The first Lower House election in the postwar period, held on April 10, 1946, was a significant milestone for women’s political participation in Japan. Some 13.8 million women cast ballots for the first time and 39 female candidates were elected, accounting for 8.4 percent of the seats in the Lower House. Today, the percentage of female members of the Lower House stands at 10.2 percent, a mere 2 percent rise after more than seven decades. Clearly, progress on this front has been far too slow.
When discussing women’s participation in society, the oft-used indicator is the annual gender gap report compiled by the World Economic Forum. The 2018 report ranked Japan at 110th out of 149 countries. This was the result of the scores in the four main fields — “economic participation and opportunity,” “education attainment,” “health and survival,” and “political empowerment.” The breakdown of the scores show that when it comes to women in parliament, Japan ranks 130th out of 149 nations, indicating that the biggest factor pushing down Japan’s overall ranking is the area of political empowerment.
Turning to the most recent Upper House election on July 21, a record 28 women won seats, matching the figure in the previous election in 2016. But the success rate for female candidates dropped to 22.6 percent from 23.1 percent three years ago because the number of seats contested in the latest poll was three more than in 2016.
The outcome brought the total number of female Upper House members to 56, accounting for 22.9 percent of the chamber. However, it is premature for advocates of gender equality to celebrate these numbers.
The latest election was the first nationwide contest held since a law was enacted in May last year to promote women’s participation in politics, urging political parties to make efforts to field an equal number of male and female candidates. Since the law isn’t legally binding and only urges parties to make voluntary efforts, the rate of female candidates for the Upper House election stood at 28.1 percent. Though it was also a record figure, one wonders whether the nation’s political parties could have done more. The result of the latest election also falls short of the government’s target of raising the proportion of women in leadership positions in society to 30 percent by 2020.
Increasing the number of candidates is one thing, but there are other issues that need to be addressed to encourage more women to enter politics.
A 2016 Cabinet Office survey on female members of local assemblies revealed that female candidates have to overcome many hurdles during their election campaigns. They include sexual harassment and juggling household duties, such as child-rearing and caring for elderly family members, while campaigning for their seats. Some assembly members also pointed out that it is often difficult for them to be recognized in their constituencies unless they use their maiden names instead of their married names.
Moreover, after being elected to office, their challenges continue. For example, 40.1 percent of the female politicians in the survey pointed out that they suffer from a lack of political funds, while 29.6 percent cited sexual harassment or being discriminated against in their local assemblies or constituencies.
The funding issue may be a common problem with their male colleagues, but it is also unmistakable that many problems exist for female politicians just because they are women.
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand, a country that also has a female prime minister today, told The Japan Times in an interview last year that Japan needs to think about how family-friendly the Diet can be. Giving an example of New Zealand’s parliament, she said in addition to having child care facilities on site, women can bring their babies into the lobby. She also said the parliament also ended Friday sessions so politicians can have extended weekends at home to stay with their families.
In what seems to be an interesting development in Japanese politics, a group of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers, initiated by some who are mothers, established a parliamentary league in June calling for introduction of mandatory child care leave for male workers with a view to revising the child care and family care leave law in the future. Their aim is to engage more men in child-rearing by taking paternity leave and raise awareness about the importance of men’s participation in household affairs. The Diet members’ initiative is welcome news.
To respond to the rapidly changing needs of society, it is necessary to bring various perspectives into politics. For that, the government and political parties need to step up efforts to increase diversity in politics.