Women sidelined in Japan premier race despite equality push

Former Defence Minister Tomomi Inada (right) and ex-Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda abandoned efforts after failing to gather the necessary signatures. PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Almost eight years after Shinzo Abe pledged to use the powers of the prime minister's office to help Japanese women "shine," he's leaving without a single female candidate to replace him.

The three contenders who officially registered Tuesday (Sept 8) to replace Abe at the helm of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are all men, and none are known as strong proponents of gender equality.

The two women interested in running in the Sept 14 election - former Defence Minister Tomomi Inada and ex-Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda - abandoned efforts after failing to gather the necessary 20 signatures to get on the ballot.

The lack of women in the race points to a shortcoming in Abe's effort to promote greater female participation in supervisory positions, part of a broader push to expand the ageing country's shrinking workforce.

While women saw progress in some areas, with more entering paid employment, the next Japanese premier appears set to preside over what has long been one of the starkest gender imbalances in global politics.

Since the LDP has ruled for 60 of the past 65 years, the tradition-bound party arguably wields the greatest responsibility for advancing women in politics.

The leaders of the ruling party's powerful factions coalesced around Abe's right-hand man, Yoshihide Suga, almost as soon as the prime minister said he was stepping down on Aug 28.

"It's basically difficult unless a woman becomes the head of a faction," said Lully Miura, who runs her own policy research institute.

The dearth of women in senior political positions has "been affecting policy all along," she added, citing examples such as reluctance to allow married couples to have separate names.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is the only woman who has managed to make it onto the LDP's leadership ballot.

Even she eventually tired of the lack of opportunity within the party, leaving parliament to run successfully for the capital's top job in 2016 without the LDP's blessing.

Koike has thrived outside the group, gaining public approval for her handling of the Covid-19 outbreak and easily winning a second term this year.

But she doesn't have the national network necessary to topple the LDP.

The one time she tried to build a party, Abe called an election before she had a chance to organise.

Outside of politics, Japan's gender pay gap is one of the widest among advanced economies, according to the World Economic Forum.

Another study indicated the pandemic may have made things worse for Japanese women, who saw a larger decline in spending power and income than men during the Covid-19 slump.

The difficulties women face in reaching the top in the LDP partly reflects their scarcity at all party levels.

Only 10 per cent of the members of the Diet's powerful lower house are women and Japan ranks 166th among the 193 countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in terms of gender balance - below Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Among LDP lower house members, women make up closer to 7 per cent of the total. Other parties are marginally better, with women making up about 14 per cent of lower house lawmakers in the main opposition bloc.

The LDP's record hardly tallies with the goal of having women in 30 per cent of supervisory positions in all fields by 2020 espoused by Abe.

Japan has never supported the gender quotas that have led to a greater proportion of female lawmakers in some other countries.

After officially filing his candidacy Tuesday, Suga said he would pick reform-minded people for his cabinet, but made no mention if he had any women in mind for posts.

Abe appointed five women to his cabinet in 2014, equalling a previous record, only to see two of them resign over scandals. Inada stepped down as defence minister in 2017 amid allegations of a cover-up regarding the dangers faced by Japanese troops on a peacekeeping mission.

Female lawmakers hold only two of the 20 positions in the current cabinet.

The decentralised nature of the LDP is one reason would-be female candidates find it hard to get started, according to Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, who also runs training programs to advance women lawmakers.

"Even if Abe, or people in Tokyo think it's important to find more women, in local politics they don't understand that logic at all," she said.

"It's basically a male-dominated culture."

One candidate seeking to replace Abe, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, stumbled into a debate on gender inequality when he posted a photo on social media of him eating a meal as his apron-clad wife looked on.

Critics said the image reinforced outdated stereotypes that women should be subservient to their husbands.

Kishida said the photo didn't reflect his relationship with his wife.

Lully Miura said parties across the spectrum were failing to raise female politicians effectively.

"It's not that there's been no one with potential, but the way senior politicians have raised them is wrong," she said.

"They use them just as a way of attracting interest from the public."

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