Japanese lawmaker’s comments on sexual assault spark calls for more female representation in politics

A Japanese lawmaker has apologized for claiming that women can lie about sexual assault. The comments sparked an online petition and have led to calls for increased diversity in the country’s male-dominated politics.

Sugita Mio, a member of the main ruling Liberal Democratic Party, admitted last week to saying “women can tell lies as much as they want” during a party meeting on sexual crimes on September 25.

She initially denied making the remarks but apologized in a blog post after being reprimanded by a party superior. She wrote, “I have no intention of disrespecting women,” adding that sexual violence is a serious problem that must be eliminated.

It isn’t the first time Sugita has courted controversy. In 2018, she faced criticism after writing an article calling same-sex couples “unproductive” as they cannot have children.

A group of about 200 people, including sexual assault victims, held a rally to protest Sugita’s comments in Tokyo on Saturday.

“I think her remarks have hurt many people,” said Kitahara Minori, one of the organizers. “They are very dangerous and can fuel negativity. We want to move away from a society that allows politicians like her to emerge.”

The group has also launched an online petition calling on Sugita to resign. It has attracted more than 130,000 signatures.

A group of sexual assault victims held a rally to protest Sugita’s remarks.

Male-dominated politics

Yoda Karen, a member of the Shinjuku Ward assembly in Tokyo, says Sugita’s comments are a result of Japan’s male-dominated political world.

“If a woman wants to be accepted in politics, they feel they have to say and do things that will get the approval of men,” she says.

According to one report, the other lawmakers in the meeting laughed at Sugita’s remarks. Yoda says this reaction is just as troubling as the comments themselves, and is indicative of the larger problem of gender imbalance in politics.

“If there were more women in that room, there wouldn’t have been any laughter,” she says.

Japan has long had one of lowest rates of female representation in politics in the world, and the latest survey by the Inter-Parliamentary Union suggests little has changed. Japan ranks 167th out of approximately 190 countries in terms of female parliamentary representation. The gender imbalance is especially stark in the Lower House, where only 46 out of 465 seats, or 9.9%, are occupied by women.

Yoda is a transgender woman and she says this has allowed her to experience both sides of the gender divide in Japanese politics. She has noticed that there are certain topics women are expected not to talk about—and these topics are often related to women’s issues.

“I once said it was inappropriate to use a drawing of a girl, wearing a skirt so short that you could almost see her underwear, for a campaign,” Yoda says, “and for that, I received tremendous backlash on social media. I was shocked but my female friends said this sort of thing is common for women. I never noticed it when I was a man.”

She even received threats, including a message from a person who warned they would show up at her office.

“I was able to ignore it all,” Yoda says, “but I know of some female politicians who have stopped using social media, or even given up politics entirely.”

Yoda spoke about her experiences as a woman in Japanese politics during a webinar hosted by the Academy for Gender Parity on Oct. 1.

Prior to running for office, Yoda attended a training program hosted by the Academy for Gender Parity to prepare women for elections. The organization is working to address the gender imbalance in Japanese politics, aiming to eventually achieve equal representation. Since 2018, it has helped six women win local elections.

Earlier this month, Yoda addressed a webinar hosted by the organization. She spoke about her experiences in politics and why female representation is the key to passing progressive policies.

“Don’t be afraid to participate in politics,” she said. “It’s the only way we can break free of the limits placed on us.”