Inequality in the Halls of Power: Legal Expert Miura Mari Examines Japan’s New Parity Law

Politics Society Gender and Sex

Sophia University political science professor Miura Mari discusses the effects new legislation to promote gender equality in Japanese politics has had since being passed in May 2018.

Miura Mari

Professor of political science at Sophia University. Born in 1967. Specializes in gender and politics, as well as comparative welfare states. Holds a PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. Works include Nihon no josei giin: Dō sureba fueru no ka (How to Increase the Number of Women in the Japanese Diet) and Welfare Through Work: Conservative Ideas, Partisan Dynamics, and Social Protection in Japan.

Japan is at long last taking steps to address its dismal record of gender equality in politics. The country currently ranks 165 out of 193 nations in the proportion of female members in its national parliament. In May 2018 the Diet passed a nonbinding act that urges political parties to field equal numbers of female and male candidates. The legislation, initiated by a female citizen’s group, has even drawn comparisons with parity legislation enacted in France. Sophia University political science professor Miura Mari, who was involved in the legislative process, considers the impact the law will have in bringing gender equality to the Japanese political sphere.

Women sit in the visitor’s gallery of the Diet on May 16, 2018, to witness the passing of a law promoting candidate gender equality. (© Jiji)
Women sit in the visitor’s gallery of the Diet on May 16, 2018, to witness the passing of a law promoting candidate gender equality. (© Jiji)

INTERVIEWER  What impact has the law had in the runup to the unified local elections in April and the House of Councillors election in July, the first major contests since the Diet passed the act?

MIURA MARI  One of the most tangible effects has been increased coverage of female candidates in the media. News outlets have focused a lot of attention on female legislators as well as new candidates as they watch to see the law’s impact on local races. This undoubtably has encouraged many women who were sitting on the fence to run for office.

The media has also scrutinized the efforts of different parties to boost female candidates, putting pressure on them to live up to the law’s call for parity. Opposition parties have made the greatest headway in this regard so far. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan aims for women to make up 40 percent of the proportional representation candidates they field in the upper-house election. The Communist Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People are aiming for 50 percent and 30 percent, respectively, of all the candidates they field to be women. The Liberal Democratic Party has noticed this and is taking a serious look at its game plan going forward.

Whether opposition parties actually increase their presence in the upper house by fielding more female candidates will be one area to watch. Women currently hold 20.7 percent of the seats in the House of Councillors, compared to just 10.1 percent in the lower house. Half of upper-house seats come up for election every three years, and all eyes are on how far the ratio can be extended from six years ago.

INTERVIEWER  Many parties have seemed to struggle to find suitable female candidates. Why is this?

MIURA  Parties do not make public the process by which they select candidates, making it difficult for women with few connections to figure out how they can run for election. Many female candidates run in municipal elections as independents. However, to have a chance of winning a Diet seat, a candidate must be endorsed by a major party, and it is typically only those who have some contacts within the party that get tapped to run.

Parties are largely male-dominated and leadership rarely strays from their masculine networks, hampering their ability to get to know potential female candidates. Parties need to recognize this situation and introduce reforms that enable them to recruit a broader diversity of candidates.

Sexual Harassment in Politics

INTERVIEWER  The gender equality act calls for measures to address issues that hamper women’s participation in politics. Many see the ongoing problem of sexual harassment as a major barrier discouraging women.

MIURA  The prevailing view in Japan is that politics is a boys-only club, and there are even some who would like nothing more than to see women excluded entirely. Men of this opinion don’t see Japan’s low ratio of female Diet members as an issue. In their view, there are already too many women in politics, and they resent the growing media coverage of female candidates. Such chauvinistic thinking creates a toxic environment and has no place in Japanese politics. The time has come to introduce concrete measures to prevent the harassment and personal attacks that so many female politicians are made to endure.

To increase female participation, parties and legislative bodies must step up and firmly take responsibility for ending sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. From the standpoint of recruitment, parties cannot turn a blind eye to such abhorrent behavior if they honestly expect women to join their ranks. Leadership must establish clear codes of conduct and discipline party members whose behavior crosses the line.  

A 2014 incident involving Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member Shiomura Ayaka illustrates the situation. When presenting questions about the need for policies to support women’s concerns, including pregnancy and birth, Shiomura was met with catcalls like “Why don’t you get married first?” from male assembly members. Although the incident was a blatant case of sexual harassment, it didn’t result in disciplinary actions and ended with the culprits merely proffering empty apologies. The episode demonstrates the need for legislative bodies to establish punitive measures to hold men accountable for misogynistic behavior.

Efforts to prevent harassment must also extend to social media. Authorities need to work closely with platform operators to create guidelines to prevent hate speech and other abuse aimed at women.

INTERVIWER  Japanese mass media coverage of female legislators suffers from an obvious gender bias. What do you think should be done to address this?

MIURA  The media holds female legislators to a different standard, which places them at a disadvantage. Outlets pay little attention to political prowess and instead prefer to focus on superficial topics like physical appearance, fashion sense, and personal life. For better or worse, though, the small number of female Diet members means that newcomers are thrust into the spotlight. However, the attention can be a double-edged sword, boosting or dashing legislative careers. A political gaffe is bad enough, but if a woman is caught up in a sexual scandal she is crucified. What we must do as a society is replace our worn-out stereotypes of women with a new, diverse image of female leadership. To achieve this, we need more women in politics.

Too Little Competition

INTERVIEWER  How would you characterize the role female politicians played over the three decades of the Heisei era?

MIURA  The 1989 upper-house election and its “Madonna boom” was a major milestone that nearly tripled the proportion of women in the body, to around 18 percent. In the 1990s, the collapse of the “1955 system” defined by the uninterrupted rule of the Liberal Democratic Party and the electoral reforms of 1994 heralded a new age for female lawmakers.

From the late 1990s into the early 2000s, female Diet members helped spearhead a slew of new legislation aimed at women, including the 1993 Part-Time Workers Act, 1995 Childcare and Family Care Leave Act, 1999 Basic Act for Gender Equal Society, and 2001 Domestic Violence Prevention Act.

In the 2005 general election, Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō set out to increase female LDP members in office, and the party has fielded more or less the same number of female candidates ever since. Then, in 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan snatched power from the LDP with the help of an influx of women into the party, including the “Ozawa girls” invited to run by then chief election strategist for the DPJ Ozawa Ichirō. However, the momentum eventually dwindled, and overall, the ratio of female legislators has only marginally increased. Women still have relatively little influence inside parties or with voters and those looking to run for office still have to rely on male leaders to get ahead. In the 1990s, cross-party cooperation among female lawmakers made the aforementioned acts targeting women possible, but in the 2000s this momentum was lost.

INTERVIEWER  Perceived gender roles are a barrier to women’s participation in politics in much of the world. What aspects are specific to the situation in Japan?

MIURA  In many political systems, the ebb and flow of power among parties creates opportunities for women to run for office. In Japan, though, regime change has been scarce, with the LDP steering the nation for most of the postwar era. There is also a strong tendency for incumbents to be automatically endorsed. Until these warhorses retire, women will be left with few opportunities to run for office.

The law promoting candidate gender equality is just the first step in opening the door to increasing the number of female legislators. Japan will need to consider gender quotas for elections if it hopes to make real progress in improving the situation.

INTERVIEWER  Why is it vital that Japan work to increase the number of female lawmakers?

MIURA  The most obvious problem is that women make up half of voters but only around 10 percent of lawmakers. Governments thrive when there is healthy and open dialogue among legislators and their constituents. However, in Japan’s male-dominated political system, topics important to women are largely ignored. Female representatives are in a better position to address social issues like sexual abuse than their male counterparts, who are unable to relate and all too often push women’s issues to the side. This creates a less equal society by disenfranchising women. Increasing the number of female legislators will give women a greater voice in society.

Educating a New Generation of Leaders 

INTERVIEWER  The new law promoting candidate gender equality calls for political parties to develop human resources. Based on your experience of training women leaders, what does this entail? 

MIURA   As cofounder of the Academy for Gender Parity I have been closely involved with our core program, which aims to bring up the next generation of female leaders. Politics has a very narrow appeal in Japan, particularly for women. Female voters don’t see the difficulties they face on a daily basis—issues like sexual harassment and molesters on trains—reflected in the broader political debate. However, women must learn to recognize that they have a central role to play in forging political solutions to such problems.

In fact, the issue of molesters on train was a common thread among high school students who participated in a program held last year. Several had been groped on the train and said that even when they spoke to teachers about their concerns, they were advised to just move to a different carriage. Participants didn’t feel that adults took the problem seriously and this created a strong feeling of mistrust. One participant even decided to join the program after her teacher dissuaded her from running for student body president because of her gender.

People’s interests and concerns change as they go through life. I hope to teach young people to view the challenges they face not as issues to tackle as individuals, but instead to seek political solutions that benefit society as a whole.

INTERVIEWER  Why do so many people feel a disconnect with politicians?

MIURA  Japanese legislators don’t project an image of approachability. Young people watch their representative on nightly news programs criticizing the policies of the ruling party and spouting lofty ideals. Then come election time they see them campaigning on a street corner, backed by sound trucks that blast the rep’s name through the neighborhood. However, politicians don’t seem the least interested in speaking or listening to the younger generations of voters. It is no wonder that young women distrust the political system and shy away from getting involved.

This is why in our programs we use video interviews of twelve female legislators to help participants get a feel for how the political system works. In the tapes the representatives each state outright that their job first and foremost is to lend an ear to the concerns of their constituents. They then go on to explain how these help them to craft laws and allocate budgets that address a wide variety of social issues. The women finish the interviews by emphasizing that being an effective legislator requires an open mind and ability to take a range of different views into consideration when hammering out laws so that they benefit the greatest number of people. Many program participants admit that the videos were their first chance to learn about the what Diet members actually do. They even inspired a few people to consider running for office in the future.

INTERVIEWER  Have any program participants gone on to start careers in politics?

MIURA  Out of sixty participants so far, five are running for local office and two for upper-house seats.

The need for female legislators is especially high in local assemblies. These are good places to launch a political career since the bar for winning election is lower than a national Diet race and running requires less money. In truth, there are already countless women active in local communities around Japan who could tap into their existing networks to win office if they just considered tossing their hats into the political ring. Their participation in government would make the system more open and help shine a light on a number of issues that have been too long ignored.

(Originally published in Japanese. Interview and Japanese text by Itakura Kimie of Banner photo: Miura Mari holds a card bearing the French-inspired slogan for a Japanese gender parity movement.)

gender Diet equality women women’s rights