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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Japanese Women Seek Bigger Role

Apr. 7, 2016

It has been 7 decades since women in Japan won the right to vote. But the number of female politicians in Japan remains low compared to most countries.

Despite the passage of time, women still make up less than 10 percent of the Lower House. That's almost the same proportion as 70 years ago.

A recent Inter-Parliamentary Union survey on female members put Japan in 156th position out of 191 countries.

The women's suffrage movement in Japan began in earnest in the 1920s. It took journalist Fusae Ichikawa and her fellow campaigners more than 20 years to finally achieve their goal.

Women won the right to vote just after the end of World War 2. Ichikawa's reaction to the achievement was captured in a TV interview in November 1945.

"Women's suffrage will help improve the distribution of food rations and definitely enhance women's status in society," she said.

The first election women took part in, was held on April 10th, 1946. Life was difficult at the time, with shortages of food and clothing. But more than two-thirds of women of voting age still showed up at the polls.

Thirty-nine women were elected to the Lower House.

At age 26, Kiyoko Sato was the youngest of those first female members. She is now 96-years-old, and is the only one of the first female Diet members still alive. She remembers that time clearly.

"I told myself, my time has come at last!" she says. "The era when women endured even their husbands' reckless behavior and had to accept their unreasonable demands was over. When men made mistakes, women were finally entitled to openly point out the errors."

Sato worked to introduce a law to protect women with children who lost their husbands in the war, and those who were forced to turn to prostitution because of poverty. She served for one term in the Lower House.

"Women should recognize that they are the stakeholders and speak up," she says. "But in reality, many were content letting others do the job."

Today, the Lower House has 45 female members.

Noriko Miyagawa of the Liberal Democratic Party taught English at junior high and high schools for 5 years before entering politics. She ran for office without an electoral base.

"We do more canvassing than policymaking. We have to interact with voters from dawn 'til dusk. We greet people on the street in the morning, make rounds of houses during the day, and attend meetings at night," Miyagawa says. "It's really difficult for women to do this while raising children or maintaining a household."

Miyagawa says she has suffered discrimination because of her gender.

"Some voters dismissed me as an 'inexperienced young girl.' The toughest was a man who said he would only vote for me if we had sexual relations. Some even touched my body. It made me feel that some voters in my constituency still believed that women shouldn't take part in politics," she says.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, or IDEA, has zeroed in on the small number of women in the Japanese Diet. In February, 2 researchers visited Japan.

Diet members explained the situation to them.

"We do acknowledge that Japan is not keeping pace with the times, and that's a big challenge we face," said Emiko Takagai, of the Liberal Democratic Party.

"Old customs in the countryside discourage women and young people from running in elections," said Shuhei Kishimoto, of the Democratic Party.

Some Diet members have begun working to increase female representation. Last year, 61 MPs formed a bipartisan group. They're incorporating IDEA's opinions into a draft bill. They want to encourage all parties to put forward equal numbers of female and male candidates.

The group is headed by Masaharu Nakagawa. He's a member of the Democratic Party and is the former gender equality minister. Nakagawa says it's difficult for the Diet, which is dominated by men, to draw up policies for women.

"If the Diet had more women, there would be more discussions on child-rearing and other issues that specifically relate to women," Nakagawa says. "It's not just about gender equality. What I mean is that women's perspectives and visions are what we need."

Members of the group say a shift in the mentality of voters is needed, and that they're taking every opportunity to further their cause.

Last month, Miyagawa took part in an event for high school students. She encouraged the students, of both male and female, to get involved in politics.

"I want more women in the Diet," she said. "So I'm hoping that boys and girls of your age will become more interested in politics and make your views public at events like this."

"Female lawmakers get all the attention in Diet debates, so I used to think that there must be many of them. But when I saw the actual figure, I was surprised at how few of them there are," said one female student.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to improve the situation.

"We hope the ratio of women in leadership positions will reach at least around 30 percent by 2020. It goes without saying that the government will continue making all kinds of efforts toward this end," Abe said.

The Japanese government has set 2020 as the target date to have women make up 30% of the candidates in Diet elections.

However, it appears it may take a while still. In the last Lower House election, women made up just 17 percent of the candidates.


NHK WORLD's Yuko Aizawa, who covers national politics, joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: So, Yuko, seeing the story, lawmakers from both the ruling and the opposition parties, well apparently they seem to share the same basic concern about the current situation. But does it mean that we should expect the bill to be adopted in the Diet sometime soon?

Aizawa: In fact, no. The Diet members who worked together to draft the bill are definitely positive about the need to change the situation. But that doesn't mean that each lawmaker in their parties shares the same level of eagerness. Some say that this is not an urgent matter. So there is no guarantee that it will be adopted in the current Diet session.

In addition to that, even if the bill becomes law, it only calls on each party to make efforts to balance the number of male and female candidates. In other words, the law wouldn't mandate parties to do that. This is because the drafters had to consider voices in their own parties that disagree with setting a concrete mandatory numerical target.

I heard from one of the lawmakers who drafted the legislation who said this is only a very small first step.

Shibuya: So are the parties not taking any action now?

Aizawa: Well, as the public is getting more vocal about their desire to see the situation changed, the parties feel more pressured to do something, or at least show that they are doing something.

For example, some of the parties are organizing training schools to help more women candidates get seats in local assemblies, as a starting point, and to later try for seats in the Diet. There is also a party that provides financial support to women candidates.

Beppu: On the other hand, it's been pointed out, well for years, in Japan that it's not only females that have the problem to enter politics but also it includes men. It means that all newcomers find difficulty when they try to get seats in the Diet.

Aizawa: That's right. Look at the Abe cabinet, which has 20 members including the prime minister. I checked their backgrounds and quickly found out that half of them have fathers or grandfathers who were Diet members as well. Experts point out that sons or daughters of lawmakers have the upper hand against others, because they can count on the supporters and the campaign institutions of their fathers or grandfathers.

New candidates with no family connections to politics face a barrier even before they enter the race. Of course, parties are facing growing criticism about this situation. Many parties now have a system to select their candidates from the public. But critics say these measures are not enough. They say a situation is developing in which it looks like seats are inherited within the same family.

Beppu: Well you've been covering national politics for years. What do you think is necessary to bring about real change?

Aizawa: I want to point out 2 things. One is to forge a social consensus that both men and women should take part in policymaking. One women Diet member complained that she encounters many female voters who still think that politics is a field for men. So I think we women, need to break from this kind of perception.

The second point, I believe, is action. I mean concrete action by parties and Diet members. Many lawmakers do share concerns over the low number of women in the Diet. But unless the parties field more female candidates, voters will be unable to elect more women. So I think it all boils down to whether the parties and lawmakers can translate their concerns into concrete actions.