would be more creative places for policy discussions and would draw the attention of future candidates who would like to become excellent politicians, including many women.

Ichiro Asahina is the chief executive officer of the Tokyo-based think tank Aoyama Shachu Corp.

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