TOKYO -- Japan's general election on Sunday will likely spotlight not only the staying power of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but also the nagging gender gap that plagues the country.
Although the fleeting possibility of having a first female prime minister in Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has been heartening, the reality is that women in Japan still have a long way to go before closing the gap.
The governor of Tokyo launched the Party of Hope in September in a challenge to incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The election has seen 209 female candidates, or 17.7 percent of the 1,180 total -- the highest share ever. But many are newcomers and unlikely to win, which would leave the share of women in the lower house more or less where it is at 9.3%. This would rank Japan 165th out of 193 countries in a study of female representation in government conducted by Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Hard work to do
In the workplace, however, women are gaining power. Amid a labor shortage, more women are taking jobs, sending the female work participation rate to an all-time high of 65%.
"Basic numbers over time are going to favor a larger and larger number of women being involved [in politics] because women are taking up more and more positions in society in general," said Michael Cucek, adjunct professor of political science at Waseda University. "The flip side is Japan's very great resistance to immigration. Women have to take over many roles that previously men were doing."
Some of the problems that women face in the workplace are lack opportunities after childbirth, a shortage of child care facilities and the wage gap with men. Japan has seen a steady increase in casual employment, with women making up the bulk of such workers.
"In my workplace, women have to quit if they give birth. I'm looking for a leader who can change this culture," said 26-year-old Shiori Sugie at a Koike rally in Tokyo.
The issue of women's rights is not new in Japan. Abe has tried to address it with his "womenomics" policy, which includes building more child care facilities and setting a 30% target for women in senior management positions.
But many women say not enough is being done. "Not much has changed since Abe came to power," said Hiromi Ueno, a 33-year-old office worker. "His words are more like rhetoric."
Ueno said that few women can return to work and rise to senior positions after having children because they have to juggle work with raising a family. Koike is tapping such resentment. "Only 8% of the candidates are women in Abe's Liberal Democratic Party," she said recently. Her Party of Hope boasts 20%.
One reason for the low number of female lawmakers is that male incumbents have little incentive to support any plan to increase the number of female candidates, who would essentially be competing with them. The opposition, on the other hand, can field women without worrying too much about competition, according to Mieko Nakabayashi, professor at Waseda University and a former U.S. Congressional staffer.
"Female candidates tend to come from opposition parties as they try novel strategies to attract voter attention, especially from neglected groups, and to differentiate themselves from the governing party," Nakabayashi said.
The low share of women is not limited to the conservative LDP. The longstanding opposition Democratic Party's share of women in the lower house was less than 10% before it lost many members to Koike's Party of Hope.
The World Economic Forum ranks Japan 111th out of 144 countries it surveyed for gender gap. Japan scores poorly in political empowerment, and the number of female political leaders in particular.
Japan is more than 20 years behind, said Mari Miura, professor of political science at Sophia University. The proportion of female members in the lower house is still hovering near the 1995 world average of 11%, which now stands at 23.6%.
One way to boost the number is to mandate a certain share of female candidates. A cross-party bill was submitted to parliament this year calling for political parties to make efforts to have a more balanced gender ratio among their candidates for parliament and local assemblies. The parliamentary session ended in June before the bill was voted on. Abe did not obstruct the initiative, nor did he back it strongly.
The bill has no enforcement mechanism, but Miura said it would still make "a good first step."
"Even this law would probably do little to change the gender imbalance," she explained. "Then an argument can be made that much tougher law is necessary to bring about change. This is a long-term effort that could take at least 10 years"
Without a broad female base among lawmakers, Miura added, a female prime minister could become isolated in the male-dominated administration and have difficulty carrying out policies that support women.
Miura stressed that Japan must strive toward forming a society in which female leaders can thrive. "Currently, Japan doesn't have such an institutional basis," she said.
Foreign businesses are also calling for greater diversity.
"From an investor's point of view, it's important for people to know that the country they are investing in values a customer," said Melanie Brock, former chair of the Australian and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan. "In many cases, the Japanese customer is a woman. The purchasing decision is most often made by women."
She said that diversity at the political level could facilitate change at the industry level, thereby reducing sexism that still exists in Japan. "Stereotypes about [Japan's gender inequality] are still held on to by many visitors and foreign business people," she said, even if some are no longer valid. "Japan has a responsibility to work hard to correct those stereotypes."
Still, Waseda's Nakabayashi notes that female politicians are rarely given the responsibilities needed to acquire experience in order to assume important roles in government.
Tomomi Inada stepped down as defense minister in July, having been in office less than a year. She was seen as inexperienced, making remarks that drew criticism and raising eyebrows by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's battlefield victims -- including convicted World War II war criminals. The faux pas came immediately after Abe and then-U.S. President Barack Obama tried to heal war wounds by visiting Pearl Harbor together in December.
Renho Murata is another example. In 2016, she became the first female leader of Japan's main opposition in 30 years, but didn't last a year. She was likened to a lone wolf instead of trying to drum up support among female voters, or draft more female lawmakers into her leadership team.
Koike is considered a rare female politician, with the necessary qualities to lead the country.
For example, her determination helps her compete in the male-dominated political world, while her forthright manner demonstrates that a woman can also be commander-in-chief, Sophia University's Miura said.
Her campaign to challenge Abe stumbled, however, after her rude handling of some opposition lawmakers seeking to join her Party of Hope. She said liberal lawmakers were not welcome and would be turned down.
"Her personality hinders, because at a certain level, a political leader has to be a personnel manager," Cucek said. "You cannot be a cutthroat 'my way or the highway person'. The head of a Japanese leading party has to have certain humanity, certain forgiveness and a certain sense of humility."