Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to elevate the role of women in the world’s third-largest economy. He might start with his own party.
Abe called for women filling 30 percent of senior positions in all parts of society by 2020, in an April 19 speech showcasing his growth strategy. Now, his Liberal Democratic Party is fielding nine female candidates out of 79 for next month’s election to the upper house of parliament -- about 11 percent.
With Japan already trailing in female parliamentary representation, the vote risks a further drop in world rankings as the LDP leads opposition parties. A receding role for women helping craft laws contrasts with Abe’s effort to counter a shrinking workforce through increased female participation.
“There’s always been this futile tug-of-war,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “There’s always been a voice within the conservative camp that the economy should make better use of women. On the other hand, there are the sort of ’traditionalists’ who want to keep women at home.”
Abe, 58, in December led the LDP into power in elections to the lower house which resulted in a 30 percent slide in the number of women lawmakers in that chamber, to 38 of 480 seats. Even so, he promises to exploit what he calls the “underutilized resource” of women in an economy where the working-age ranks are set to almost halve to about 44 million people by 2060, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
“It’s hard for women to be recruited and run for parliament from the LDP,” said lawmaker and former Gender Equality Minister Yoko Kamikawa, who failed to win the party’s backing for a 2000 race in her home prefecture of Shizuoka. The graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ran as an independent, beat the party’s official candidate and later rejoined the LDP.
Abe has vowed to eliminate waiting lists for childcare and provide training for mothers returning to work. Still, the message that women should have primary care of children until they are three years of age is “very powerful and perpetuated by those who are closest to Abe,” Nakano said.
While Abe broke with tradition by appointing two women to senior positions within the LDP party machinery, only two of his 18 cabinet members are female. Under his leadership, Japan has fallen to 124 from 113 in the global ranking of women in national parliaments compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Swiss-based group that fosters contacts among legislatures. China’s ranking is 54, Saudi Arabia is 69 and South Korea is 88.
“He says ’Japan is back,’ but I think it’s actually going backward,” said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a lawmaker with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, referring to a catch-phrase used by Abe in his campaign to revive the economy. “The Abe administration is not tackling the fundamental problems of equality.” The DPJ will field 11 women out of 57 upper house candidates, according to the party’s website.
Asked for a response to those criticisms, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hikariko Ono, a spokeswoman for Abe, said: “Active participation of women is at the core of Prime Minister Abe’s growth strategy.” Abe has pushed industry groups for a greater effort, Ono said.
A poll published by the Yomiuri newspaper June 11 showed 44 percent of respondents planned to vote for the LDP in the proportional representation section of the coming election, compared with 7 percent for the DPJ. The paper polled 998 people by phone June 8-10 and gave no margin of error.
The under-representation of women in Japan isn’t limited to politics. Women make up 15 percent of department managers across all sectors, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, while female workers’ salaries are about 70 percent those of men. Long working hours plus a lack of child and elderly-care facilities deter women from taking senior roles.
In her latest “Womenomics” report, released in April, Kathy Matsui, chief Japan equities strategist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in Tokyo, said Japan could expand its workforce by 8 million and gross domestic product by 14 percent by raising the share of women in employment to about 80 percent, the same level as men. The current female participation rate is about 60 percent.
“We need education” about the benefits of increased deployment of women in the labor force, Matsui said in a phone interview. “The average Mr. Watanabe or Mrs. Watanabe is probably not that attuned to what the business implications are.”
Abe’s target is optimistic “and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s more about image than anything else,” said Katsuhiko Nakamura, executive director at Tokyo-based think tank Asian Forum Japan. “It’s a more complex problem than an inflation target. The systems are not really in place to allow women to stay in the workforce.”
Mayumi Taniguchi, an associate professor at Osaka International University, set up a Facebook page for women to discuss politics after watching the LDP’s all-male leadership race last September. “There is an amazing amount of opposition to women becoming leaders,” Taniguchi said. “Men often tell me right out they don’t like women who are smarter than themselves.”
Women LDP lawmakers are divided over the best way to boost their numbers. Former Environment Minister Yuriko Koike has begun preparing a bill to provide increased financial aid to parties that select more women. The use of quotas has been opposed by several prominent women, including Sanae Takaichi, chairman of the LDP’s policy research council.
“There should be equality of opportunity in running for office,” Takaichi said at a press conference in March. “I think it would be a breach of the constitution to specify a particular number of women.”
Seiko Noda, chairman of the party’s general council, told an April press conference that quotas should be considered “at some stage,” citing South Korea and Taiwan as positive examples. “Asian countries need to overcome their unique customs and it will take something quite drastic to do that.”
Koike, who once ran for leadership of the LDP, said despite what she called an “embarrassing” lack of female representation, she hoped Japan could one day have a woman prime minister.
“We must make sure the best person gets the job, regardless of whether they are male or female. We have to avoid the mindset that someone can’t get the job because they are a woman.”
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