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Japanese politics still a man’s world

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In Brief

Japan has the lowest percentage of women’s political representation in the industrialised world. Only 12 per cent of seats in the national legislative assembly, the Diet, are held by women. This is compared to a 22 per cent world average and a 19 per cent average in Asia.


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Japan’s ranking in the 2015 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report at 101 out of 145 countries indicates some serious problems. Health and education are not problems for the women of Japan; it is economic and political empowerment where the stark inequality lies. Alongside female political under-representation, this inequality manifests in the relative dearth of women in most positions of power — women comprise 7 per cent of company heads, 18 per cent of court judges and 2 per cent of the nation’s mayors. The wage gap between Japanese men and women is approximately 27 per cent, compared to the OECD average of 16 per cent.

So what is the government doing about this lack of women’s political and economic empowerment?

The Abe government publicly and proudly touts its so-called ‘womenomics’ policies that encourage more women to enter the workforce. Womenomics includes the introduction of gender targets to increase the number of women appointed to senior positions in the private sector, targets to encourage men to take childcare leave, increased childcare availability and the expansion of childcare benefits.

But the government has been mostly silent on the how to address the issue of the political under-representation of women. Numerical targets and other affirmative action measures are being slowly introduced in the private sector and the public service, with varying results. But similar measures for politics are absent.

In recent years the government has come under increased pressure from domestic women’s groups to act. There is a longstanding campaign to have more women elected to office. The current campaign is spearheaded by Kuōtasei o suishin suru kai (Q no Kai), a coalition of approximately 25 women’s groups that began working together in 2012 to push the government to introduce gender quotas so as to increase the number of women elected to office. The group’s representative is Ryoko Akamatsu, a well-respected leader in the women’s movement, former Minister of Education and a key player in the implementation of the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law.

As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Japan is also under international pressure to address its shortage of women in decision-making positions. The combined pressure of international feminist discourses and domestic women’s campaigns appears to be having an impact. On 26 January 2015, a group of nonpartisan Diet members was formed, with the objective of legalising an electoral quota system. This group is headed by the opposition Democratic Party’s Masaharu Nakagawa with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) Seiko Noda as deputy head.

The alliance drafted two bills to foster greater women’s participation in politics. On 30 May 2016, the two bills were submitted to the Diet — one of them includes provisions aimed at political parties to field equal numbers of male and female candidates. This bill was submitted by the four opposition parties, but was opposed by the governing LDP because it did not like the words ‘equal numbers’. As I have argued elsewhere, and as reported in Asahi Shimbun, the LDP has ‘minimal interest’ in the issue. The LDP has typically been resistant to gender equality unless it brings obvious economic benefits, like having more women in the workforce.

Would having more women in politics make Japan a better place for women and Japanese society more generally? Women campaigning for the adoption of gender quotas certainly believe so. The Alliance of Feminist Representatives, a cross-partisan group of more than 200 women politicians and a member of Q no Kai, has been pushing for the introduction of quotas since the early 1990s. The front of its monthly newsletter explicitly states its belief that a society where women represent 40 per cent of legislative councils and public decision-making bodies will be ‘a mature society where people with disabilities, children and the elderly will not be disadvantaged as minorities’.

Yet the question of whether more women in politics would make a difference or not is, at heart, a sexist and unfair one. Regardless of whether women ‘make a difference’ or not, their absence reflects a lack of democracy in that the polity is unreflective of the population, and also suggests a problem with the democratic election processes. And it is difficult to argue the opposite — that having more women in politics would have any negative consequences. As feminist political scientist Anne Phillips argues in her 1995 book The Politics of Presence, changing the composition of an elected assembly is not a guarantee, but it at least opens the door for the possibility of change: ‘It is, in some sense, a shot in the dark: far more likely to reach its target than when those shooting are predominantly male, but still open to all kinds of accident’.

Dr Emma Dalton is a Lecturer in Japanese at La Trobe University.

3 responses to “Japanese politics still a man’s world”

  1. I believe Abe’s so called Womenomics, gender targets, and affirmative action programs lack any substantial teeth. They are requests that private industry increase the number of women in supervisory and executive positions with no enforcement mechanisms should corporations fail to make progress in this regard. Neither are there any rewards for those companies which do hire and/or promote more women. Eg, there are no tax incentives built in so that those corporations who hire and/or promote more women can pay less taxes.

    Additionally, Abe did not set any examples with his own Cabinet. Ie, he did not appoint more women to his Cabinet than other PM’s have in recent years. Nor has he instructed any of his ministries in his government to hire and/or promote more women.

    Like much of his “Abenomics” his “Womenomics” has up to now been largely all talk with little real substance to it.

      • Thanks, Emma. I read Ms. Macnaughtan’s piece when it was published in April. This one, and others by pundits like William Pesek who writes for The japan Times and Bloomberg, informed my opinions noted above.

        Abe lacks the expertise, the real interest in, and/or the backbone needed to take on these admittedly complex and difficult issues as actively as needed. So far it’s been a lot of smoke and mirrors while he has been more engaged with Constitutional reinterpretation, collective self defense, and security issues.

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