Election 2019: Empowering women, without women?

National Diet with Women Figures

Japan’s government has put women’s empowerment high on its agenda – but women remain poorly represented in politics, and that shows few signs of changing.

The first House of Councilors election of the Reiwa Era, to be held this Sunday, July 21st, is important for several reasons – including constitutional amendment, the planned consumption tax hike and social security reform – but it is also notable for the record high number of 104 female candidates (28.1%) running for office. At a time when Japan is promoting a policy agenda of women’s empowerment, including ‘womenomics’ and ‘a society where women can shine’, increasing the political representation of women appears to be in lockstep with government policy. A closer look at the election numbers and conditions for female candidates, however, reveals that a number of barriers continue to impede women’s participation in Japanese elections.

Japan has gradually expanded its policy apparatus for addressing women’s empowerment both nationally and globally, but progress at home remains limited, not only in the workplace but also when it comes to women’s inclusion and representation in the political arena. Female non-representation is problematic for a number of reasons, but perhaps especially because it creates a non-inclusive policymaking environment – which in turn has negative ramifications for equitable policymaking in general, and for women’s empowerment and gender equity policies in particular. Without equal representation, equality is hard to come by.

Proclamations on women’s empowerment play well internationally – yet ring hollow domestically

In a 2013 speech to the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Abe announced his intention to elevate the issue of women’s empowerment to the fore of Japanese policy. In his address, Abe described the issue of creating a society where women can participate as “a matter of the greatest urgency” and one that “is no longer a matter of choice for Japan.” Such proclamations play well internationally, yet ring hollow domestically where the current Abe Cabinet has only one female among its 20 members, and according to 2018 Japanese government figures, there are no females representatives among the 47 Chairpersons of the Prefectural Assemblies. At the national level, only 97 seats out of 704 (13%) in the Japanese Diet are held by women. The representation is especially lacking in the Lower House, where only 47 of the 463 seats are occupied by women. These statistics put Japan last among G20 economies and 164th in the world when it comes to female representation in national parliaments.

Dismal as the present situation is, policy remedies to address women’s underrepresentation appear to be making some iota of progress. In May 2018, the Act on Promotion of Gender Equality in the Political Field came into effect, urging political parties in Japan to take voluntary measures to increase the numbers of female candidates. In the subsequent local elections in April 2019, the total number of female politicians increased from 16.1% to 18.4%, and women claimed six out of the 59 mayoral positions, a record number. Though this was lauded as progress and attributed to the Act, gender parity in politics is far from being realized, with Japan falling well shy of meeting international standards for industrialized economies.

Only 12 of the LDP’s 82 candidates (14.6%) are women – missing their own stated target of “pushing for 20%”

In the run-up to the July upper house election, the theme of women’s empowerment has yet again been prevalent in party political manifestos and smiling female faces are seen plastered on election boards around Tokyo. Yet, a closer look at the numbers and candidates reveals that in Abe’s ruling bloc, which is likely to win the election, female representation is extremely low. As a recent Mainichi Shimbun article points out, only 12 of the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) 82 candidates are women (14.6%), the same number as the 2016 Upper House election, despite statements that the party would “push for 20%”. In this election, the party is supporting female candidates in only three of the single-seat districts—Yamagata, Fukushima and Mie—and all of the backed candidates are incumbents. Komeitō, the LDP’s coalition partner, has an even lower representation with only 2 of its 24 candidates being female (8.3%). Of the 124 seats being contested this weekend, the LDP and Komeitō are predicted to win up to 83 seats, nearly 20 over the number needed for a majority. Considering this success, women’s representation among the ruling parties is likely to remain low. It is in the opposition parties where we find much higher ratios of women candidates, with 70% of the Social Democratic Party’s candidates and nearly half of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan’s candidates being female.

Though some may point to progress in women’s issues in Japan by citing increased coverage of the topic and a number of government-led policy initiatives, a look at the numbers shows that there is still a long way to go. If Japan is to truly prioritize a policy agenda of women’s empowerment, then increasing women’s political representation should be one of the very first steps. While it is notable that opposition parties are including more women in their politics, significant challenges remain for female candidates, especially non-incumbents and those entering politics for the first time. The results of the Upper House election this weekend will not lead to a drastic change in the representation of female parliamentarians in Japan. Ultimately, it is important to remember that including women in politics is not simply about promoting women; it is about harnessing the fundamental tenants of equality towards shaping political priorities that benefit the greater whole of society. At a time when Japan prioritizes such an agenda around the world, is seems amiss not to pursue it at home.

Wrenn Yennie Lindgren is a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and an Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI).

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