Women in Japanese Politics: Part Three -
Women Candidates Make Gains in the 2003 Unified Local Elections
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
The first phase of the April 2003 unified local elections recorded solid gains for women candidates and represents another advance in the struggle for better equality in Japanese politics. The 14 April 2003 poll included elections for forty-four prefectural assemblies. In the 2,634 contested seats, a record 164 women were elected to office. A few regions also held gubernatorial races and here too a female challenger won victory. While the overall results gave national parties little cause for cheer, they did help strengthen the ranks of women politicians. It finally appears that some progress is being made on the long march to correct the massive gender imbalance in Japanese politics.
The run up to the first round of the local elections was also something of a political milestone. For the first time ever, nearly 10% of the 3,846 declared candidates in prefectural races were female.* Of the 383 women who threw their hats into the male dominated ring, a respectable 42.8% won. While it would be unwise to claim that the 164 newly elected women are going to radically change the face of Japanese politics, they have made nationwide advances. For the first time women won seats in the two previously all male bastions of Yamagata and Hiroshima prefectural assemblies.
On the northern island-prefecture of Hokkaido, Harumi Takahashi, an independent candidate, unexpectedly won, becoming the mighty territory's first ever female governor. Most opinion surveys had predicted that none of the nine candidates would obtain the 25% threshold of valid votes required under electoral law. The new governor seemed somewhat taken aback by her own good fortune at winning a narrow victory in the tightly fought and crowded race. She now becomes the forth woman to be elected governor in Japan. Ms. Takahashi had been a former Hokkaido government official with no previous political experience. Although she stood as an independent, she was backed by the three parties in the governing coalition.
This is the third successive unified local election in which the number of women elected has increased and the indications are that this trend will continue in the future. In the 1995 unified local elections, just 79 women were elected to prefectural assemblies. Although the baseline was very low, this figure soared by an impressive 72.2% to 136 women in the 1999 elections. 2003 sees a more modest rise of 28 extra women, representing a 20.6% increase. Even so, out of the 2,634 seats contested in this round of prefectural assembly elections, an overwhelming 2470 were won by men.
As in national politics, the major parties have an abysmal record of female representation in local government.** It is the small parties where women made the real gains. Out of the 1,309 winning candidates backed by the nation's biggest political party, the Liberal Democratic Party, just 16 were women (1.2%). The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan did better with 24 women winning from its list of 205 endorsed candidates (11.7%). Women achieved their best showing in the Japanese Communist Party where 45 of the 107 JCP seats were won by women. There were 44 women who won as independents.
The second half of these elections will be held on 27 April and are for mayors and local assembly members. These elections may produce additional advances for female candidates.
The first round of results is highly encouraging and while female politician still have a huge mountain to climb, they are definitely gaining momentum. The solid gains made this time around will build a firm base from which to expand in the next unified local elections scheduled for 2007. However, it may be another decade or more before Japan produces its own version of a Mrs. Thatcher or a Helen Clark.
* Women in Japanese Politics: Part Two - More Women Candidates Fight April 2003 Local Elections
Social Trends: Series #32, GLOCOM Platform, 10 April 2003
** Women in Japanese Politics: Part One - Too Few Women in Japanese Politics
Social Trends: Series #31, GLOCOM Platform, 4 April 2003