Women gradually rise in Japanese politics but face deep challenges

TOKYO: Eight years ago, Yuriko Koike became the first woman to rule Tokyo, beating her male predecessor. She won her third term as governor on Sunday, and one of her closest rivals was a woman.
Multiple women running for top political office is still rare in Japan, which has a terrible gender equality ranking globally, but Koike’s win highlights a gradual rise in strong female officials and a society more open to gender balance. gender in politics. That said, even if a woman eventually becomes prime minister, politics here is still largely male-dominated, and experts say a huge push is needed for equal representation.
“There are growing expectations for women to play a bigger role in politics,” said lawmaker Chinami Nishimura, a senior official in the main opposition Democratic Constitutional Party of Japan. “In politics or parliament, which are still largely considered men’s work, it is extremely important for women to show their presence and make our voices heard.”

Incumbent Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike celebrates after being elected in a gubernatorial election in Tokyo, Sunday, July 7, 2024. (AP)

Nishimura, who also heads the opposition party’s gender equality team, hopes women will represent 30 percent of his party’s candidates in the next national election. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Conservative Liberal Democratic Party pledged last year to reach 30 percent female representation within 10 years and is working to recruit more female candidates.
However, it is not easy to find female candidates. Women in Japan are often expected to be responsible for raising children, caring for the elderly, and other family responsibilities.
National lawmakers are also expected to travel regularly between Tokyo and their home constituencies, making it especially difficult for female lawmakers trying to balance career and family. Nishimura says former colleagues have given up national politics and returned to local assemblies because of such demands.
Nishimura began her political career in the prefectural assembly of her hometown of Niigata in 1999, the first woman to serve there in decades. The 53-member assembly now has five women.
Increasing numbers of women are now pursuing political careers, but they are still in the minority, particularly in national politics, where electoral decisions are largely driven by closed-door, male-dominated party politics, and outspoken women tend to be targets.
One of Koike’s top rivals was a woman, Renho, a veteran former lawmaker who goes by one name and who finished third. Renho told reporters last month that he often saw headlines about the Tokyo governor’s race trumpeting “A battle of the dragon women.” “Would you use that kind of expression to describe a competition between male candidates?” she asked.
Koike, an elegant media-savvy former television news anchor, was first elected to parliament in 1992 at the age of 40. before becoming governor of Tokyo in 2016.
Renho, known for asking pointed questions in parliament, was born to a Japanese mother and Taiwanese father. A former model and news anchor, she was elected to parliament in 2004 and served as minister of administrative reform in the government led by the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan.
The attacks on Renho’s aggressive image were a clear example of gender bias in a society that expects female candidates to be “motherly or pretty,” said Chiyako Sato, Mainichi Shimbun editorial editor and political commentator.
Due to a low female presence in politics, powerful women tend to receive excessive attention. Their presence in the Tokyo gubernatorial election “sent a positive message that women can become political leaders, but much of the noise around them also reflected the sad reality of Japan,” said Mari Miura, a professor at the University Sophia and expert on gender and politics.
For example, a survey of national and local parliamentarians in 2022 by a civic group found that a third of about 100 female respondents had experienced sexual harassment during election campaigns or at work.
Earlier this year, gaffe-prone former prime minister Taro Aso was forced to apologize for describing foreign minister Yoko Kamikawa, a woman, as capable but not beautiful.
Women make up about 30 percent of the Tokyo assembly, and their presence in city assemblies in urban areas is also increasing. On average, women’s representation in more than 1,740 Japanese local assemblies doubled to 14.5% in 2021 from 20 years ago. There are growing calls for more female voices in politics.
But in rural areas, where traditional gender roles are more common, 226, or 13 per cent of the total, had “zero women” gatherings last year, according to the Cabinet Office for Gender Equality.
In parliament, where the conservative Liberal Democrats have been in power almost continuously since the end of World War II, women’s representation in the lower house is 10.3 percent, placing Japan 163rd out of 190 countries, according to a report of the Inter-parliamentary in Geneva. Union in April.
In 1946, the figure was not much different – just 8.4 percent – when a first batch of 39 women were elected to parliament, according to the Office for Gender Equality.
“There have been changes starting from regional politics, but the pace is too slow,” said Sato, proposing a mandatory quota for women.
One woman in a cabinet of about 20 ministers was standard in the 1990s. Lately, two is common. Maintaining an increased number of female ministers is a challenge due to the lack of senior women. Women are also given limited leadership opportunities, which delays gender equality laws and policies.
“Because of the absence of change in leadership, the metabolism is bad in Japan. Because of this, policy does not change despite changes in public opinion,” Miura said.
Koike became the first female candidate to run in the LDP leadership race in 2008. Two others, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda, ran in 2021 against Kishida.
Most recently, Kamikawa, the foreign minister, is seen as having a chance, as the LDP wants change while grappling with declining support ratings and corruption scandals.
The winner, determined by a vote between LDP MPs and party members, automatically becomes prime minister due to the PDL’s dominance in parliament.
In the Japanese system, however, having a female prime minister does not necessarily mean progress in gender equality due to the overwhelming political influence of men. But it could be a crucial, if symbolic, step forward, said Sato, the political commentator.
“Having role models is very important … to show gender equality and that women can also pursue a top job,” Sato said. “Women in politics are no longer expected to be walls.”

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