From ‘get married’ to getting elected – women a record one-third of candidates in Japan poll

<span>Photograph: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

Less than a year ago, voters in Japan had to look very hard to find a woman’s name on ballot papers for the lower house election. But as the country prepares to go to the polls again this weekend, they are comparatively spoiled for choice.

About a third of the candidates in this Sunday’s upper house election are women – the highest proportion since Japanese women won the right to vote and stand for parliament in 1946.

A record 181 female candidates will be vying for 125 seats – up 77 from the previous upper house election in 2019 – a trend that has given hope to women campaigning to break the male stranglehold on Japanese politics. Women comprise 33.2% of all candidates, a level close to the government’s target of 35% by 2025.

The increase is an apparent attempt by Japan’s political parties to honour a commitment to select similar numbers of male and female candidates, although only a tiny number took part in recent elections for the more powerful upper house.

The optimism could be short-lived however. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) – which is expected to win more than half the seats on Sunday – has increased the proportion of female candidates since the last upper house elections three years ago, but only to 23.2%.

The LDP candidates include Arfiya Eri, a former UN official of Uyghur heritage who told a recent live stream event: “The more visible different lifestyles are to us, the more capable we are of imagining other people’s lives and other people’s needs.”

Akio Igarashi, a professor emeritus at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, said targets should be set to increase the number of female candidates.

“It’s essential for political parties to make efforts to appoint women to appropriate posts, such as those that allow them to select candidates,” Igarashi told the Yomiuri Shimbun. “The parties should also help deepen voters’ awareness that female candidates will have a positive impact on policies, which, in turn, will benefit the whole of society.”

The world’s third-biggest economy fares poorly when it comes to women in politics, ranking 163rd out of 190 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women comprise just 9.9% of lower house MPs and 23% in the upper house. In its 2021 gender gap index, the World Economic Forum placed Japan 147th in political empowerment out of 156 countries.

Most of the female candidates in this weekend’s election are running for opposition parties that analysts believe will struggle to make a dent in the LDP’s comfortable position in the upper chamber.

Just over half of candidates for the biggest opposition group, the Constitutional Democratic party of Japan, are women. The Japanese Communist party has the highest proportion, at 55.2%. “We believe that by getting female candidates to win, Japanese politics will really change,” the CDPJ’s secretary general, Chinami Nishimura, told reporters ahead of the election.

While the upper house election is a vast improvement on last October’s lower house poll, when just 186 – or less than 18% – of candidates were women, parties are under mounting pressure to address widespread harassment of female candidates.

A survey conducted last year by the cabinet office found that female politicians and candidates encountered “rampant” sexual harassment, including inappropriate touching and verbal advances by male voters, and online abuse based on their age, marital status and private life.

In response, the cabinet office released a video in April re-enacting scenes of harassment based on testimony from younger lawmakers while on the campaign trail and after being elected.

The survey results will come as little surprise to Ayaka Shiomura, who was subjected to sexist taunts during a debate on childcare in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly in 2014.

The incident sparked a national debate after unidentified male assembly members verbally abused her for questioning the city’s commitment to pregnant women and single mothers.

“You should get married as soon as possible,” several shouted as Shiomura, who went on to represent an upper house constituency, spoke, before asking if she was incapable of having children.

In 2017, Yuka Ogata, an assembly member in the city of Kumamoto, was forced to leave the chamber after colleagues objected to the presence of her seven-month-old child.

Two years ago, Shoko Arai, then the only female member of a Kusatsu town assembly, was voted out of her seat after accusing the mayor of sexual assault.