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Women take on Japan’s political gender gap for ‘true democracy’

Japanese lawmaker Seiko Noda says she "couldn't even find the women's bathroom" when she first joined parliament's lower house three decades ago
Japanese lawmaker Seiko Noda says she "couldn't even find the women's bathroom" when she first joined parliament's lower house three decades ago - Copyright AFP Philip FONG
Japanese lawmaker Seiko Noda says she "couldn't even find the women's bathroom" when she first joined parliament's lower house three decades ago - Copyright AFP Philip FONG
Natsuko FUKUE

Women are a rare sight in Japanese politics, but 20-year-old Rinka Saito is determined to run for office one day because “you can’t have true democracy without diversity”.

She is one of a small group of young women being offered mentoring and money to help them break into a political scene that remains utterly dominated by men.

Once elected, female leaders in Japan face a tough environment, describing sexual harassment, chauvinist habits and ingrained views of government as a man’s world.

Even so, Saito, the youngest participant of the scheme run by the Murakami Family Foundation, told AFP the part-time programme had brought her “a step closer to my dream”.

There are only two women in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s 19-member cabinet, and parliament’s powerful 465-member lower chamber is 90 percent male. 

The Tokyo-based foundation has organised a series of seminars by leading politicians for 20 women aged under 40 in a bid to address that imbalance.

The participants, chosen from 200 applicants, also receive a grant of one million yen ($7,400).

“I became interested in becoming a politician because I thought I could give hope to people with disabilities,” said Saito, who has had surgery for hearing loss.

High-profile examples of discrimination in Japan, such as the forced sterilisation of disabled people under a now-defunct eugenics law, strengthened her resolve.

Saito, a social sciences student, initially didn’t know where to begin.

She said the foundation has helped her build a network and better understand the “good and bad aspects of the political world”.

– ‘Homogenous’ –

Foundation chair Rei Murakami Frenzel, 28, was surprised so many people applied for the first programme, which ran from November to March.

“We had assumed that women didn’t want to be politicians, but in fact, there just wasn’t enough support,” she said.

Japan’s “homogenous” power base — even the parliament’s less powerful upper house is 75 percent male — means lawmakers are “not tackling diverse social issues”, said Murakami Frenzel, whose father is a renowned activist investor.

Japan has never had a woman prime minister and that must change, said lawmaker Seiko Noda. She ran against Kishida in the ruling party’s last leadership race and is a lecturer for the programme.

“Even well-educated people have the entrenched view of politics as a male domain,” said the former internal affairs minister and women’s empowerment minister.

Noda, 62, told AFP she “couldn’t even find the women’s bathroom” when she started her political career in parliament’s lower house three decades ago.

And while she believes the situation is slowly improving, Noda is keen to encourage women to enter the field given the “overwhelming lack of young female politicians”.

A nursery was available during the seminars for those with children, and remote access was also an option.

Natsuki Shinobori “felt responsible for my country” after having two boys and joined the scheme with the hope of becoming a local politician.

“I want to solve social issues by starting small,” said 36-year-old Shinobori, who lives in Nagano in central Japan.

– ‘Won’t quit’ –

Unequal attitudes towards female politicians endure, however, and Shinobori said she worries about the burden on her children.

In Japan, “wives will support their husband if he’s running a campaign, but… we feel like women shouldn’t cause trouble to their family”, she said.

A record 489 women stood for office at local elections this month, still just 16 percent of the candidates.

Umeko Saito, a 75-year-old politician in Niseko, a small ski-resort town in Hokkaido, wants to see more women in local assemblies.

But, as the only woman in the 10-member local government for the past 12 years, she has first-hand experience of how tough the job can be.

“One of them told me he wanted to see me naked,” she said. “I was in utter shock.”

As well as facing sexual harassment, “when I speak in the assembly, other members insult me so I cannot continue, or they tell me my questions are too strange”.

Saito fought to end a tradition of hiring “companions” — women in their early 20s who serve drinks and chat with guests — for political events.

Her efforts were successful and the custom has stopped. But Saito still feels that others view her as “an alien” in the political system and acknowledges that “many female politicians cannot speak up about harassment”.

Some people have advised Saito to quit. “But I won’t,” she said.

“If I quit now, I don’t know what I’m in politics for.”

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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