Noda Seiko: Tackling Gender Imbalance in Japanese Politics

Politics Society

One of Japan’s most prominent female politicians, Noda Seiko has dedicated herself to addressing problems stemming from the declining birthrate and publicly declared her ambition to become the country’s first woman prime minister. Admitting that she only truly understood the disadvantages women face in society after becoming a mother at the age of 50, Noda talked to us about her plans to make it easier for more women to play a role on the political stage.

Noda Seiko

Liberal Democratic Party member of the House of Representatives. Born in 1960. Became the youngest person ever elected to the Gifu Prefectural Assembly in 1987. Elected to the House of Representatives for the first time in 1993. Became Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in 1998. Numerous positions since then have included Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications and Minister in Charge of Women’s Empowerment. Has been elected to the House nine times.

The Need to Change the LDP Message

Liberal Democratic Party politician Noda Seiko has been a member of the political elite for nearly three decades. She was still in her thirties when she was elected to the House of Representatives for the first time, and a few years later became the youngest ever member of the cabinet when she was appointed Minister for Posts and Telecommunications. In recent years, she has also faced the problems and struggles experienced by many women trying to balance work and bringing up a family, as the mother of a son with disabilities, having given birth at the age of 50 after years of infertility treatment. Noda has devoted much of her career to encouraging more women to play an active role in politics, and has put herself forward as a candidate to take over as president of the LDP as part of her efforts to make women more visible in political life.

In the Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum in December 2019, Japan placed in its lowest position yet (121st), below all other Group of Seven countries. It scored especially poorly on women’s representation in politics, placing 144th. Globally, women make up an average 25.2% of representatives in the lower houses of political systems around the world. In Japan, the equivalent figure for the House of Representatives is just 10.1%

In 2019, local elections and elections for the House of Councillors were held for the first time since the passage of a new parity law urging political parties to field equal numbers of male and female candidates. However, without any legally binding power or any sanctions for violations, the new law did not lead to a significant increase in the number of women candidates or members of the legislature. As one of the central figures who worked to ensure passage of the legislation, how does Noda Seiko see the situation today?

“For better or worse, the reality is that the LDP has pretty much had a monopoly on political power in Japan for much of the postwar period. This means that achieving any kind of fundamental change in politics requires bringing about a change in the LDP and its policies,” she says. “In that sense, the first elections held under the new legislation failed to achieve any major results. [In the elections for the upper house women represented only 28% of all candidates, and just 15% of candidates fielded by the LDP.] The party is still dominated by men at the height of their careers, which means there is not much room to field women candidates. Even so, despite the lack of change within the party, the new legislation led to more media coverage than we’ve ever had before about the problem of how few women candidates we have for public office, so I think it did have some limited effect in that sense.

“In the past, the Gender Equality Bureau within the Cabinet Office played the chief role in terms of encouraging more women to get involved in politics, but in the lead-up to the elections the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications also got involved in publicizing the new legislation. I get the sense that the issue has started to become established as part of wider national policy, rather than simply ‘women’s issues.’ For the ministry to get involved in efforts to boost awareness among voters like this means that the government has started to get serious about its duty to inform people about the law to promote greater participation by women in politics.”

A Midlife Awakening

Noda is realistic enough to understand that the country’s long tradition of male-centered politics will not change overnight. This hard-nosed realism is the result of her many years as a member of the small minority of female politicians within the LDP. Noda has a proud career in national politics that goes back nearly 30 years. She was just 26 when she was elected to the Gifu Prefectural Assembly in 1987 and became a member of the House of Representatives in 1993.

“When I entered politics, it was totally a man’s world. My grandfather was a politician (Noda Uichi, former minister of construction) and people often claim that he ‘chose’ me to follow in his footsteps. In fact, he was adamantly opposed to the idea of my embarking on a political career. I think he was worried about what might happen to me if he let his precious granddaughter launch herself into a world dominated by men.”

A lot of her supporters within the party advised her that if she was set on the idea of a political career she should give up her femininity. “I followed their advice. I gave up trying to look stylish, and made sure that I wore the plainest suits possible, except occasionally during election campaigns.” Tanaka Makiko was another woman elected to the House of Representatives at the same election (originally as an independent and later joining the LDP). But, Noda says with a smile: “Makiko was a bit of a special case as the daughter of a former prime minister. And she was also a lot stronger than most men, so that she wasn’t really interested in joining forces with someone like me!”

Noda was 37 and still a lonely figure in the Diet when she was appointed minister of posts and telecommunications. She says she noticed a change in the attitude of those around her at this time. From advising her to give up her femininity, she says, people started warning her to make sure that she didn’t suppress her femininity too much for fear of alienating other women voters.

“People told me to modify my behavior. They said that if I gave the impression of being a free-and-easy single woman who enjoyed being surrounded and flattered by men and who knew nothing about the difficulties of raising children, I would not be able to win an election. Since I was twenty-five they constantly told me essentially ‘act like a man,’ ‘don’t get married,’ and ‘don’t have children.’ Then when I married my first husband at the age of forty, and became a wife, I suddenly felt for the first time a real sense of what it meant to be a woman. I think I understood myself as a woman for the first time. Until then I’d been a bit like a male politician dressed in women’s clothing.”

Noda says she’d always liked children and wanted to become a mother herself one day.

“Becoming a mother became my biggest aim in life, and I started on infertility treatment. I confronted a lot of the problems that can happen to a woman physically once she’s 40. I had uterine fibroids. But I also came to know many women tackling similar problems in my battle to conceive. They shared stories from their lives, things I had never heard in the political world—of women who had experienced numerous miscarriages, and those whose jobs made it difficult for them to get pregnant—and for the first time I felt I understood the issues women face in society through my own personal involvement.”

Balancing Politics and Childcare

“It’s not that you can’t do things because you’re a woman. The sad reality is that you are at a disadvantage as a woman if you get married and have children,” Noda emphasizes. “When I was single, I worked alongside men and never felt at any disadvantage. But once you get married, all the burdens of married life tend to be put on women’s shoulders. It’s one-way traffic. When a couple gets married, the law requires them to have one family name—and it’s almost always the woman who takes her husband’s name. So that’s one example. Part of the problem is that so few people in politics understand how big the social disadvantages are that women face as a result of getting married.”

Noda herself says that she leaves about 80% of childcare to her husband, who has a more flexible schedule, and takes time off whenever she is feeling unwell. She often works from home in the mornings. “It is impractical to aim for a perfect balance of work and childcare. And I really wouldn’t recommend it to younger women who come after me.” Noda wants to show that it is possible to balance politics and childrearing by a flexible approach, partly because this will also help to increase the number of female politicians. Unless we can shake off the idea that bringing up children is somehow “women’s work,” it will be impossible to make it easier for more women to enter politics.

Introducing Quotas Without Constitutional Revisions

During a debate on the issue of separate surnames for married couples recently, one woman LDP representative heckled an opposition member who argued that the requirement might pose a barrier to marriage by jeering “Don’t get married then,” prompting harsh criticism from opposition parties. In fact, Noda says, “the few women within the party were more likely to oppose the idea of separate surnames than anyone else.” The opposition was led by Inada Tomomi, chief deputy secretary-general of the party, who has since reversed her position and now supports changing the law to allow married couples to have separate surnames. Inada is also considering quotas as a way of increasing the number of female candidates, and has spoken about revising Article 14 of the constitution, which decrees the equality of men and women, as part of this.

Separate names for married couples and the introduction of a quota system are policies that Noda has supported for many years. As a Diet member representing the LDP, she is not opposed to the idea of revising the Constitution, but says that it is not a necessary part of introducing these policies. “One of the reasons why there have been so few revisions to the Japanese Constitution is that it is possible to deal with problems as they arise through the way we interpret it. For the Japanese people today, I don’t think there are many issues that cannot be addressed without a revision to the Constitution. If we decide we want to introduce quotas, there is no reason why we can’t do it with the Constitution as it is. I don’t think it is something that should be led by force. I’d rather women start to notice what’s going on. I want more women to think to themselves: ‘We’re losing out here. And maybe that’s because we’re not properly represented in politics.’ That’s what democracy is about, little realizations like this. That’s one reason for our declining birthrate too: many women believe that having children will put them at a disadvantage. A male-dominated society has been built up over the past 150 years. If more women start to notice these things, I think that will accelerate the move toward reform.”

Noda has also opened a “school” offering lectures and seminars to women in Tokyo and in her home constituency of Gifu. The aim is to provide training and guidance to women aiming to become politicians. But Noda says the first step toward this is to encourage them to break free from patterns of thinking that say politics is nothing to do with women. She says she wants to make it easier for more women to enter politics. “There’s been this tendency to think of politics as a tough, almost physical job that only men can do. But once we break down the door to the closed world of politics, I’m sure a lot of women will see the truth and realize: You know, there’s no reason we can’t do this ourselves.”

First, she says, it is important to increase the number of women in regional assemblies. “A lot of the subjects on the agenda in regional assemblies directly concern daily life. Introducing school buses, keeping roadside ditches clean, caring for the elderly, things like that. These are all issues that are close to everyday life for many women.” Nevertheless, men make up an overwhelming huge majority in the decision-making process. After the local elections in 2019, women made up only 14% of representatives in local assemblies, and of the 1,788 assemblies around the country, fully 16.9% did ot have a single female representative. (Data from the Ichikawa Fusae Center for Women and Governance.)

Ambitions to Lead

It was after she gave birth to her son that Noda began to speak explicitly of her ambition to become party president. “The thinking within the LDP is based on the idea of trickle-down policies: that as the people at the top get more prosperous, this will somehow trickle down through society and bring happiness to the less fortunate. That’s the logic. I think the opposite is nearer to the truth. I think if weaker people and minorities can achieve happiness, that is going to make everyone else happier too as a result. Especially since my son has a disability I can’t help worrying about his future if society remains the way it is at the moment.”

She says if she does become president of the party, she will prioritize policies to deal with the country’s dwindling birthrate above trying to change the Constitution. “I first pointed out that potential of our declining birthrate to wreck the country about seventeen or eighteen years ago, earlier than anyone else in the Diet. I feel a great sense of responsibility on this issue and have studied it carefully. Our population is our national source of energy. And we are losing that energy to the tune of 500,000 people a year. Under the present Constitution, there are really no issues that cause widespread suffering. By contrast, population decline will cause serious difficulties for many people.” Noda says this is one reason why it is so important to put an environment in place where women, as those who give birth to children, can work more freely in society.

She says her insistence on her status as an LDP representative is a pragmatic one. “I was expelled from the party for a while (for opposing the post office privatization policies of Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō), so perhaps I don’t have the same love of the party I used to have. But for convenience’ sake, being a member increases the likelihood of being able to formulate legislation that will make a difference on all kinds of issues. It’s a realistic approach.” In addition to this, she says there is also the simple fact that “since the LDP is still such a male-dominated party, it is important to be there as a woman and ensure that women’s voices are heard.”

Will we ever see a woman as prime minister in Japan, given its current ranking in the Gender Gap Index?

“Even on a worldwide basis, the number of women prime ministers and presidents isn’t all that huge. But here we can’t even put women forward as candidates. That is the big difference between us and other countries. As a sort of elder among the women in the Diet, my mission is to create a situation where women are a constant presence as players who capable of playing a central role in Japanese politics in the years to come. That is my mission, so of course I am delighted to see other women like Inada Tomomi and Obuchi Yūko become candidates to take over as president of the party. And of course, I’m one of the candidates too. In that sense, the election for party president is one of our biggest opportunities to raise the profile of women in politics. And that is why I think it is so important for me to continue to do everything I can to aim for that position.”

(Published in Japanese on March 11, 2020, based on an interview by Itakura Kimie of Photos by Hanai Tomoko.)

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