Japanese female candidates aim for diversity breakthrough

TOKYO — Japan’s upper house elections next month are a major test of gender equality, with a record number of female candidates running in a country notorious for lagging behind in women’s political participation.

Female hopefuls represent 181, or 33%, of the 545 contenders registered in the July 10 ballot. From an advocate for equal rights for sex workers to a former United Nations official of Uighur descent, many candidates hope to not only make progress for women, but bring more diverse perspectives to Japanese politics. .

An expert said the record number of female aspirants shows that Japan is finally “booted up”. There is still a long way to go: in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report for 2021, the country ranked 147th in women’s political empowerment, out of 156. As of last November, only 14% of lawmakers in office were women.

Yukiko Kaname, 46, a first-time candidate for the opposition Democratic Constitutional Party of Japan, would like to see not just more women, but more people from different walks of life in the corridors of power.

“[Democratic] politics is supposed to ensure diversity in society, but today most parliamentarians have similar values ​​and ways of thinking because they have all been highly educated and have decent family and work experience,” said she added. says Nikkei Asia.

For years, Kaname has advocated for equal rights for sex workers. A veteran of the night scene herself, she gained national notoriety at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when she protested the government’s disqualification of sex workers with children from receiving compensation for lost wages. The government quickly reversed its decision.

For her, the episode only highlighted misunderstandings about the sex industry and its lack of representation in parliament, motivating her to run for the polls.

Kaname believes that having more female politicians in the Diet is not enough. A diversity of perspectives and experiences is also crucial, she argued. “What’s important is not just increasing the number of women politicians, it’s what kind of women become politicians.”

As Kaname runs for the CDP, Arfiya Eri, 33, brings his unique experience to the ballot for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Eri’s name and appearance have some wondering if she is “Japanese”. As a naturalized Japanese citizen of Uyghur descent, born and raised in Japan, “I only consider myself Japanese,” she said. “But I want to show at home and abroad that there are different forms of ‘Japanese’.”

She is the youngest candidate on the LDP list this time – the minimum age for upper house candidates is 30. But Eri brings a global perspective gleaned from more than five years working at the United Nations in New York.

As part of her job as deputy policy officer for Asia-Pacific, she recalls observing the elections in Bangladesh in 2018, which were marred by allegations of human rights abuses against the opposition. This, she says, taught her the value and fragility of democracy and freedom.

According to her, one way to protect Japanese democracy is to ensure that a range of voices are heard. But “there is a large population [in Japan] which is obviously not represented and can be left behind in this process. The largest of these groups is women,” said Eri, who also previously worked at the Bank of Japan.

Eri sketched the scene at the annual United Nations General Assembly, where each member state sends a delegation. She said Japan and China were “pretty much the only nations” to field all-male teams. At UN headquarters, meanwhile, women made up the majority of civil servants. But she recalls feeling that she was perceived as someone who was encouraged to work abroad because her country did not exploit the potential of women, while her European colleagues were simply seen as women interested in international relations. .

Japan is making progress, Eri said, but the speed is “terribly slow” and the country doesn’t seem to realize it. “In Japan’s terms, he’s trying hard and improving, so that’s reassuring,” she said. “But when you measure that in global standards, it gets further and further behind.”

Indeed, Japan’s 147th place in the WEF’s political empowerment rankings last year was worse than in 2006, when the country ranked 83rd out of 115. In 2021, Japan had only filled 6, 1% of the gender gap – based on the percentage of women. in parliament and ministerial positions, as well as the number of years a woman has served as head of state in the past five decades (zero in the case of Japan). This is down from 6.7% in 2006.

By comparison, neighboring South Korea, frequently cited as another male-dominated society, ranked one place behind Japan in 2006 but climbed to 68th place in 2021, joining the top half. The WEF says the country has closed 21.4% of its gender gap. It promotes women’s participation in politics with tools such as gender quotas, penalties for sexual harassment and public funding.

“Japan only recently realized that women were missing [in politics]”said Mari Miura, professor of political science at Sophia University. While other countries have seen governments come and go and boosted women’s participation in politics under progressive leaders, she said that Japan had been “at a standstill for 15 years” under a predominantly conservative regime, as its WEF scores show.

But Miura conceded that Japan wouldn’t even have made this start without the groundbreaking law passed in 2018 – proposed by a group of bipartisan lawmakers – which called on parties “to work voluntarily to promote gender equality”, in particular by setting targets for the number of male and female candidates for public office.

Kaname, the sex workers’ lawyer, and Eri, the former UN worker of Uyghur descent, are candidates under Japan’s proportional representation system, by which 50 members of the upper house will be elected. Another 75 will be elected from individual constituencies.

The ruling LDP still has a relatively low share of female candidates, at 23%, while two opposition parties, the CDP and the Japanese Communist Party, have over 50% each. Some parties are calling for quota systems in politics to further promote women’s participation.

Potential voters listen to a speech during Japan’s upper house election campaign. Women made up just 14% of lawmakers last November. © Kyōdo

Miura remained pessimistic about the number of women who will win seats in parliament this time around. With the vote rate hovering around 50%, she said candidates would have to depend on support from organizations, many of which are male-dominated.

She stressed that a post-election review would be “extremely important”. If parties are criticized for not actually sending their women candidates to parliament, it would push them to do more to help women win in the future. “We have to repeat this for 20 years because that’s how long it takes for most nations to change,” Miura said.

The government aims to increase the rate of female candidates in elections to 35% by 2025. Miura thinks this is probably unachievable, especially for elections to the most powerful lower house, unless drastic policies of action positive are implemented. Incumbents are likely to thwart these laws for fear of losing their positions.

“That’s why we need outside pressure, from the media and the voice of the public, calling for more female representation,” she stressed. Incumbents will only be motivated to change when they feel that supporting female candidates will help them stay in power.

“Whether Japan moves gradually towards women’s political empowerment, or whether it changes significantly and achieves it, it’s time to choose,” Miura said.


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