TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's minister for gender equality and children's issues called the country's record low births and plunging population a national crisis and blamed "indifference and ignorance" in the male-dominated Japanese parliament for the neglect.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Seiko Noda couched the steadily dwindling number of children born in Japan as an existential threat, saying the nation won't have enough troops, police or firefighters in coming decades if it continues. The number of newborns last year was a record low 810,000, down from 2.7 million just after the end of World War II, she said.
"People say that children are a national treasure. ... They say that women are important for gender equality. But they are just talking," Noda, 61, told the AP in a Cabinet office in downtown Tokyo's government complex. "The politics of Japan will not move unless (the problems of children and women) are made visible."
She said there are a variety of reasons for the low birthrate, persistent gender bias and population decline in Japan, "but being in the parliament, I especially feel that there is indifference and ignorance."
Japan is the world's third biggest economy, a powerful democracy and a major U.S. ally, but the government has struggled to make society more inclusive for children, women and minorities. There are deep concerns, both within Japan and abroad, about how Japan will reverse what critics call a deep-seated history of male chauvinism that has contributed to the low birthrate.
The gap between men and women in Japan is one of the world's worst. It ranked 116th in a 146-nation survey by the World Economic Forum for 2022, which measured progress toward equality based on economic and political participation, as well as education, health and other opportunities for women.
"Japan has fallen behind because other countries have been changing faster," said Chizuko Ueno, a University of Tokyo professor of feminist studies, referring to Japan's gender gap. "Past governments have neglected the problem."
Because of outdated social and legal systems surrounding family issues, younger generations are increasingly reluctant to get married and have children, contributing to the low birthrate and shrinking population, said Noda. She has served in parliament since 1993 and expressed her ambition to be Japan's first female prime minister.
Noda criticized a law requiring married couples to choose one family name -- 90% of the time it is the women who change their surnames -- saying it's the only such legislation in the world.
"In Japan, women are underestimated in many ways," said Noda, who is one of only two women in the 20-member Cabinet. "I just want women to be on equal footing with men. But we are not there yet, and the further advancement of women still has to wait."
The more powerful lower house of Japan's two-chamber parliament is more than 90% "people who do not menstruate, do not get pregnant and cannot breastfeed," Noda said.
The lack of female representation is often referred to as "democracy without women."
A quota system could help increase the number of female candidates for political office, Noda said, but male lawmakers have criticized her proposal, saying women should be judged by their abilities.
"That made me think that there are men who lack the ability" to be candidates, she said. But during the candidate selection process, "men can just be men, and I guess, for them, just being male can be considered their ability."
Noda graduated from Sophia University in Tokyo and worked at the prestigious Imperial Hotel in Tokyo before she entered politics, succeeding her grandfather, who was a parliamentarian in Gifu prefecture.
Noda had her first child, who is disabled, at age 50 after fertility treatments. She supports same-sex marriage and acceptance of sexual diversity.
Noda, who has many liberal supporters, called herself "an endangered species" in her conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan with little interruption since the end of the war.
She said she is frequently "bashed" by conservatives in the party, but also by women's rights activists, who don't see her as an authentic feminist.
Still, without the help of powerful male lawmakers in the party she could not have come this far, Chiyako Sato, a Mainichi newspaper editorial writer, said in her recent article.
Comparing Noda and her ultra-conservative and hawkish female rival Sanae Takaichi who both ran unsuccessfully in the September party leadership race, Sato said despite their different political views, they are similar "perhaps they had no other way but win powerful male lawmakers' backing to advance in the Liberal Democratic Party at a time women are not considered full fledged humans."
Japan's Self Defense Force, she said, has had trouble getting enough troops because of the shrinking younger population. She said there's also not enough attention paid to what the dwindling numbers will mean for police and firefighters, who rely on young recruits.
To try to address the problems, she has created a new government agency dedicated to children set to be launched next year.
Younger male politicians in recent years have become more open to gender equality, a reflection, in part, of the growing number of children who are being raised by working parents, Noda said.
But many male lawmakers, she said, think that issues around families, gender and population don't concern them, and are reluctant to get involved.
"The policies have been made as if there were no women or children," she said.