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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #63: December 17, 2003

Women in Japanese Politics:
Part Nine International Comparisons with Japan's Female Lawmakers

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM), Todd Kreider (Contributor, NBR's Japan Forum), Naoko Kochi (Queensland University), Joyce Gelb* (Professor, Dept. of Political Science, City College and Graduate Center, CUNY) and Earl Kinmonth* (Professor, Taisho University)

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

Todd Kreider: In 1992, Japanese women made up 1.4% of lawmakers in the House of Representatives. That figure is now 7.1%. Overall, there are twice as many women in the Diet as there were in 1987.

Sean Curtin: I certainly agree that there has been a huge increase in the number of female lawmakers since 1992, but the fundamental problem is that the starting point was extremely low. In the November 2003 Lower House election just 34 women were elected to office, one less than in the previous June 2000 poll.

Todd Kreider: In the past, we have seen an election cycle where the number of women in the Diet (parliament) remained constant. I think it happened sometime in the 1990s.

Sean Curtin: What I think the latest result confirms is that Japan's male-dominated political parties have not really attempted to rectify the gender-imbalance in national politics. In many industrially advanced democracies, serious efforts have been made to increase the number of female lawmakers. A broad spectrum of political parties have successfully managed to improve female representation in their national parliaments. This advance has been achieved by using a wide-range of policies from simply appealing for more women to become politicians to giving female candidates preferential treatment. Take the British Labour Party, it worked hard to recruit women candidates and has seen a spectacular rise in the number of female lawmakers. On the other hand, Japan's major parties, especially the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), have done virtually nothing. Take the recent election results, 228 male LDP lawmakers were elected and only 9 LDP women. This means that just 3.8% of the party's lawmakers are female and that figure has now dropped to 3.7% due to post-election mergers.

Naoko Kochi: Are you not being a bit unfair on Japan here? Why do you compare the LDP with the Labour Party and not its actual British political equivalent, the Conservative Party? If you did this, your example would not be such a good one as the Conservative Party has just 14 women lawmakers out of a total of 166 seats.

Sean Curtin: I compared the Labour Party with the LDP as both are currently governing parties in their respective countries. It is certainly true that the British Conservative Party has a very poor record when it comes to women and ethnic minorities. The present party does not seem particularly inclusive and many believe this is one of the reasons why it has lost the last two elections by landslide margins. However, it should be pointed out that despite their current shortcomings the Conservative Party did produce Britain's first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, as well as the country's first ethnic minority Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

Earl Kinmonth:* One more in each category than either US political party has had as president.

Sean Curtin: Returning to my British comparison, I would just like to add that in no way am I offering a defence of the Conservatives, but I think we will have to wait a long time until the LDP produces its first female or ethnic minority Prime Minister. Disraeli was British Prime Minister over a century ago (1874-80).

Todd Kreider: The U.S. ranks 59th in the world in terms of women's representation in national legislatures, when comparing the House of Representatives to the lower or single houses of parliaments in other countries. The US shares 59th place with Andorra.

Sean Curtin: Europe, especially Northern Europe, tops the global league table for female representation in parliament. From a European perspective, it seems odd that the US does not do better in this respect. Europe has already had quite a few women prime ministers and presidents (Thatcher, Robinson, McAleese, Harlem Brundtland, Cresson, Jaatteenmaki, Suchocka, Danut-Prunskien, Indzhova, inter alios), but the US has not yet even had a female vice-president. Perhaps if the US had more prominent women in politics, Japan might feel pressurized into addressing its own political gender-imbalance.

Joyce Gelb:* I think the comment that if the US had more female representation the Japanese would too, requires further explanation. Is the US the touchstone for all Japanese policy making?

Sean Curtin: I think the US has a major impact on Japan. Furthermore, the influence of the US appears to be much largely than all the EU countries put together. Everyday, NHK news has extensive reportage on American affairs. For example, just one week before the 9 November general election, the main news story for several days was the fires raging in California, the election barely got a mention.

Joyce Gelb:* The US is perhaps no longer a leader on gender related policy or representation. It is not really looked to as a model at least by Japanese feminists- they do seek guidance from the EU and the Nordic nations.

Sean Curtin: While I agree that academics, feminists and bureaucrats look to Europe for solutions to various social issues, the general public looks firmly to the US. If the US elected a woman president, then Japan would certainly notice and might even begin to feel embarrassed about its own abysmal gender-imbalance in politics.

Todd Kreider: Sean compares Japanese rates of progress with respect to women in parliament as excruciatingly slow and mentions "a spectacular rise in its number of female lawmakers" in Britain's Labor Party. Granted, these are not equivalent comparisons, but the numbers in the table below are revealing comparing just increases in women in parliament from 1987 to 2003.

I. Percentage of Lower House Female Lawmakers in the United Kingdom and Japan
YearUnited KingdomJapan
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union, March 2003

Todd Kreider: So, overall in this fairly recent time period, we see a 2.8 fold increase in the UK and a 2.6 fold increase in Japan. Sean usually emphasizes the lower house in Japan, and here we see a reasonable rate. Of course, Japan started with low numbers, which has been my point. But the UK's current 18% is not a vast improvement on Japan's 10%, even though notable.

Sean Curtin: I think we are all in basic agreement on this point. The position of women in Japanese politics has most definitely improved over the last decade. However, the figures clearly show that there is still a long way to go. Furthermore, as the country's dominant political party, the LDP needs to seriously address the issue of gender equality in politics.

* Note: Professor Joyce Gelb and professor Earl Kinmonth's comments first appeared in a discussion on NBR's Japan Forum in November 2004.

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

Related Series

Gender Equality in Japanese Education

Women Advancing in Japanese Society

Youth Trends in Japan

The Declining Birthrate in Japan

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