Opposition candidate Sakura Uchikoshi attends a campaign rally in July 2019
Linda Sieg / Reuters

It should be no surprise that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared gender equality to be one of his main priorities. Japan ranks 125 out of 149 countries in measures of female political empowerment and 117 in measures of economic opportunity—a problem for both its global image and its economic prospects.

In 2015, Abe set a goal of raising the proportion of women in executive positions in Japanese society from ten percent to 30 percent by 2020. The problem this call was trying to remedy was especially flagrant in Japan’s legislative body, the National Diet: at the time, women constituted only 9.5 percent of its 465 Lower House members. In 2018, the Diet moved to remedy its gender problem by passing the Gender Parity Law, which recommended—but did not require—that each party field male and female candidates in equal numbers. But even after last month’s legislative elections (in which 28 women were elected to the Diet’s Upper House, the same high obtained in the 2016 elections), the parity goal remains out of reach—largely because Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has failed to comply with the quotas it has ostensibly supported and thereby set back Abe’s broader goal.

ABE’S FALSE PROMISE

Even with the new law and the prime minister’s directive, the ruling party lagged noticeably behind its counterparts in recruiting women for this summer’s election. Women were the most successful of the LDP’s candidates: ten of the 12 who ran won seats. But of all the LDP’s recruited candidates, only 14.6 percent were women, a proportion well below the quota. The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, by comparison, ran 45.2 percent female candidates, and the Japanese Communist Party cleared 55 percent. Of the seven candidates nominated by the Social Democratic Party, five were women.

The LDP defended its shortfall on the grounds that many of its candidates were incumbents, leaving little room on its slate for rookie female candidates. But that the party’s incumbents are overwhelmingly male is not an accident. Formed out of a merger between two right-wing conservative parties in 1955, the LDP has dominated Japanese politics ever since, effectively making the country a single-party state. The party has never cultivated a tradition of supporting women candidates. From 1955 to the early years of the twenty-first century, women made headway in the LDP only as second-generation candidates, as daughters of LDP politicians. It was only after the Social Democratic Party recruited several women into politics that the LDP felt pressured to actively field female candidates.

The ruling party’s noncompliance with the quota reflects priorities of long standing. These priorities are visible in the party’s policies and its rhetoric. To really increase female involvement in politics requires, for example, that men shoulder more household work. The LDP has been content to advocate awareness campaigns to this effect, whereas at least two of the opposition parties propose requiring paternity leave. Although the Japanese government spent two billion yen publicizing paternity leave, only 5.14 percent of male workers took it in 2017. The LDP’s strategy of mere encouragement does not fundamentally shift the gender imbalances of child-care duties.

The party has never cultivated a tradition of supporting women candidates.

In a study comparing the campaign promises political parties made during the recent election, Tomone Komiya, a sociologist at Tohoku Gakuin University, noted that the LDP used the phrase “equal pay for equal work” in its election materials. By contrast, two of the opposition parties emphasized “equal pay for equal value work.” This subtle distinction in rhetoric reflects a deeper difference in how the parties understand the gender pay gap. Japan’s labor market is divided between “regular” workers and “nonregular” workers. Nonregular workers do the same work as regular workers for less pay and without job security or benefits. More than 60 percent of these nonregular workers are female. “Equal pay for equal value work” makes explicit that the work of nonregular workers should not be valued differently from that of regular workers. The LDP’s slogan does not.

The LDP approaches gender equality through the frame of the family unit, an emphasis that leaves out vulnerable groups whose families do not fit the most traditional model. The poverty rate for working single-parent families in Japan is 56 percent, for example, and in many cases single parents are mothers who earn less than men. The LDP does not mention same-sex marriage, even though almost 80 percent of the Japanese public are in favor of it. An LDP spokesperson told The Japan Times in June 2019, “There are no plans in our party to debate any same-sex law at this point.”

In fact, the LDP takes such a conservative view of the family unit that it opposes married couples retaining different surnames. Japanese law recognizes families through official registries: when women marry, they exit their family registry of birth and enter their husband’s registry under a new name. Conservative lawmakers, many of them in the LDP, killed two bills in 1996 and 2010 that would have allowed different spousal surnames. In the most recent election, the LDP celebrated women who retained their maiden names at work but legally took their spouses’ names, offering their choice as a compromise between “family ties” and female participation in the public sphere. But this policy retains the family as the “natural” unit of the nation, which adheres to patriarchal ideas about social organization. Women who challenged the required sharing of spousal surnames in a 2015 Supreme Court case argued that registry laws discriminated against women because a majority of women rather than men changed their name; Japan’s opposition parties supported these suits in the name of “gender equality” and “respect for human rights.” 

The LDP’s focus on the “traditional family” is worrying because it creates vulnerable demographics of women in Japanese society, especially those who do not fit into the LDP’s family mold. For example, Japan’s postwar economic system was designed around a working husband and a full-time housewife; the gender wage gap echoes this model, causing working single women to have lower pensions than men. The implications of this system are troubling: current projections put the poverty rate of elderly women at 25 percent and of elderly single women at 50 percent.

A BOYS CLUB

The political culture within the LDP has limited the party’s capacity to change either its ratio of men to women or its approach to gender equality.

The LDP’s response to sexual harassment claims in particular does not inspire confidence. In April 2018, a Finance Ministry official, Junichi Fukuda, resigned after accusations emerged that he sexually harassed a female reporter. LDP Finance Minister Taro Aso retorted that the reporter had “entrapped” Fukuda and that criminal sexual harassment charges did not exist (he later retracted this remark). Also in April 2018, LDP lawmaker Takashi Nagao responded to a photograph of female legislators holding #MeToo signs by tweeting that he wouldn’t sexually harass them because they were not attractive enough.

The LDP’s sexist culture limits what women advocating for women’s issues can achieve.

Female LDP members have some reason to fear retribution if they speak up against their party’s sexist culture. In May 2018, LDP Lower House member Kanji Kato declared that women should have at least three children and that childless women were burdens on taxpayers. Manami Go, a local female LDP deputy, held a press conference with prefectural assemblywomen from two other parties to denounce these remarks later that month. LDP officials pressured Kato into retracting the statement. But they also fired Go for crossing party lines.

It is this combination of sexist culture and fear that limits female lawmakers’ ability to improve gender equality. In June 2014, Tokyo Assemblywoman Ayaka Shiomura was addressing the Metropolitan Assembly about public support for pregnant women when LDP lawmaker Akihiro Suzuki yelled, “You should get married first!” Shiomura attributed a lack of female lawmakers as an element that made such abuse possible. But the fact remains that Shiomura was interrupted while advocating for an issue central to gender equality. The LDP’s sexist culture doesn’t just drive away potential female candidates—it limits what women advocating for women’s issues can achieve.

  • CHELSEA SZENDI SCHIEDER is a historian of contemporary Japan and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.
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