Two Decades Behind: How to Give Women a Bigger Voice in Japanese Politics

Politics Society

Japan has one of the lowest rates of female representation in politics of any country in the world. What are the reasons for Japan’s lack of progress in this area, and what can be done to improve the gender balance in Japanese politics?

Two Decades Behind

Japan lags far behind the rest of the world in the proportion of women who play an active role in its political life. Women are woefully underrepresented in the Diet, making up 9.5% of members in the House of Representatives and 15.7% in the House of Councillors. This low level of female representation in its lower house puts Japan in 156th place out of 191 countries worldwide. As of January 2016, Japan was one of just 38 countries where women make up less than 10% of elected representatives.

The global average is 22%—double the 11% average in 1995, when the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. Although the proportion of women in the House of Representatives has increased more than threefold from just 2.7% (14 members) at the general election in 1993 to 9.5% (45 members) at the general election in 2014, the truth is that Japan is still stuck at the level the rest of the world was at 20 years ago.

Female Representation in Parliament (Lower House) in Asian Countries

World ranking (out of 192 countries) Country %
20 Timor-Leste 38.5
21 Taiwan 38.1
48 Nepal 29.5
54 Philippines 27.2
67 Vietnam 24.3
70 Singapore 23.9
72 China 23.6
105 Indonesia 17.1
112 North Korea 16.3
112 South Korea 16.3
145 India 12.0
153 Malaysia 10.4
155 Myanmar 9.9
157 Japan 9.5
172 Thailand 6.1
175 Sri Lanka 5.8

Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union (January 2016). Data added for Taiwan.

Women are somewhat better represented in the House of Councillors, but even there they still make up less than 20% of the total. A watershed in female representation in politics came with the intake of women representatives brought about by Doi Takako during her time as leader of the Japan Socialist Party. The “Madonna boom,” as the Japanese media called it, brought nine new women into the upper house in 1989—a figure that increased to 11 including those elected by-elections. This influx lifted the proportion of women in the upper house—previously stable at around 6-7%—to 17.5%. The figures have risen and fallen several times since then, reaching a peak so far of 21.5% in 2007.

Global Factors Holding Women Back

As a general rule, female representation in politics is unlikely to increase until women are able to play a full role in working life in general, since the pool of potential candidates will remain small if few women are working. But the proportion of women in politics does not necessarily increase as more women join the workforce. The fact that the percentage of female parliamentarians around the world is still only 20% should tell us that certain structural barriers exist that make it hard for women in all countries to pursue a political career.

The first barrier is traditional gender roles. Entrenched ideas about what types of work are “appropriate” for men and women make it likely for the burden of child-rearing and other “family” work to fall on women alone. This naturally cuts into any time they might otherwise have devoted to politics. Male politicians tend to be free from any responsibility to deal with family chores. In many cases the family becomes a resource that supports his career. The burden of bringing up a family is a major factor that persuades many women to give up their political ambitions.

A second reason is gender stereotypes. If there is a strong feeling in society that politics is essentially a male sphere of activity, it becomes difficult for women candidates to attract votes, especially from male voters. And if they behave in the same way as their male counterparts once they have been elected, they risk betraying the hopes of the supporters who voted for them precisely because they are women.

The reality at the moment is that current working patterns and ideas about gender roles are acting as fetters preventing more women from becoming involved in politics. Another factor concerns the senior figures within political parties who select and sponsor candidates. If these executives are men, it is likely that their previous experiences of success and their unconscious gender biases will determine the qualities they look for in a “winning candidate.” Often they end up choosing a male candidate resembling the previous incumbent. And because both men and women tend to develop homosocial networks in which they socialize primarily with groups of their own sex, a woman candidate sometimes simply does not register on a man’s radar at all.

An Opposition Uncommitted to Women Candidates

Other factors are specific to Japan. One concerns the nature of competition among the political parties. In many other countries, political parties have often been persuaded to field women candidates in an attempt to attract female votes and win more seats. This has often opened the door to greater representation of women in parliament. If the strategy is successful, other parties follow suit and field more women as well to avoid losing the female vote. Generally, it has been left-of-center parties who turn their attention to women voters first, with the trend gradually spreading to more conservative parties.

The 1989 “Madonna boom” that took place in Japan conformed to this wider trend, inspiring a sense of crisis that pushed the conservative Liberal Democratic Party to take more positive steps to field more women candidates. But the situation changed in the 1990s. The Socialist Party was reorganized as the Social Democratic Party, and faded from prominence. Its place as the main opposition party was taken by the Democratic Party of Japan, which was never particularly popular with women voters and made no special efforts to recruit female candidates.

In fact, in the early years of the twenty-first century it was the LDP that took the lead in putting forward women candidates. At the general election in 2005, a total of 26 women were elected from the party, 16 of them entering the Diet for the first time. This increased the number of women in the lower house almost threefold. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō, the party put women candidates at the top of its list for seats chosen by proportional representation, in effect operating a quota system, and succeeded in increasing the number of parliamentarians from these blocs by six. This quota system was not continued at future elections, but there was no reduction in the number of women the party fielded as candidates. The number of women elected from the party has remained relatively high in every election since, with the exception of the party’s disastrous showing in 2009, climbing to 23 in 2012, and 25 in 2014.

The Democratic Party of Japan fielded more women candidates at the general election in 2009, when it won convincingly and took power from the LDP. Following this election, 40 of the DPJ’s representatives in the lower house were women. As a result, the proportion of women members of the House of Representatives rose to 11.3%, passing 10% for the first time. But the DPJ showed no particular attachment to the idea of fielding women candidates after this short-lived election success.

The international pattern has been for left-of-center parties to start making extra efforts to put forward more women candidates after an election defeat. But the DPJ, now part of the reorganized Democratic Party opposition, has followed a different path from the general trend, and this is one of the reasons why the proportion of women in the Diet has remained so low.

Another factor is that both of the major intakes of women parliamentarians—“Koizumi’s children” in 2005 and the “Ozawa girls” in 2009—were the result of decisions by male leaders to field female candidates. In neither case was a woman responsible for promoting other women, as happened when the “Madonna” representatives were elected under Doi Takako’s leadership in 1989.

Parties will struggle to attract women voters as long as it is still men who are pulling the shots. Until women rise to positions of leadership within the parties and connect with women voters directly, it will be impossible to create the new political culture we need as we move toward achieving a more equal gender balance.

Increasing Use of Quotas in Asia

The chief reason why the average level of female representation in politics has doubled around the world in the last twenty years has been the increasing use of quotas. Some form of quota system is used in over 120 countries today. There are essentially two types of quota: systems that reserve a certain proportion of parliamentary seats for women and those that require a certain proportion of candidates to be women. Quotas can be set up either for women alone or for both sexes, with the allocation distribution ranging from 10% to 60%.

Quotas began in the 1970s, when political parties began to introduce fixed requirements voluntarily, particularly in Northern Europe. In the 1990s quotas became a legal requirement in various Latin American countries and are now increasingly common in Europe as well.

Quotas are also becoming widespread in Asia, and are already legally in force in two places where women make up more than 30% of elected politicians: in Timor-Leste (38.5%) and Taiwan (38.1%). Taiwan uses a unique method that combines both reserved seats and candidate quotas. South Korea has compulsory quotas for party candidate lists; women now occupy 17% of seats in the national assembly (as of April 2016).

Revising the Law to Achieve Gender Parity

In recent years a shift has begun from quotas to parity. The idea is gaining ground that men and women should participate equally in the decision-making process as a basic principle of democracy.

The trend started with the passing of a parité law in France in 2000. In recent years, eight Latin American countries have switched from quotas to parity laws, and the trend is gaining pace. While quotas are, in theory, provisional special measures, parity can be seen as a universal democratic principle.

In Japan, which lags 20 years behind the rest of the world in gender equality, the crucial first step will be to introduce the concept of parity into political discourse.

I support the idea of legally guaranteeing the idea of parity by establishing the principle of gender proportionality in the Public Offices Election Act. The principle demands that politics, as a venue for decision-making, should reflect the reality that men and women each make up half the population. This provision would apply equally to both sexes, and could not be accused of constituting reverse discrimination against men. The concept of gender proportionality would also open a way for representatives of the “third sex” in the future.

How the Current System Makes it Difficult to Nominate More Women

An all-partisan caucus of Diet members led by Nakagawa Masaharu, Noda Seiko, and Kōda Kuniko has put together a draft for new legislation to encourage gender parity and equal participation in politics. The proposed legislation includes a provision requiring parties to aim for gender parity. If the proposal becomes law, political parties will have to work to ensure that they put forward equal numbers of male and female candidates. This will also make it easier for civil society to put more pressure on political parties to increase female candidates.

The group is also working to partially revise the Public Offices Election Act to allow parties to list male and female candidates alternately on their lists of candidates for proportional representation. One problem at the moment lies with regulations that allow parties to nominate the same candidates concurrently for single-seat electoral districts and seats elected by proportional representation. At present, parties are free to include candidates running for single-seat districts on their list of proportional representation. And they are also allowed to give multiple candidates the same ranking, or position, on the list. The actual order of precedence among multiple candidates with the same list position is decided by what is known as the sekihairitsu, or “best loser” ratio. This divides the number of single-seat votes obtained by each candidate by the number received by the winner; candidates with higher ratios take precedence on the PR list.

Most of the big parties tend to clump all their cross-nominated candidates together in list position one or two. Candidates running only for proportional representation seats tend either to be given list position one or line up after candidates who are also being nominated for first-past-the-post seats. Because there are few women candidates in single-seat first-past-the-post districts, the only realistic way to increase the number of women candidates running only for proportional representation seats is to give them position number one on the candidate list.

This has the effect of doing away with the principle of closed lists in the proportional representation seats. In a closed list, parties are responsible for determining the order of precedence of their candidates on a list. Parties that want to increase their number of women representatives can take this into consideration in determining the order of their candidates, and can take steps such as placing men and women candidates in alternate places on the list. Each party’s list of candidates is an indication of its philosophy. Voters can read each party’s philosophy by looking at their list and make their decisions accordingly.

In fact, because the major parties have avoided the tricky issue of how to decide the order of precedence among candidates concurrently nominated for both single-member and PR seats, it has become commonplace to rank all the single-member district candidates at list position one or two. Because the actual order of precedence depends on the results of the election—how close candidates came to winning—it is impossible for voters to understand a party’s philosophy by looking at the list of candidates. Despite the theory, therefore, the reality is that these “closed” lists are very close to being open lists.

As an academic advisor to the all-partisan caucus, I proposed to keep the provision that allows parties to allocate multiple cross-nominated candidates to the same list position, but change the rules so that only one candidate can be elected from each list position. At the same time, however, it allows a candidate to be listed several times at different positions in the list. Doing this opens up several new possibilities. A party that wants to offer a candidate list that alternates between male and female candidates would be able to divide its cross-nominated candidates into a male group (consisting of 20 candidates, for example) and a female group (of perhaps four candidates) and list them in alternating order, with the women’s group listed for example four times in second, fourth, sixth, and eighth position on the list. The party could then place female candidates running only in proportional representation seats in subsequent even numbers on the list. Parties would also be able to use different combinations of concurrently nominated candidates and PR-only candidates to achieve different types of diversity in line with party philosophy.

There are many approaches that can be taken to achieve gender balance, involving both revisions to laws and voluntary measures taken by parties. From the perspective of strengthening Japan’s democracy, we need to combine several methods and move ahead toward our aim of achieving gender parity.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 9, 2016, and published on May 17, 2016. Banner photo: Female Diet members from the Democratic Party give speeches in Sapporo on April 16, 2016, in the lead-up to election for Hokkaido 5th District. Acting President Renhō (second from right) lines up alongside House of Representatives Member Tsujimoto Kiyomi (right) and Policy Research Chair Yamao Shiori (second from left). ©Jiji.)

politics Diet LDP Lower House Democratic Party upper house women candidates