Women candidates advance beyond ‘token’ status in Japanese politics

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The now-defunct Japan Socialist Party led by Takako Doi caused the “Madonna boom” in the upper house election in July 1989.

Women who are in the minority of a group are often treated as tokens. Harvard University Prof. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who specializes in strategy, innovation and leadership for change, analyzed corporate organization culture in her seminal 1977 book, “Men and Women of the Corporation.” According to Kanter, when women are treated as tokens, they are not regarded as individuals but as symbolic representatives of all women. While Japanese women politicians are increasing in number, they may still be seen as tokens, by this definition, in the national Diet. But there were positive signs of progress in the recent House of Councillors election.

In Japan’s July 10 election, a record 35 women were elected to seats in the upper house, surpassing the previous high of 28 in 2019. Female candidates won 28% of the 125 races. However, the percentage of women in the House of Representatives — Japan’s lower house — is less than 10%. Overall, women account for only 15.4% of all Diet members.

There were other positive signs in this House of Councillors election. Of the 545 candidates who ran, 181 were women, accounting for 33.2%. This is the first time in Japan’s political history that the percentage of female candidates exceeded 30% in a nationwide election. This is widely recognized as a significant breakthrough by the public since the July 10 election was the third nationwide election since the passage in 2018 of the Law on Promotion of Gender Equality in the Political Field. The law calls for political parties to make efforts to ensure that the numbers of female and male candidates they field are as close to even as possible.

The opposition parties led the way in terms of fielding women candidates. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan fielded 26 female candidates, one more than its 25 male candidates. The Japanese Communist Party fielded 32 women, accounting for 55.2% of all its candidates. In the Democratic Party for the People, women accounted for 40.9% of candidates. For Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), which appeals to conservative voters, the figure was 30.4%. Although the opposition parties arguably have more flexibility in choosing their candidates than the ruling parties, which have larger numbers of male incumbents, these opposition efforts to field more female candidates should not be discounted but merit objective evaluation.

The ruling parties have shown signs that they too are making efforts toward gender balance in politics, albeit with some restrictions. Both the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito increased their percentage of female candidates in this upper house election compared to the previous upper house election in 2019. In this election, the LDP fielded 19 women candidates out of a total of 82, representing 23.2%, while 20.8% of candidates fielded by Komeito were women. The increase may be due not only to the existence of the law on gender equality, but also to the fact that people, especially the younger generation, are becoming more conscious of political parties’ attitudes toward gender equality.

Despite the progress, the state of gender equality in Japanese politics still lags behind international standards by several metrics. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022, Japan ranked 116th out of 146 countries.

The ranking is based on a country-by-country index of the degree of gender equality in four areas: politics, economy, education and health. In this year’s ranking, while Japan ranked first in terms of educational opportunities and 63rd in health among all the countries, it ranked 139th in politics and 121st in economy. Clearly, Japan’s lagging advancement of women in the political and economic space has pulled the country down in the rankings.

Japan’s overall ranking has been falling almost consistently since the first ranking was released in 2006, when Japan placed 80th. Reflective of this decline in its international rank, the current Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has only two female ministers, fewer than the number of women ministers in then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet in 2006.

There were at least a couple of elections in the past in which surges of women ran for political office and attracted a great deal of national attention. For instance, a phenomenon dubbed the “Madonna boom” led to 146 women running in the upper house election in 1989 — the second highest recorded number of women candidates in an upper house election. This was triggered by the huge popularity of Takako Doi, the female leader of the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party. Then in the lower house election of 2009, Ichiro Ozawa of the also now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan coached many female candidates to run in the election and helped them win. These female politicians were disparagingly dubbed “Ozawa girls.”

Rather than being treated as individuals, these candidates were reduced to either saviors or naifs — “Madonnas” or “Girls” — judged only for the fact that they were women. This is the true essence of being “tokens.”

Although a large number of women were elected to the upper house in this year’s election, none were given depersonalizing nicknames like “Ozawa girls.” This is partly because there were no overarching similarities among the women who ran and won in the election. The media simply reported the results in a matter-of-fact manner. This should be taken as a sign of progress in Japanese society.

Notably, Kanter argues that when a minority group makes up about 35% of the total group, it can influence the whole, and as a result shape the nature of the organization. The percentage of female candidates overall in the latest election was 33.2%, which is very close to 35%. If, as Kanter said, women who reach a certain percentage have the power to change their organizations — even if it is only the upper house — there is a good chance that Japan’s political culture, still fielding more male candidates than female ones, can finally start changing as well.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Yuko Mukai

Mukai is a staff writer in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun