Women in Japanese Politics:
Part Six – Fewer Female Candidates Run in Lower House Election
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
As Japan gears up for the November 9 general election, practically no attention has been given to the nation's abysmal level of female representation in national politics. For the first time in almost a quarter of a century, the number of women candidates in the current election is lower than in the previous poll. Furthermore, many female incumbents are facing tough re-election battles and there is a strong possibility that fewer women will be elected in 2003 than in 2000. Such a result would be a serious setback for advancing gender equality in Japanese politics, reversing a trend of steady progress in recent years.
In the upcoming November 9 election, there are just 149 registered female candidates compared with the previous tally of 202 in the June 2000 poll. This represents a massive 26 percent drop in the number of women standing for office and marks the first time since the 1979 election that the number of female candidates has not exceeded the figure recorded in the previous poll. Part of this dramatic decline can be explained by the fact that the overall number of candidates is lower than in 2000. Even so, as Japan only has a small percentage of female lawmakers, the fall in numbers is a matter of concern.
By global standards, Japan has an extremely low number of female lawmakers, ranking it near the bottom of international league tables. Despite this poor showing, the political establishment has chosen to completely ignore the problem. Instead of attempting to rectify the imbalance, Japanese politics remains stuck in the stale atmosphere of the last century.
In the June 2000 lower house election, 35 female lawmakers were elected to office out of a total of 480 seats. In other words, a mere 7.3% of lower house lawmakers were women, compared to an EU average of between 20 to 30 percent. Nevertheless, the 2000 figure was an improvement on the 23 women who were elected in the previous 1996 poll. As two female lawmakers, Makiko Tanaka and Kiyomi Tsujimoto, resigned their seats during the life of the last parliament, at dissolution there were only 33 women representatives.
There are several reasons why the number of women elected in the November 2003 poll may decrease. Firstly, in the previous parliament the party with the largest number of female lawmakers, the Social Democratic Party, is currently lagging in the polls. Most of the SDP's current nine female lawmakers are facing tough re-election battles, especially the party leader, Takako Doi.
Secondly, the two main political parties are only backing 40 women between them. The current election is shaping up to be a two horse race between Japan's dominant political force, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the main opposition, Democratic Party of Japan. The LDP is expected to emerge the largest party, but only 3 percent of its candidates are women. It is fielding 336 prospective lawmakers of which just a meager 11 are women. The DPJ does marginally better putting forward 29 women on its list of 277 candidates, representing just over 10 percent of its total.
The party fielding the largest number of female candidates is the Japanese Communist Party, but most of its candidates are unlikely to win. Opinion surveys indicate that both the JCP and the SDP may lose half their current seats. The JCP is supporting 77 women candidates, the SDP is backing 17, the New Komeito Party is fielding 6 and the New Conservative Party is only putting up one.
In recent years, women have made impressive strides in both regional and local politics, but advances on the national stage have been limited. If the current lower house election results in fewer women lawmakers than in the 2000 poll, then Japan's already battered international image will be further tarnished. Until the country's male leaders address this issue with the seriousness it deserves, Japan is likely to remain ranked below many developing nations in terms of gender equality in politics.
Other Articles in Women in Japanese Politics Series can be found here.
Gender Equality in Japanese Education
Women Advancing in Japanese Society
Youth Trends in Japan
The Declining Birthrate in Japan