A QUOTA SYSTEM IN JAPANESE POLITICS / Natsuki Yamada

2020 was the year that a number of women around the world were successful in politics, and it seems that some of the hardest political glass ceilings were shattered. In particular, Kamala Harris, the first black female vice president, was elected in the United States. It is also said that female leaders have been doing better solving the problems of the pandemic, such as Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, who did the early lockdown and showed rapid economic recovery. Angela Merkel in Germany responded to the coronavirus early and calmly as well, so the cases in the country at the start of the pandemic were relatively low compared to neighboring countries. However, it feels as if time stopped here in Japan. In September, Japan’s new cabinet has formed by the new prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, but there are only two female members. In fact, according to World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (2020), Japan ranks 144th out of the 153 countries in the political empowerment subindex, which is the lowest number in OECD countries. Women’s opinion matters in order to solve various kinds of social issues, such as low birthrate and welfare issues. If there are few women in decision-making positions, women’s opinions cannot be reflected in political measures, and Japanese society’s future will be bleak. In order to achieve gender equality in Japan, the political quota system should be adopted by law to increase female politicians in parliament. 

In Japanese politics, the number of female politicians is extremely low compared to other countries. According to the Cabinet Office (2020), there are only 10% of female lawmakers in the House of Representatives, and 20% of local assemblies do not have any female members at all (2019). As for the cabinet members, Japan currently has only two female members. The first female cabinet member was elected in 1960, and there were five women in Junichiro Koizumi’s cabinet in 2001, which was the highest number in Japanese history. Although Asian countries generally tend to have a relatively low percentage of women in ministerial positions, Japan is the worst in women’s politics (IPU, 2020). As for women’s political rights, compared to women in other countries, it took a long time for Japanese women to get voting rights. While Japanese women got the right to vote in 1947 after World War II, the U.S. women already got it in 1920, and all women in New Zealand, who had the voting right first in the world, got it in 1893 (IPU, n.d.). Therefore, it can be said that Japan has been behind in women’s politics from a historical point of view.  

Sexual harassment and maternity harassment also make it difficult for Japanese female politicians to be empowered, which is another issue for women in Japanese politics. Since Japanese politics is male-dominated, female lawmakers are harassed verbally and physically by male lawmakers and voters. According to the survey examined by Asahi Shimbun, one in four local assembly members has experienced harassment. For instance, in 2014, while speaking about empowering working women, Ayaka Shiomura, who was a member of the Tokyo Municipal Assembly, was insulted by some male lawmakers. They said that she should hurry up and get married or she cannot have babies. One male lawmaker eventually apologized to her, but the other members who insulted her are still not identified (Gingold, 2015). On the other hand, Women politicians tend to be criticized even if they get pregnant as well. Takako Suzuki, a member of the House of Representatives, announced on her blog that she got pregnant in 2017. However, she received tons of critical messages which said: “she should quit the job” or “this is why female politicians are a problem” (Wakabayashi, 2017). This is called maternity harassment, which makes it difficult for women politicians to pursue their careers. 

The Japanese government has been trying to boost the number of female politicians, but it is a problem that this policy does not have legally binding power. The previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a policy to empower more women in society, called “Womenomics.” One of his administration’s top priorities was to equalize the number of female and male candidates in political parties as much as possible. This policy was to raise the percentage of female lawmakers in the Diet election to 30% by 2020 (Waldman, 2019). However, the bill was nonbinding, and it was entrusted to political parties and other male lawmakers to make voluntary efforts. Therefore, it is nothing more than a verbal promise without a binding force, which does not work. 

The current policy is not enough for women’s empowerment in politics, so it is important for Japan to have a legislated quota system requiring the increase in the number of female lawmakers elected. The political gender quota system is generally implemented to set a certain number of places occupied by women in a country’s politics. This system expects to reduce the gender gap, ensuring that women play important roles in political life. It is said that Norway first introduced the political gender quota in 1975, and nowadays, it has been adopted in more than half of the world’s countries. There are mainly three types of gender quotas and two dimensions in the world: reserved seats, legal candidate quotas, and political party quotas. These are mandated by legal quotas and voluntary party quotas (IDA, n.d.). 

            Norway is one of the most successful countries whose system is led by each political party’s efforts. In fact, all Norwegian political parties have the policy to include over 40% of female members in the party (European Parliament, n.d.). In addition to the quota system, it also has a zipper system. The definition of a zipper system is that male and female candidates would appear alternately on party lists so that the gender ratio of the winning candidates will be equal (European Parliament, n.d.). Some European countries, such as Sweden and Germany, also adopt the zipper system because they all think that the political quota is insufficient to include more women in politics. Thanks to Norway’s affirmative actions, this country ranks 2nd both in the Global Gender Gap Index and political empowerment subindex (World Economic Forum, 2020). In addition, Norway achieved 41% of women in the parliament, and almost 50% of the cabinet members are women (Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office, 2020).

The candidate gender quota system in South Korea can be a good role model for Japan in terms of the legislated gender quota in politics. In general, South Korea is not said to be a gender-equal country compared to western countries, and paternalism has been strongly rooted in society for a long time. However, it ranks 79th in the political empowerment subindex, which is much higher than Japan. In fact, female lawmakers make up 17.3% in the parliament and 33.3% in ministerial positions (Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office, 2020). The quota system in Korea is categorized as a legal candidate quota requiring a certain number of women candidates in each election. The beginning of Korea’s quota system was in 2000, which was to require political parties to make efforts to have 30% of nominated candidates for local constituencies in general and local level elections. However, it was not effective and unsuccessful in reaching 30% at that time. Still, it can be seen as a valuable first step to raise awareness towards gender equality in Korean society. Before passing this law, there were only 5.9% of female lawmakers, and then it successfully raised to 13% in 2004. The government gradually revised the law. Its current quota system requires up to 50% of female candidates on the list of proportional representation elections and at least 30% of women candidates in the district nominations (IDA, n.d.). The current quota in Korea is not enough compared to Europe, and this country is still trying to empower women politicians. Even so, it is moving ahead of Japan, and there are so many things to learn from Korea’s political gender quota system.

However, there are arguments that the quota system is unconstitutional because it violates freedom of association. It seems that the basis of this idea is that men are simply afraid of losing the power that enables them to maintain their superior position in society, but their opinion is that political parties have the right to recruit and nominate anyone they like because Japan’s Constitution Article 21 says “Freedom of assembly and association, as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression, are guaranteed.” However, the Constitution also mentions in Article 14 that people should not be discriminated against based on sex, according to Professor Mari Miura (2018). This means, in other words, gender inequality in political representation also can be said to be unconstitutional. It is difficult to say which right is more important, and both rights should be protected, but I think that freedom of association and any other rights should be protected based on the premise that there is no discrimination in any form. It is because all the people are fundamentally equal, which is stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, I think freedom of association should not be preferred over equality or fundamental human rights. 

In other countries, human rights are the key for the political quota system to be accepted. In Peru, where the legislated gender quota system has been introduced since 1997, democracy and human rights are significant concerns for the people and the government (International IDEA, 2003). This means that they consider that respecting women’s political participation is connected to protecting human rights and the democratic society. Consequently, it can be said that this factor contributed to women’s rights and helped to introduce and accept the quota system in this country. In addition, the democratic point of view can also be a key to overcome the criticism of the gender quota. For instance, South Korea dealt with the criticism by claiming that democracy cannot be achieved without women’s political participation (Shin, 2016). It was not the only factor, but Korea’s 90’s democratic trend had a huge impact on Korean society ability to cut itself off from past dictatorships. Korea eventually had its first female president. From these perspectives, if Japan is a real democratic country where human rights are guaranteed, it is not that difficult for Japan to introduce the legislated gender quota. 

In conclusion, the legislated political quota system is necessary to achieve gender equality in Japan. Voluntary efforts are not enough, and a legal-binding gender quota would make women feel empowered. Male politicians and political parties will have no choice other than to include more women in politics. In fact, the recent pandemic clearly showed that female-led countries tend to succeed in fighting against COVID-19. This is because there are balanced representatives of both sexes in the decision-making positions (Champoux-Paillé et al., 2020 ). The main reason why the government needs more women in politics is that men and women have different points of view, so if we put both characteristics together, more effective policies can be created, which is necessary, especially during difficult times. The government needs to take action immediately because we will face more challenges in the future. If the government changes its attitude toward the issue of gender equality, the whole society will change. Then, Japanese women can shatter the highest, hardest glass ceiling and achieve more in the future. 

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