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Japan taps on glass ceiling, asking for more female lawmakers

Law urges parties to make voluntary efforts to field more women

A cross-partisan group of Japanese lawmakers applauds the passage of the gender equality bill. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- Japan is moving to boost its infamously low female representation in politics, passing a law encouraging parties to field more women candidates, but without legally enforced quotas, progress will depend on voluntary efforts.

A bill promoting gender equality in politics was enacted after a plenary session of the upper house approved it with bipartisan support on Wednesday. The legislation had already cleared the lower house. 

The law urges parties to make voluntary efforts, such as setting targets, to field equal numbers of male and female candidates in national and regional elections.

"This is a starting point," said Masaharu Nakagawa, who led a cross-partisan alliance that submitted the bill. "We want to be able to look back on this day in the future and say we built the foundation for women's full participation today."

Seiko Noda, the minister of internal affairs and member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, expressed optimism. "I am convinced Japan's politics will change through this law," she said.

Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister who now serves as chairman of the LDP's policy chief, said, "We want to make this an opportunity to think about the shortage of female candidates."

"We want to breathe life into this law by fielding more female candidates," said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the parliamentary affairs chief of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party.

Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's repeated pledge to support women's social participation, Japan appears particularly unfriendly to aspiring women politicians. The nation ranked 158th out of 193 countries for women in parliament last year, at 10.1%, the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union found. Asia as a whole is also slipping in its effort to promote women in politics.

Women accounted for just 17.7% of those who run in Japan's lower-house election last fall, with the LDP's ratio ranking lowest among all major parties at 7.5%. The Constitutional Democratic Party held the highest ratio, though just 24.4%.

"There is no doubt female candidates will increase ... but we have not set numerical targets," said Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of LDP's junior partner Komeito. "We will carefully determine how to place the right people in the right positions."

France, South Korea, Rwanda and Bolivia are among the countries that have legal quotas for seats and candidacies filled by women. Parties in Sweden and Germany voluntarily set their own gender quotas.

"Political parties should first make an all-out effort to field more female candidates, and if that doesn't work, there will be no option but to take legislative action" to enforce gender balance, said Reiko Oyama, a professor at Komazawa University in Tokyo.

An addendum resolution that passed along with the law looks to create an environment more conducive for women entering politics. Noda spoke of child-care facilities and other resources to support female lawmakers.

"We propose harassment prevention and maternity leave, among other measures," said Eri Tokunaga of the new Democratic Party for the People.

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