Barriers to election remain high in quest for gender equality

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Female politicians from across the world attend a meeting of the Women Political Leaders Summit on June 26 in the Members’ Office Building of the House of Representatives in Tokyo.

The Yomiuri ShimbunWhy hasn’t Japan been able to eliminate the perception that politics is a man’s world? Gender equality, women’s active participation in the workplace and female empowerment have taken root in society, but women’s participation in the all-important realm of politics remains sluggish. Is the problem structural or related to how society thinks? The election campaign for the House of Councillors that began on Thursday offers a good opportunity to explore issues related to women and politics.

On June 26, Iceland’s former interior minister Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir stood before a large group of female politicians from around the world in the Members’ Office Building of the lower house in Tokyo. She announced it would take more than 200 years to achieve an equal number of male and female politicians at the current rate, before adding, “No thank you!”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

As the room filled with thunderous applause, another participant shouted in response: “We must change the world with our actions!”

The setting was the Women Political Leaders Summit, which was being held in Asia for the first time. More than 300 people from about 80 countries participated, including many elected representatives.

The upper house election is the first nationwide Diet election since the Law on Promotion of Gender Equality in the Political Field came into effect in May last year. The law requires political parties to aim for equality in the number of male and female candidates in public elections.

According to a survey by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an organization of parliaments worldwide, female parliamentarians outnumbered men in Rwanda (No. 1 at 61.3 percent), Cuba and Bolivia as of Feb. 1. Japan ranked 165th among the 193 countries surveyed, with women comprising only 10.1 percent of the lower house. Japan was dead last among the 36 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “Japan must work harder to increase the number of female lawmakers,” said a representative from Romania who took part in the leaders summit.

Japan’s history of female Diet members goes back to the years immediately after World War II. Thirty-nine women were elected to the lower house in 1946, the year that women got the right to vote. The late Tenkoko Sonoda was among this first group of female lawmakers.

In 1950, Sonoda became the first serving lawmaker to become pregnant and give birth. While still in the hospital, she was summoned to the Diet to vote on important bills. She even arranged the chairs in her office in the members’ building into a makeshift bed where she could put her daughter to sleep before attending plenary sessions and the like.

Sonoda writes in her book “Onna wa Tanryoku” (Women should be courageous): “In order to survive in a world dominated by male logic, as a woman I must always bear in mind why I am here and what I want to do here.”

Sonoda’s younger sister, Tenhoshimaru Matsutani, 96, remembers Sonoda enthusiastically mentoring an aspiring female politician who came to her for advice. “Even when subjected to harsh criticism, my sister was determined to fulfill her responsibilities,” said Matsutani.

The door opened by Sonoda has gradually widened. Japanese society was transformed by the postwar period of high growth, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Law took effect in 1986. Takako Doi of the Japan Socialist Party, who became the first female Lower House speaker in 1993, sparked the “Madonna boom” — a period when female candidates repeatedly won elections.

In the nationwide local elections held this year on April 21, a record six women were elected in general mayoral elections, and a record 1,239 women in municipal assembly elections.

However, some feel the hurdles remain high.

Two women ran for city assembly in Tarumizu, Kagoshima Prefecture, a municipality that had not had a female representative since its founding in 1958. One of the candidates won, but the other, Rieko Takahashi, 53, lost. The beauty salon manager said that while she was placing campaign materials in mailboxes at an apartment complex, a male custodian came up to her and said, “Who would vote for a woman?” She also claimed that someone from a different faction “advised” her “to show deference to men when giving stump speeches.”

“I advocated smashing the walls built by men, which I think might have provoked their anger,” she said.

Kaori Nakajo, 53, became the first female member of the city assembly of Namegata, Ibaraki Prefecture, after the city came into being through a merger in 2005.

She remembers encountering people who said, “You’re doing this despite being a woman?”

“My voice lacks power when I’m alone. I’d like to have colleagues who can tackle problems with me,” she said, expressing her hope that more women will follow her into politics.

Hideko Takeyasu, vice president of Kyoto Women’s University, said: “Over 110 countries have introduced quota systems that assign a certain number of seats and candidacies to women. But Japan’s law to achieve gender equality among candidates lacks binding force.”

Takeyasu, a specialist in regional sociology, wants to change the stereotype that “politics is a man’s world.”

“It is also important for municipal governments and educational institutions to provide places to train women in regional areas to become leaders,” she said.

Law on Promotion of Gender Equality in the Political Field: The law requires political parties and groups to work as much as possible toward the goal of achieving equality in the number of male and female candidates in elections for the Diet and local assemblies. It was promulgated and implemented in May 2018 through nonpartisan legislation introduced in the Diet. The law encourages voluntary efforts such as setting numerical targets but lacks binding force and does not impose penalties.Speech

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