The upcoming Upper House election is the first nationwide Diet race since legislation urging political parties to equalize the number of male and female candidates was enacted last year. A total of 104 women have filed their candidacy in the campaign for the July 21 vote, accounting for a record 28.1 percent of the total and inching toward the government’s goal of having women account for 30 percent of leadership roles in society by 2020. Whether the women will emerge from the race to accordingly boost their presence in the Diet is now up to the voters.

Japan lags far behind many other countries around the world in terms of women’s participation in politics. According to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, Japan ranks 165th out of 193 nations — and worst among the Group of 20 major countries — in terms of the role of women in national politics. As of January, women held a mere 10.2 percent of the seats in the Lower House — less than half the average 24.3 percent among countries in the IPU survey — and 20.7 percent in the Upper House.

With the aim of having more diverse views reflected in politics, the law enacted in May 2018 calls on each party to take voluntary steps, such as setting numerical targets, to equalize as much as possible the number of men and women running on its ticket in national and local elections. Because the legislation is nonbinding, how effective it will be in boosting the presence of women in politics depends a great deal on the efforts by each of the parties.

The lineup of the parties’ candidates in the ongoing race gives a mixed picture. The parties are indeed trying — albeit gradually — to increase the number of female candidates as issues that directly concern women, such as their greater participation in the labor market and child-rearing support, are put high on the political agenda.

However, a wide gap remains in the proportion of women in each party’s candidates. Among major parties, only 14.6 percent of the Liberal Democratic Party’s candidates — and a mere 8.3 percent of those on the ticket of Komeito — are women. Ruling parties tend to put priority on incumbents — male, in many cases — seeking re-election.

On the other hand, female candidates make up a bigger share in the opposition camp — such as 45.2 percent for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and 55 percent for the Japanese Communist Party.

There is also a wide disparity between regions. Of the 45 electoral districts across the country (most based on prefectural borders), 13 constituencies including Iwate, Wakayama and Miyazaki have no women running for a seat in this election, and 12 of these 13 districts had no women elected from the constituencies whose seats are not up for grabs this time. In contrast, six of the 20 candidates competing for the six seats allocated to the Tokyo electoral district are women.

Female political participation also made some, albeit slow, progress in the nationwide series of local elections held in April. In the 41 prefectural assemblies whose seats were contested, a record total of 237 women won — although they still account for a mere 10.4 percent of the total. Both the ratio of women running in municipal assembly races and their share of successful candidacies climbed to a record 17.3 percent and 18.4 percent, respectively. However, they still trail far behind their female counterparts in many other countries.

The sluggish participation of women in politics is often blamed on the deep-rooted sense in Japanese society, founded on a traditional view of a gender-based division of labor, that politics is the realm of men. Many of the major policy challenges confronting the nation today, however, demand more diverse perspectives to resolve. The government’s target of getting women to hold 30 percent of the leading positions in society is reportedly based on a theory that if the proportion of the minority in an organization or group exceeds 30 percent, its decision-making will begin to change. Increasing the number of women in the political decision-making process does indeed matter.

As of now, it is left in the hands of each political party to decide on the gender balance of its candidates in elections. Discussions on developing a quota system to make sure that women account for a certain portion of candidates in elections or members of lawmaking bodies — which, according to the IPU, has been introduced in more than 100 countries worldwide — has made little headway in this country. That women still account for less than 30 percent of the candidates — though a record high — restricts the choice for voters to get more diverse views reflected in politics. What more has to be done to “equalize” the gender balance in politics needs to be further discussed.

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