In Japan’s male-dominated politics, women face obstacles to making history

The Liberal Democractic Party’s Seiko Noda, former internal affairs minister and the first female chair of the Lower House Budget Committee, tells The Japan Times about her ambitions to become the country’s next prime minister but points to old-school politics as one of the main obstacles impeding women’s chances. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Lawmakers who were vying to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who won the overwhelming support of the party’s members, have vowed to continue outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to empower women and raise their share of leadership roles.

But the 2020 election for Abe’s successor has shown the top position is not for women and the glass ceiling for female politicians remains stronger than it looks. And without a female leader making it to the top of the male-dominated LDP, Japan may never see its first female prime minister.

Two prominent female lawmakers ー Seiko Noda and Tomomi Inada ー both have prime ministerial ambitions. Both have ideas on how to address the nation’s challenge of a shrinking and aging population and have pledged to champion diversity. Neither of them, however, decided to throw their hat into the ring, discouraged from running due to factional politics and old-fashioned approaches based on a deep-rooted notion that men are leaders and women are not.

What stopped them from running?

Noda admits she was caught by surprise by Abe’s abrupt decision to resign due to illness and was not prepared to vie for the post this year — instead she had been readying for the election in 2021 when Abe’s tenure as president of the Liberal Democratic Party was set to end. She also considered her candidacy in the election “pointless,” given that the support of the LDP’s powerful factions meant Abe’s right-hand man Suga quickly became the favorite to win the top job.

Noda has been elected to the Lower House nine times since her first win in 1993 and has held several ministerial positions, including the posts of minister of internal affairs and communications and minister in charge of women’s empowerment. She also became the first female chair of the Lower House Budget Committee.

Inada, meanwhile, the LDP executive’s acting secretary-general and an Abe protege who shares his conservative views, was once seen as on track to becoming Japan’s first female prime minister before her short stint as defense minister ended with her resignation over data cover-up claims.
Former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who gave up on vying for the chance to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in this year’s Liberal Democratic Party leadership election, tells The Japan Times that gender balance in politics is essential for the future of the ruling party and the society. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

But the bar to enter the race has been set high as candidates are required to garner the backing of at least 20 LDP Diet members as a prerequisite for their candidacy.

“Even Ishiba, who is a popular choice among the public, has only 19 members in his faction, which shows how challenging this prerequisite is,” Noda stressed in a recent interview with The Japan Times, lamenting that the current election process does not guarantee equal opportunities to all candidates.

“I’d like the LDP to introduce a more democratic election system that would enable more female politicians to raise their hands, such as the American presidential nomination process with primaries in which candidates are selected (by popular vote),” she said.

In fact, the primary in the 2020 Democratic election in the U.S. featured six women. In Japan, meanwhile, female candidates ran in neither the election for the ruling LDP leader nor the election for the leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party.

It was not the first time Noda has given up on running for the LDP leadership. In 2015 and 2018, she sought to challenge Abe in the leadership election but gave up after failing to win the support of 20 Diet members.

Former Defense Minister Inada, who compared with Noda has less experience in politics, also gave up on fighting for support from other lawmakers.

Japan’s political world is dominated by factions that play a big role in the allocation of party and Cabinet posts and in determining who wins leadership races, yet female lawmakers are currently left in limbo as they face slim odds in getting factional support. To vie for the prime minister’s post, female lawmakers would need to strengthen their position within or in relation to the party’s factions.
Seiko Noda challenges the status quo during her debut as the chair of the LDP’s Budget Committee in November 2018 by calling lawmakers by their names with the honorific suffix san, not kun, which is usually used for men. | KYODO

So far, Yuriko Koike — one of the country’s most powerful politicians, who currently serves as the governor of Tokyo — is the only woman to have run for LDP president, having thrown her hat into the ring in the 2008 election when she challenged conservative traditionalist Taro Aso and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba. But even though Koike managed to win the backing of 20 lawmakers with support from former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, one of the most popular and influential politicians in the nation, she lost the race, coming third among five candidates.

“Female politicians won’t be able to wheedle their way to the prime minister’s post as long as they can’t strengthen their position within factions and stand at the top,” said Misako Iwamoto, a humanities professor at Mie University and an expert in gender and politics.

According to Iwamoto, female politicians are rarely appointed to decision-making positions in the Policy Research Council, a deliberative body within the LDP or the Cabinet, Iwamoto said.

“Even though women are holding high-ranking (ministerial) positions, they are not considered substantial leaders.”

She noted that gender is one of the main reasons why female politicians aren’t appointed to and thus are underrepresented in decision-making positions, and this in turn hinders their chances of winning.

Noda agrees.

“Appointments usually come as a surprise and women are used as decoration ー they never get appointed to posts to oversee fields they excel in,” she said. “In the LDP, women are considered a lifeline when men are in trouble, but there’s no place for them when men believe their position is safe. Women are often told to fill in positions that become vacant after a male parliamentarian resigns amid a scandal, as some kind of lifesaver. And each failure is met with harsh criticism.”
Former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada reviews a guard of honor after attending a ceremony marking the end of her duties at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo on July 31, 2017, following her resignation over a data cover-up scandal. | KYODO

By far, no female politician has managed to replicate the success of Akiko Santo, a veteran LDP member and president of the House of Councilors who led an 11-member faction, which merged with a more powerful group led by Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, becoming the second-largest faction in the party. But even as a leader of one of the LDP’s factions, Santo was never considered suitable for the prime minister’s role.

Inada, who has pledged that she “would love to take up the challenge, if I had a chance,” believes that her bid to become prime minister, as a woman, would be significant for Japan’s political arena and the LDP.

But as a member of the same faction as the departing Abe, which decided not to field any candidate, and someone well known as his close adviser, Inada was not able to go against the tide and file her candidacy, worrying about the impact on Diet members who would agree to support her.

The government has put empowerment of women high on its agenda, and Abe’s policies to boost the role of women in the economy and politics, dubbed womenomics, were a pillar of his efforts to cope with the low birth rate and aging population. But no one in the Diet expects a woman to rise to the top.

“Japan has acquired a reputation as a democracy without women due to its low percentage in the Diet and local governments, and the notion that this job is for men is prevalent,” Inada told The Japan Times in an interview Wednesday.

In a report published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in March 2019, Japan ranked 165th out of 193 countries for female political representation, with a mere 10.2 percent of lawmakers in the Lower House being women, one of the lowest in the industrialized world.

“What needs to change in the first place is boosting the number of female politicians to change this (male-dominated) landscape,” she said.
President of the House of Councilors Akiko Santo poses with Finance Minister Taro Aso following the merger of their LDP factions in 2015. | KYODO

Mie University’s Iwamoto worries the nation will continue to struggle to increase the number of female lawmakers.

In the Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum in December 2019, Japan was ranked 121st — its lowest position yet — below all other Group of Seven countries. In terms of women’s representation in politics, Japan was 144th.

Grassroots efforts to support female politicians have over the past few years began to spread across the country.

Throughout her career, Noda has worked to encourage more women to play an active role in politics in the belief that women are better versed in problems stemming from the declining birthrate and graying population than men and as such could find better solutions to address these issues.

Earlier this year, Inada proposed revising Article 14 of the Constitution, which stipulates that all people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations. She suggested amending it with a passage on the duty to remove gender inequality by introducing a quota system aimed at increasing the number of elected female politicians, but her proposal to introduce the stipulation of a fixed ratio for sitting female politicians and electoral candidates into the text has been met with rejection from within her own party.

Referring to the amendment of Articles 3 and 4 of the French Constitution in June 1999 to promote equal access for men and women to elected positions, Inada says she would welcome similar amendments in Japan.
Former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike waves at people during a LDP leadership campaign in which she was running in Tokyo on Sept. 11, 2008. | AP

“Society has gotten accustomed to male-dominated politics and poor representation of women in the LDP, but it should be exposed to diverse voices from within the party, also in the (LDP) leadership election” she said. “I’d like to see more public debates on why so few women participate in politics.”

The LDP general council decided that this year’s election would only yield a one-year term that will end in September 2021, and Noda and Inada are expected to take up the challenge next year.

But Inada hopes that Suga will push to increase the participation of women in various sectors of the economy.

Noda, meanwhile, hopes the potential victory of a female candidate in a U.S. presidential election could pave the way for a female leader in Japan. The U.S. has never had a female president, but expectations are growing now that California Sen. Kamala Harris, who initially ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, has been picked by candidate Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate, and a win in November could be pivotal to her election chances in 2024.

Iwamoto warns, however, that female lawmakers’ efforts aren’t enough to boost women’s chances to rise to the top, and men also need to become agents of change.

“Male lawmakers and especially faction bosses will first need to change their attitudes and accept women (as potential candidates for the top job),” she said.