Commentary / Japan

Is a new era dawning for women in politics?

by Robert D. Eldridge.

Contributing Writer

Japan is known for its low rates of female participation in politics and ranks poorly internationally. However, there are some positive trends afoot, with the recent unified nationwide series of local elections seeing the largest number of female assembly and mayoral candidates being elected ever.

The second and final round of the unified elections, held every four years, took place April 21. In addition to the more than 200 mayoral contests (including many that were uncontested), assembly elections took place in 283 cities, 282 towns and villages, and 20 wards in Tokyo (excluding 11 cities and 93 towns and villages in which seats were uncontested).

The proportion of female candidates running for assembly seats reached 17.3 percent in cities and 12.1 percent in towns and villages, a record high. Out of 6,724 candidates chosen in assembly contests across 41 prefectures, 1,239 females were elected. This number (representing 18.4 percent) was a record high (2.3 percentage points higher than in 2015). The winning rate of these candidates was 88.9 percent, some 5.5 points higher than the rate when male and females are considered together.

This is good news for those, such as this writer, who would like to see more diversity, including women, in the respective assemblies, but these numbers are far from high or internationally respectable.

In particular, Japan ranks the lowest among industrial nations. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report has witnessed Japan’s ranking decline annually over the years. In the latest edition from 2017, Japan dropped to 114th place overall of the 144 countries surveyed. What’s worse, Japan ranked 123rd in political empowerment for women.

When viewed against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s call for a more active role for women in all walks of life in Japanese society, these numbers are clearly disappointing to all.

But they should not be unexpected. For example, only 4.9 percent of the candidates the ruling Liberal Democratic Party fielded were female (up 0.5 percentage points). While its coalition partner Komeito was much better at 30.8 percent (up 1.4 percentage points), several other parties, such as Nippon Ishin no Kai and the Social Democratic Party saw drops of 3 percentage points (to 7.0 percent) and 0.5 percentage points (to 18.3 percent), respectively.

Of the established parties, the Japanese Communist Party had the largest percentage at 39.5 percent (up. 1.4 points), but that number was greatly outdone by the conservative, new religion-based Happiness Realization Party, celebrating its 10th anniversary this May and headed by a woman since 2013, with 61.2 percent of its candidates being female.

The party, which currently lacks any representation in the Diet, was already the most highly represented by females in Japan at 77.3 percent, as 17 of its 22 elected assembly members around the country were women. This time, it won 19 seats (of which 11 were female, including several being re-elected), giving it a total of 35 around the country, not including the more than 40 independent and other candidates it supported.

While this is an impressive number relatively speaking, it is clear that women still find it difficult to enter politics. The reasons are numerous, with several obvious, and others common to any candidate, male or female, such as the need for name recognition, a war chest and a constituency or support base — the so-called kanban, kaban and jiban.

For those particular to females, the difficulty of having a family or raising children (if married or considering marriage) while pursuing a career (especially a highly demanding political one that requires a representative to be away from home much of the time), the demands of taking care of elderly in-laws (particularly if it is a multi-generational home), and the persistence of gender stereotypes that politics and policy-making are a “man’s domain,” etc., especially — but not limited to — rural parts of the country.

Added to these challenges is the lack of female mentors in politics (only about 10 percent of Lower House members and 20 percent of Upper House members are female and only two governors of 47 prefectures are women). Indeed, while the six women elected city mayor this time (four were chosen in 2015) set a new record, there are just 34 city and town mayors overall in more than 1,740 municipalities. Perhaps reflecting the conservative nature of the countryside, there are no village mayors.

Furthermore, the presence of incumbents who, based on the numbers, tend to be male and entrenched, make it difficult for new candidates to emerge.

Despite these challenges, I had the opportunity to observe the election of the 28-year-old daughter of a longtime family friend who ran successfully for the first time in the assembly election in Suita, Osaka Prefecture. Born and raised there as the daughter of now-retired politicians, Yuma Arisawa had politics on her mind from an early age watching her parents, a field she pursued in graduate school. After interning in a nearby city mayor’s office last year she decided to run after being invited to join a local political party as its first female candidate. With the help of a retiring assembly member who carefully guided her, she received 2,699 votes and placed 23rd (out of 44 candidates, 11 of whom were female).

Going into the race, she therefore had the name recognition (from her parents) and the constituency (from her political mentor). As a woman, she could appeal to female residents, who made up more than half of the city’s 304,021 voters, addressing concerns about safety (improved street lighting) and policies for young families, utilizing her insights as a long-term resident and community relations employee of the popular soccer team Gamba Osaka, whose stadium is in the city. She spoke to the voters, not at them. Her campaign staff was predominately young, female and voluntary. Her enthusiasm, concern and sincerity seemed to resonate not only with female voters but with males as well.

This last aspect, the increase in male voters willing to cross what I call the “gender aisle,” will increasingly be one of the key factors in seeing more women elected, which in turn, should encourage more women to run.

Based in Kyoto, Robert D. Eldridge earned his doctorate in Japanese political and diplomatic history at Kobe University and has authored approximately 80 books on U.S.-Japan relations.