General election is false dawn for women in Land of the Rising Sun

SHAFAQNA – JAPAN’S conservative prime minister is heading for a landslide victory in today’s general election, but the poll will be no victory for Japanese women. Shinzo Abe made “womenomics” a policy centrepiece early in his tenure. He promised a society in which “women can shine”, and pledged to break down the barriers to bringing more women into the workforce as part of his plan to revive the world’s third largest economy.

But two of his female ministers had to resign over political scandals, and the traditionally male-dominated Japanese politics looks rather set in its ways.

The Japanese media reports that only 15% of the candidates running in today’s election are women.

And the prime minister’s Liberal Democratic party (LDP) is one of the worst performers in the equality index, there being only 42 women among its 352 candidates — just 12%. “So much for prime minister Shinzo Abe’s call to empower women,” said writer Mizuho Aoki in The Japan Times, a daily newspaper.

“The party’s campaign policy platform includes no concrete measures [for] improving the woefully low ratio of female [to male] lawmakers.”

One survey result to cause embarrassment is the fact that the Japanese Communist party has a higher proportion of women candidates, at 25%, than any other mainstream party, although that is unlikely to reverse centuries of tradition, since the party — respected but tiny — is likely to win only a handful of seats.

There has been much comment in Japan on a recent study by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which showed that the country has one of the lowest ratios of gender equality: the WEF positioned Japan 104th of the 142 countries considered.

Abe’s well-intentioned attempts to promote women backfired spectacularly this autumn, when two high-profile ministers had to quit.

The justice minister, Midori Matsushima, resigned after becoming the victim of a funding scandal, when her supporters were found to have handed out paper fans carrying promotional slogans.

Shinzo Abe on the campaign trail: he has few female candidates (Issei Kato/reuters)

A more serious casualty was Yuko Obuchi, the heiress to a famed LDP political dynasty in the conservative heartlands of Gunma Prefecture, about 60 miles northwest of Tokyo.

A five-term parliamentarian, Obuchi gave up the powerful post of trade and industry minister following a series of allegations of questionable accounting by fundraising groups associated with her campaigns.

The 41-year-old MP bowed and apologised to voters when she returned to campaigning this month, to hold on to her seat. Once spoken of as a future prime minister, she has seized the election as an opportunity to make a comeback.

“I apologise from the depths of my heart,” she told voters. “I pledge to travel all over my constituency and to meet every citizen I possibly can.”

Obuchi is an example of Japanese hereditary democracy, having inherited the seat from her father, prime minister Keizo Obuchi, who died of a stroke in 2000 while in office.

She held on to it with a majority of 100,000 in the last election. The region’s loyalty to the conservative standard — it has produced three premiers for the LDP — means that she is poised to shrug off the scandal and leave her opponents in the dust.

Obuchi’s career does not make her a boundary-breaker for women. But her performance might do so if Abe makes her a cabinet minister once again.

There seems no doubt that the premier will be in a position to do just that. The LDP and its coalition partner the New Komeito party are on course to win a “super-majority” of more than 300 out of 475 seats in the lower house of the Diet (the parliament), according to an authoritative survey by the Nikkei business news service.

Under the Japanese system, a two-thirds majority in the lower house can override the upper house in passing legislation. There are no elections this year for the upper house.

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