Australian Outlook

Japan's Glass Ceiling

19 Sep 2016
By Elisa Solomon
Japanese_women_in_politics. Photo Credit: Kst01 (Wikimedia Commons) Creative Commons

In August 2016, Tokyo elected its first female governor, Yuriko Koike. However, despite Yuriko earlier serving as the defence minister in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, she was not endorsed by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and was forced to run as an independent. The reason, it seems, is her gender. Her predecessor and party superior, Shintaro Ishihara, told voters “we cannot leave Tokyo to a woman with too much make-up”.

2016 marks 70 years since Japanese women first achieved both the right to vote and to run for political office. The 1946 election immediately after this landmark reform saw 67 per cent of eligible women vote and 39 elected into parliament, comprising 8.4 per cent of the lower house. However, 70 years later, the percentage of women in the lower house of the Japanese parliament has increased by only 1.1 per cent. This indicates that despite being able to participate fully in the political system for 70 years, women remain just as grossly under-represented in government as they were in 1946.

Lack of support

Women continue to face a number of hurdles in the campaign process including a lack of support from their parties, communities, and families. Independent MP Michiyo Yakushiji indicated that families tend to discourage their relatives from running for office because they believe it is embarrassing. Other familial objections stem from the traditionally irreconcilable idea of a woman, especially one with children, working in politics. A Democratic Party (DP) MP explained that “even when women were initially given the right to run for office, attached was a caveat that they were to first obtain the permission of their husbands…for fear of their family unit being thrown into disarray”.

A related concern is their lack of financial independence. According to representatives in parliament, many women rely on the husband’s income and would not be able to fund their campaign individually, should the families disapprove. They also receive little financial support from their parties and face difficulty in overcoming prejudices in collecting donations. A senior female Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) MP explained: “some people are hesitant about supporting and providing funding to women because they have doubts as to how long these women will stay in parliament”.

Balancing commitments

As women have been historically absent from the political process, it is not surprising that politics is still largely perceived as a man’s domain. A high-ranking member in the DP Policy Affairs Research Council commented, “women who wish to succeed in politics must become men”. However, with the demands of childcare being unilaterally entrusted to women, they are not able to abdicate themselves of their parental duties, as is common among male legislators. Two female MPs stated that although they work as politicians during the day, they, unlike their male counterparts, must still be mothers when they return home in the evening.

This is problematic in a society where many work-related discussions are held after hours through nominication (open communication through drinking). Female politicians with children have not been invited or were otherwise unable to attend these gatherings and are consequently left out of important, albeit dubious, decision-making processes.

Beginning of structural change?

A nonpartisan group for the promotion of women in the field of politics was established in February 2015. The group proposed a bill encouraging all political parties to work towards nominating an even number of male and female candidates. However, there was a disagreement on the target between the LDP and the DP. The two major parties are now set to propose two separate bills, stalling momentum yet again. The DP also put forward an amendment to the Public Offices Election Law that would allow candidates on a party’s proportional representation list to be grouped by gender and then apportioned seats alternately. The amendment would result in establishing a voluntary electoral quota to increase the number of women in the lower house.

Yet, many LDP representatives and some independents are still reluctant to demonstrate support. “It is too early for a quota system,” commented female independent MP Michiyo Yakushiji. “First, women need to receive the proper training and education necessary to be effective in leadership positions. It is not always the case that the position creates the person. If women are suddenly given a role they feel they cannot fulfill, they may carry a lot of stress and eventually fade out. It may be better to wait another 5 to 10 years.”

Similarly, two LDP MPs expressed apprehension as to the effectiveness of a quota system in raising women’s status in parliament. One senior female LDP MP commented, “Some male politicians believe that it will amount to reverse discrimination and if women are elected in this manner, the quality of politicians and work will decline. This perception is very damaging for female politicians as their colleagues may believe that she was only elected because of her gender.” The other LDP MP Noriko Miyagawa stated, “The women who are elected should be recognised for their skills and abilities, and should not have to be wrongfully targeted because of the failings of a non-meritocratic system.”

In contrast, DP MP Kenta Izumi said, “There is a misunderstanding that women cannot speak well and cannot fulfill their roles, but that is false. Parliament is just simply not utilising women’s skills to the full extent. If parliament secures particular seats for women, this will allow those women to use their skills. In the current parliament, men have taken away women’s ability to voice their opinions.” This view is common in the DP, which is in strong support of a quota system to increase women’s participation.

Without public awareness and pressure, it is difficult to foresee any significant change to the number of women in parliament. The Japanese public must realise that the entrenched division of labor in the household is in dire need of liberation and women must have the freedom to pursue political careers.

They must unite and proactively call for parliament to challenge the stereotypes and prejudice towards women in Japanese society. Until there is a widespread movement placing pressure on the parliament to implement comprehensive measures, the number of women in the Japanese parliament will continue to be dismal, along with Japan’s prospects of achieving a gender equal society.

Elisa Solomon is a final year law student at the University of Queensland. She has lived in Japan for 10 years and previously worked in Tokyo for Trade and Investment Queensland and the Australian Embassy. She recently spent two months working at the Japanese parliament researching developments in women’s policies in Japan. This article is an extract from Solomon’s Quarterly Access essay published in Winter 2016.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.