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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #31: April 4, 2003

Women in Japanese Politics: Part One -
Too Few Women in Japanese Politics

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

For a long time, political commentators have bemoaned the fact that Japan has one of the lowest representations of female politicians in the industrialized world. The full extent of this gender imbalance was graphically illustrated in a worldwide survey of female lawmakers released in March 2003. Of the 181 countries included in the global poll, Japan was ranked 97th and came in at 132nd place in the overall league table. Furthermore, this abysmal showing would have been even worse if the survey had used March 2003 figures instead of data from Japan's last general election in June 2000.

The international survey was conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union with overall rankings being calculated on the basis of representation in lower houses of parliament or single chambers. Lower houses were used as a baseline because many countries do not have bicameral legislative systems.*

In the Japanese lower house election of June 2000, the number of female politicians elected was 35 out of a total of 480 lawmakers. This represented just 7.3% of all lower house members. In most northern European countries, women on average make up over 30% of parliamentarians. In the United States 14.3% of legislators are women, which put the country in 59th place. In Asia, Vietnam was the star performer coming in at number 16 with 27.3% of the parliamentary seats held by women. China took 31st place with 21.8% while South Korea hit three figures at 103rd with just 5.9% of lawmakers being women.

I. Percentage of Female Lawmakers by Country
World RankingCountryPercentage of Female Representatives in Lower House
13South Africa29.8%
49United Kingdom17.9%
59United States14.3%
103Republic of Korea5.9%
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union, March 2003*
Note: As elections occur, the rankings in the above league table will gradually change

The Inter-Parliamentary Union used June 2000 data for Japan in its survey, but since then two prominent female lawmakers, Makiko Tanaka and Kiyomi Tsujimoto, have resigned their parliamentary seats. When these two losses are factored in, the current representation equals 6.9% which would rank Japan 99th behind Kenya (7.1%).**

Even though Japan ranks very low, there has been a slight increase in the number of female legislators in recent years. At the time of the last lower house election, Japanese political observers actually considered the figure of 35 female lawmakers as something of a milestone for Japan. In the previous parliament there were only 23 women, representing 4.8% of all lawmakers in the lower house.

As one would expect, there is also a huge imbalance in female representation in the political parties. This is particularly acute for Japan's two largest parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan. The table below clearly shows the serious imbalance amongst the parties at the time of the last election.

II. Party Representation in the June 2000 Lower House Election by Gender
Political PartyNumber of Male to Female RepresentativesPercentage of Female Lawmakers in the Party
Liberal Democratic Party225 males to 8 females3.43%
Democratic Party Japan121 males to 6 females4.72%
Komeito28 males to 3 females9.67%
Liberal Party21 males to 1 female4.54%
Communists16 males to 4 females20%
Social Democratic Party9 males to 10 females52.63%
New Conservative Party6 males to 1 female14.28%

The Social Democratic Party is the political party with the highest number of women representatives in the lower house and is atypical by Japanese standards. It is headed by veteran female lawmaker Takako Doi. At the time of the 2000 election the SDP was the only party in which the majority of representatives were female.***

Although Japan has been going through a period of political realignment over the past decade, this has only marginally increased the number of female lawmakers. It will probably take a few more decades before Japanese women reach the levels of representation recorded in Europe. Until then, the demands for a better deal for Japan's long ignored women voters will probably go unanswered.


* Inter-Parliamentary Union (March 2003)

** Comment on Makiko Tanaka's Dismissal
J. Sean Curtin, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 31 January 2002

Tanaka Dismissal: Month One Analysis
J. Sean Curtin, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 1 March 2002

Tanaka Declares War on Koizumi: Paradise Lost
J. Sean Curtin, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 21 March 2002

*** Poverty and Politics in Okinawa
J. Sean Curtin, SEAS Japanese Studies Newsletter, Spring 2001

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