Positive action for women in Japan's Liberal Democratic Party: a one-off?

Author:Dalton, Emma


In 2005, the percentage of women in the Lower House of the Japanese national assembly, the Diet, reached a historic nine per cent, surpassing the almost sixty year record of 8.4 per cent which was set in 1946, the first year women gained the right to vote and run for elections. One of the primary reasons for the increase in 2005 was that the then-leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro adopted 'positive action' measures to ensure a success rate for LDP women. Of Japan's 11 regions, the LDP placed a woman at the top of its party list in seven. Koizumi's initiative to reserve high positions on party lists for female LDP candidates ensured a high rate of success for women. All twenty-six female LDP candidates won a seat.

The conservative LDP has had the poorest record for female representation in the Diet out of all political parties, and still does. At the time of writing, of the 202 LDP Diet members, only 22 are women. This compares with 60 women out of the DPJ's 328. (1) Other political parties, such as the Social Democratic Party and the Japan Communist Party who have a very small total membership in the Diet, also have higher total proportions of female members than the LDP. LDP women did particularly poorly in the 2009 Lower House election-their numbers dropped to a mere eight, now accounting for less than seven per cent of total LDP Lower House membership. In other words, LDP men occupy more than 90 per cent of all LDP Lower House seats. The rise in women in the Diet as a result of LDP positive action in 2005 therefore deserves scrutiny.

Koizumi's strategy in 2005 can be defined as a form of 'positive action' or 'affirmative action' (2) because its purpose was to guarantee a high rate of success for LDP women. The LDP's approach to gender equality has typically extended as far as 'equal opportunity' as opposed to what the party constructs as its binary opposite'equality of result'. When based on notions of 'equal opportunity', the pursuit of gender equality is premised on the belief that if men and women receive the same opportunities, inequalities between the sexes should disappear. This approach argues that the provision of equal opportunities for men and women will eliminate any different treatment of them and that any achievements in life will then depend on the efforts and talents of the individual. In contrast, the 'equal results' approach argues that equal opportunity is inadequate to eliminate inequalities between men and women. In order to abolish gender inequalities, strategies must be put in place to eliminate unequal results. The argument for equality of results calls for measures that give women special consideration in recognition that they generally occupy lower rungs of the social ladder than men and therefore are at a disadvantage in many aspects of society compared to men. This argument highlights the fact that despite the existence of equality of opportunity legislations and provisions, the 'results' remain heavily gender biased and this is an indication that 'equal opportunity' is inadequate in achieving gender justice. (3) The implementation of positive action or gender quotas by political parties acknowledges the inadequacy of the 'equal opportunity' approach to gender equality.

One of the purposes of this article is to assess the likelihood of the LDP employing positive action for women again. I will do this by firstly considering Koizumi's motivations, and, secondly, drawing on interviews with 13 LDP Diet women conducted between 2007 and 2008 to consider their opinions on Koizumi's initiative and the broader debate over the value of positive action or gender quotas in Japan. Interpreting women's discussions about gender quotas and positive action reveals discord between official party philosophy and individuals' opinions on the issue as well as contradictions in individuals' stances.

Women's political under-representation in Japan: A brief historical and sociological account

Women in Japan have historically been extremely poorly represented in the Diet. After the initial influx of women to the Diet in 1946, when women accounted for 8.4 per cent of Diet seats, the percentage plummeted to 3.2 per cent in 1947. One of the main reasons for this decrease was revision to the electoral system. The electoral system at the time of the 1946 election was a large-constituency system whereby voters chose between two and fourteen candidates depending on the population of the district. In 1947, this changed to a system of medium-sized electoral districts where voters cast a single vote for a single candidate. The percentage of women in the Diet did not change significantly after 1946 until almost half a century later in the late 1980s when several Japan Socialist Party women were elected to seats in the Upper House. A combination of the popularity of the first female party leader (of the then Japan Socialist Party) Doi Takako, the introduction of an unpopular consumption tax, sex scandals that brewed discontent among female voters and other financial scandals involving the LDP saw an influx of women from the Japan Socialist Party (the current Social Democratic Party) into the Diet at the 1989 Upper House elections. (4) After the electoral system changed again in 1993, the number of women in the Lower House jumped from 2.7 per cent to 4.6 per cent in the 1996 election. (5)

As the figures reveal, the electoral system plays a very important role in how many women progress to the Diet. As has been demonstrated in many other nations as well, proportional representation (PR) electoral systems are more likely to yield successful female candidates than other systems. (6) In 1993 the Lower House election system was revised to a hybrid system that allocated 200 seats elected through a PR system. The introduction of a PR system into the Lower House was regarded as a positive for female representation because it has been well-documented internationally that women are more successful when they run in elections that are held under PR systems. (7) Since the 1993 reform, women have consistently been as or even more successful than men in the PR seats. For example, in the PR districts of the 2003 election, female candidates' success rate was 26.7 per cent compared to 23.9 per cent for male candidates. This is despite the overall imbalance in success rates for women and men: just under 23 per cent of all female candidates won, whereas the respective figure for men was 44 per cent. (8) Overall success rates for male and female candidates have been similar in other years' elections. Female candidates therefore are far less likely to win elections overall, but more likely to win in PR districts than men

Apart from the electoral system, other obstacles to increased representation of women in politics pointed out by Japan scholars include cultural and social issues. For example, Japanese women remain less educated than men. They complete high-school at the same rate, but more men proceed to university than women. (9) A Diet member without a university education is unusual. Joining the elite strata of society, of which Diet members are believed to be members, requires an education preferably from one of the elite universities. (10) In addition, scholars have claimed that to win an election in Japan you need the '3 ban' -kaban, jiban and kanban (11) -and these three points are where cultural and institutional obstacles (such as the electoral system) collide. For example, kaban-the purse-is a metaphor for finances. Women typically have less money than men because of their tendency to occupy social roles such as unpaid mothers and wives, and be concentrated in low-paid and often part-time work (12). This places women at a disadvantage to men in elections that are costly to run in. In the case of the LDP, women find the areas of finance and organisation (jiban) particularly difficult because of the importance of connections for candidates.

Organisation and finances are closely connected with regards to elections. Men in Japan are more likely to be associated with farmers' co-ops and business organizations that tend to be better financed than organisations that women are more likely to be associated with, such as volunteer bodies or PTAs. (13) Furthermore, the former organisations are also more likely to have links to political parties or groups. The third 'ban', kanban, refers to being well-known by people in your prospective electorate. Again, adequate financing assists in making posters or filling the car with petrol to go on campaign rounds. Another cultural element that contributes to the difficulties many women face in getting their face known is that women often move to their husband's home town after marriage. They then have to effectively start creating a social network from scratch. It is difficult for a woman to run for election in a town whose residents she is not familiar with. 'Personality voting' is a prevalent characteristic of Japanese elections. (14) In single-member constituencies, voters elect an individual candidate and not a political party. It is important for an individual candidate, therefore, that his or her face is well known by the electorate. Electoral systems and practices therefore prove high hurdles for women wishing to run for Diet seats.

It has been argued that political parties are the gatekeepers to increased female political representation because they have the power to recruit and groom potential candidates. (15) Until August 2009, the LDP had been in power continuously since its inception in 1955, apart from a nine-month hiatus in 1993-94. Of the major political parties in Japan, the LDP has always had the lowest percentage of women in the Diet. (16) The rest of this article considers how former Prime Minister and leader of the LDP, Koizumi Junichiro, went part of the way in amending the gender imbalance in the party...

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