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Candidate numbers show gender parity in Japan politics still a long way off

House of Representatives members give three cheers as the chamber is dissolved at a plenary session on Sept. 28, 2017. Members of key opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, boycotted the session. (Mainichi)

Of the 1,180 people currently registered as candidates in the Oct. 22 general election, 209 are women, or 17.7 percent -- the highest ratio ever. And while the ratio may be up 1.1 points from the last House of Representatives poll in 2014, it also shows how distant true gender equality in Japanese politics is.

Before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the lower house in September, women held 44 seats, accounting for 9.3 percent of its then 472 members -- the worst rate among the Group of Seven club of advanced nations. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an organization made up of parliamentarians from around the world, as of Sept. 1 Japan ranked 165th out of 193 countries in the ratio of national lawmakers who were female.

The Abe administration has made much of "women's empowerment" in the past, but his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has actually fielded fewer female candidates for this election (25) than it did in 2014 (42). Among the women running on the LDP ticket this year are a lot of past winners from the party's landslide lower house election victories in 2012 and 2014, and "increasing the number of new female candidates is very difficult," a party source commented.

When asked during an Oct. 11 interview about the number of women running on the LDP ticket, party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai replied, "It's better to decide on candidates naturally, not because they are male or female."

Meanwhile, Party of Hope leader and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike picked up on the IPU statistics during an Oct. 11 speech in Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, saying, "Mr. Abe talks about 'women's empowerment.' Does he know that (Japan's) ranking is going down and down?"

Party of Hope is fielding 47 female candidates, or 20 percent of its total slate -- higher than the LDP in both pure numbers and ratio. However, it remains very few for a party that has pledged "to strive for a society in which women play a leading role." In the July Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, 34 percent of candidates put up by the regional Tomin First (Tokyoites First) party, effectively led by Koike, were women.

Setting aside the Party for Japanese Kokoro, one of whose total of two lower house election candidates is a woman, the parties with the highest ratio of female candidates are the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and the new Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), at 24 percent each. None of the large parties have hit the 30 percent mark, the government's goal for the percentage of "leadership positions" to be occupied by women by 2020.

During the last regular Diet session, there was some movement among both ruling and opposition forces to pass a bill requiring political parties to do their best to field equal numbers of female and male candidates. However, both versions of the bill died when Abe dissolved the lower house in September, right at the start of the autumn extraordinary Diet session.

"I feel strongly that a law is necessary to rectify the situation in which women aren't sufficiently represented in the legislature," commented Ryoko Akamatsu, a former education minister and now head of the Q no Kai citizens' group, which had advocated for the now defunct bills.

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