By Sophie Osborn —
Earlier this month, a record number of women were sworn into the new U.S. Congress. Globally this seems to be a time of change for women in politics, with one notable exception: Japan. On October 2, 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan reshuffled his 20-member cabinet and appointed one woman. Since Prime Minister Abe returned to power in 2012, there have been three cabinet reshuffles and the maximum number of female ministers was three. This dynamic is emblematic of Japan’s high rate of gender inequality, ranking 114 out of 144 countries in the 2017 World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report. At the beginning of his administration Abe recognized this issue and promised to tackle it with policies such as “Womenomics” and “Japan’s Plan for the Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens.”
Government attention to this issue is important, but it is not clear whether these initiatives can solve a problem that is prevalent across many sectors in Japan, most notably in politics. As of November 1, 2018, Japan ranked 160 out of 193 countries in terms of the proportion of women in parliament. In the Diet’s Lower House, just 47 out of 465 seats are held by women, and in the Upper House only 50 out of 242 parliamentarians are women. Despite having one of the largest proportions of female university graduates worldwide, Japanese women are still staggeringly underrepresented in political positions. Moreover, the disparity persists at the prefecture level — Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike is one of only three women out of 47 prefectural governorships in the country.
One key reason why the number of women politicians in Japan remains so low is the presence of informal institutional barriers. To win a Diet election, candidates need three essential political resources: name recognition, financial resources, and a strong base of local support through organizations called koenkai, all of which are much easier to obtain if a candidate already has a political background. In 2017, around 40 percent of Diet members in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were second-generation politicians. Many of the most influential Japanese politicians today (including Abe, grandson of a prime minister and son of a foreign minister), come from some sort of political dynasty. This makes it exceedingly difficult for any outsider, especially a woman, to win Diet elections.
Beyond the moral argument for gender equity in politics, there is growing evidence that increasing the number of women legislators can improve government effectiveness. Some studies have found that women legislators tend to be more collaborative and bipartisan than men. Female politicians are also more likely to focus on issues like education and welfare. Since the biggest issue facing Japan in the coming years will be rising social welfare costs due to the rapidly aging population, there is clearly a need for more legislators who prioritize these issues. Some prominent Japanese female politicians are already doing so. Seiko Noda and Rui Matsukawa (both members of the LDP), champion welfare issues like expanded childcare services and paid parental leave that will address the declining birthrate. With more women in politics, these crucial issues will take on a greater role in legislative debates.
While Abe’s policy initiatives addressing gender inequality include measures that encourage women to join the workforce, they are not stringent enough to break down the barriers women face when they aim for positions of power. As some analysts have argued, the central purpose of Abe’s gender policies is gross domestic product growth, not gender equity. Though the women’s labor force participation rate has risen significantly from 65 percent in 2013 to 68 percent in 2017, more than half of them are working part-time, low-wage, low-skill jobs. The economic logic of increasing women’s labor force participation rate is undeniable but improving the quality of women’s work does not offer such immediate economic returns. Without an economic incentive, it seems like the Japanese government is not that interested in increasing the number of women in leadership positions. This rationalization is most clearly shown in how the government backtracked on its 2014 targets for women in leadership positions. Initially, the administration proposed an ambitious plan to increase the total number of women leaders to 30 percent by 2020. Yet just one year later, the gender equality bureau downgraded that target to 7 percent of government leadership positions and 15 percent of private sector positions.
One possible solution in the political realm is to institute enforceable quotas for the number of women in politics. Sixty countries and territories have formalized legal quotas, where a certain percentage of a party’s slate of candidates must be women. The most impressive case study in gender quotas is Rwanda, which after instituting a constitutional quota has become the country with the highest proportion of women legislators (55.7 percent as of 2018.) However, if Japan implemented such quotas the current informal system of political power would remain. To counter the political resource gap, quotas would need to be supplemented with institutionalized support from party leadership. Many successful Japanese female politicians gained power with the help of active party support. Notable instances include the 2005 wave of “Koizumi’s Children,” a group of politicians groomed by former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, and the 2009 “Ozawa Girls,” a group of female candidates supported by then Democratic Party of Japan campaign strategist Ichiro Ozawa. Combined with an enforceable quota system, such support of female politicians could help reduce gender inequality in Japanese politics.
Japan has been taking incremental steps in this direction. In May 2018, the Diet passed a nonbinding measure that urged Japan’s political parties to “make voluntary efforts” to increase the number of female candidates it fields for national and local elections. Nationwide local elections scheduled for spring 2019 and the Upper House elections in summer 2019 should provide opportunities to put those words into practice.