Election 2021

The Overlooked Issue of Sexual Harassment in Japanese Politics

For the first time, the LDP leadership race featured two female candidates seeking to become Japan’s first female prime minister. Their entry into the race is notable given the country’s notoriously low Global Gender Gap Index, scoring 120 among 156 countries mainly as a result of women’s low economic status and the extremely small number of women in Japan’s national legislative assembly, the Diet. Though many commentators and many politicians wring their hands over the fact that the Japanese economy has stagnated for nearly 30 years, not nearly as many express the same level of concern that Japan stagnates in international indices of gender equality. Sexual harassment in politics is a factor behind women’s low participation in Japanese politics, negatively affecting women’s ambitions for political office and lowering the quality of democracy.

Japan is a laggard when it comes to tackling sexual harassment in politics, and fighting workplace sexual harassment more broadly. The 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law does not provide a clear definition of sexual harassment, nor does it prohibit it. According to several surveys of politicians around the country at all levels of government, sexual harassment is a firmly entrenched practice on legislative assemblies. In 2014, a survey by a group of feminist politicians found that 56 percent of women members of municipal councils had experienced sexual harassment. In 2019, an Asahi Shimbun survey of first term municipal assembly members uncovered that a quarter had been sexually harassed. In 2020, the Cabinet Office surveyed municipal councilors and found that nearly 60 percent of women compared to 33 percent of men had been bullied.

These surveys reveal nothing about party affiliation, begging the question of whether some political parties better than others at fighting sexual harassment? Research gathered around the world indicates that this is not necessarily the case. However, conservative political party members seem less likely to countenance gender as an issue in politics  and conservative women politicians in Japan appear less enthusiastic talking about sexual harassment than women from the other side of the political spectrum.

When it comes to political representation, the LDP’s lack of effort at pursuing gender equality is reliably consistent. In the last national level election—the Upper House election in 2019—only 15 percent of LDP candidates were women. The respective number for the main opposition, the CDPJ, was 45 percent and the overall figure across all political parties was 28 percent. Regarding sexual harassment, the party has no internal mechanisms to counter it, and as a broader social issue of equity and respect for women, it is rarely up for debate. In effect, the LDP’s dominance in politics has meant that women remain seriously under-represented at all levels of politics; its stranglehold on policymaking has sustained women’s low social, economic and political status relative to men.

For Noda—or any woman—to talk openly about sexual harassment is to risk ostracism or being accused of playing the ‘gender card’

Noda Seiko, one of the two female candidates for LDP leadership, is noteworthy precisely because she appears relatively unusual in the LDP for her pro-gender equality views. She has often spoken about her male colleagues making sexist comments and has shared her own experience of sexual harassment when she was a young politician, urging younger women to consult her or their party seniors if they are harassed. For Noda—or any woman—to talk openly about sexual harassment is to risk ostracism or being accused of playing the “gender card,” like Australia’s first and only female prime minister Julia Gillard often was.

Noda’s perspective is essential, given that the behavior of some LDP men, even relatively recently, show a lack of awareness of the gravity of sexual harassment and a lack of respect for their female colleagues. In 2018, long-term LDP Diet member and Finance Minister (and former prime minister) Aso Taro defended his administrative vice minister Fukuda Junichi when he was accused of sexually harassing a female journalist by saying that if media outlets wanted to avoid sexual harassment problems, they should use male journalists. Around about the same time, LDP Diet member Nagao Takashi tweeted that the women politicians who held a #MeToo peaceful solidarity protest were definitely not the type of women who would get harassed and that they need not worry about him harassing them. (He deleted the tweet and issued an apology after a lot of criticism.)

Last year the government introduced legislation to prevent harassment in the workplace. But the law is weak and non-enforceable and does not meet the requirements to ratify the ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment in the Workplace. The 2020 legislation is a major disappointment for many because workplace sexual harassment is a serious problem for working women: of the several thousand workplace-gender equality complaints heard each year by equal employment offices of prefectural and city government labour bureaus, sexual harassment is the most common. The 2020 legislation also doesn’t cover freelancers or others who aren’t employees, including politicians. 

Regardless of the result of the upcoming lower house election and debate over Noda’s inability to secure leadership of her party, tackling sexual harassment of working women, including politicians, ought to be high on the political agenda for the next cabinet. 

Emma Dalton is a Japanese lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University

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