Women Empowerment In Japan – Analysis


Long perceived as a male-dominated society, Japan is witnessing revolutionary changes on the issue of women empowerment. One can see few cases where women seem to be empowered having high positions in Japan’s power structure. Whether such cases are freaks or signal real changes in the mindset of the Japanese men folk is difficult to say but seen from the perspective of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics”, these trends must not be dismissed as passing clouds. There are valid reasons for this.

What are the pointers that possibly suggest the change in the thought process? In the political arena, three women have been catapulted to high political posts in recent times, the latest being the election of 48-year-old and mother of two children, third term member of the House of Councillors Renho, as the new chief of the Democratic Party, the first woman to hold such a post in the party.

Overcoming the controversy over her dual nationality that threatened to stall her election to the post, the former administrative reform minister defeated her formidable rivals former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and lower house lawmaker Yuichiro Tamaki and scored an overwhelming victory. It may be recalled that the Democratic Party’s predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan, was ousted from government in the 2012 election after remaining three years in power during which the Fukushima nuclear accident dented the government’s image because of inapt handling.

As a first task to discharge her political duties, Renho promised to put forward proposals to the Abe government for considerations in a cooperative spirit and not just for criticism. Earlier, after the drubbing the Democratic Party received at the hands of the electorate during the elections to the House of Councillors in July 2016, then party Chief Katsuya Okada had withdrawn from the race for another stint as party head. It was only after this Rehno announced her bid for the party presidency in early August and earned Okada’s support. From the total of 849 points, Rehno received 503 as against 230 points for Maehara and 116 points for Tamaki. Her three-year term will last through September 2019, making her the first woman to lead the Democratic Party.

Rehho’s primary task shall be to restore the party’s credibility as a real alternative to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Abe whenever elections are held to the House of Representatives or the Prime Minister decides to dissolve the Chamber. One policy decision that would require serious consideration for Renho would be whether to align with the Japanese Communist Party and other smaller opposition parties with whom the Democratic Party has ideological differences.

One major issue that is likely to hog the limelight is Abe government’s attempt to revise the Japanese Constitution, especially Article 9. Renho is opposed to this idea. After the LDP and its allies scored a two-third majority in the Upper House in the July elections, Prime Minister Abe is now in a strong position to proposed constitutional amendments. That could be a smooth process as the LDP now enjoys two-third majority in both the Houses. But even if a bill to amend the constitution is passed by both the houses, the same has to be approved by a majority in a national referendum to become law. This is clearly stated in Article 96 of the Constitution. Given the strong anti-nuclear sentiment in the country, that is unlikely to happen. Abe government’s decision to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 to expand the electorate’s constituency is unlikely to help either.

Renho’s political journey is unlikely to be smooth as she has to fight hard to protect at all costs the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 while presenting her party’s views in the constitutional reform commission meetings. She also faces the task of rebuilding the party’s apparatus after major defeat in July elections to the Upper House.

Nationality Issue

Rehno Murata, who prefers to use only her first name, had to fight controversy over her nationality. She was born in Japan to a Taiwanese father and Japanese mother and naturalised as a Japanese citizen in 1985 when she was 17 years of age. She decided to retain her Taiwanese nationality. Though such instances are not encouraged but not penalised by Japan’s nationality law, Rehno admitted to having retained her Taiwanese nationality out of ignorance and started the process of relinquishing after she realised the lapse.

She was elected to the Upper House for the first time in 2004 representing the Tokyo constituency. But no one bothered to question about her dual nationality until the closing days of the campaign. She acknowledged on 13 September that she submitted a document to authorities in Taiwan announcing surrender of her Taiwanese citizenship. But it was discovered that she still held it. This became a source of controversy.

However, Justice Ministry’s interpretation on the nationality law came to her rescue. The Ministry clarified that Taiwanese residing in Japan are not subject to Chinese law when it comes to matters of determining citizenship. Some interpreted that when Renho reached age 17, she automatically renounced her Taiwanese citizenship when she chose Japanese nationality in 1985, as required by Japan’s Nationality Law. Those who interpreted like this argued that since Taiwan is not a part of the United Nations and Japan has no official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the citizens of Taiwan are theoretically subject to Chinese law. Chinese law stipulates that Chinese abroad automatically lose their nationality if they obtain another citizenship by choice. Therefore, by accepting Japanese nationality, Renho was no longer a Taiwanese citizen, it was argued and accepted.

Yet, even if Renho claimed to having retained Taiwanese citizenship days before the election to the party chief’s post, Japan’s Nationality Law does not ban people with dual nationality from becoming politicians. Curiously, people with dual nationality are banned from becoming diplomats, probably to prevent conflicts of interest. In particular, in Taiwan’s case, Taiwan is one of the two countries that lay claim to the Japan-held Senkaku Islands, which it calls Tiaoyutai, the other being China calling it as Diayou.

The Justice Ministry clarified that Taiwanese who wish to acquire Japanese nationality are subject to the Nationality Law of Japan, and not the laws of China. China considers Taiwan a renegade province and threatens to annex it by force if it declares formal independence. Japan’s Nationality Law requires residents with dual nationality must make a “declaration of choice” before reaching the age 22 and if they opt to retain Japanese citizenship, they are mandated to “strive to” abandon any other citizenship they have. Japan has maintained this condition because some countries such as Brazil do not allow their people to renounce citizenship. Brazil’s case is important for Japan as there are a sizable number of Brazilian citizens of Japanese descent who are desirous of returning to Japan and take Japanese citizenship. In Taiwan’s case, since Japan does not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, documents renouncing Taiwanese nationality cannot be endorsed by Tokyo as official documentation.

One of the popular Japanese English newspapers was not so sympathetic to Renho on her dual nationality issue. In an editorial, Yomiuri Shimbun lamented that a Diet member failed to correctly understand her own nationality. The paper also criticised her for making statements that were inconsistent. The editorial feared that Renho’s inapt handling of her nationality issue leaves room for twisted interpretation taking also the risk of racial discrimination argument and therefore “problematic”.

Women Power

Renho’s election as the chief of Democratic Party marked the third woman in Japan to assume a top high-profile political position in less than two months. On 31 July, the former Defence Minister and the charismatic Yuriko Koike was elected as Governor of Tokyo. In a demonstration of his ‘Womenomics’ and drive to bring more women into the labour force, Abe inducted the hawkish Tomomi Inada into his Cabinet as his new Defence Minister. Earlier, Koike herself was once Defence Minister and both women ministers belong to the LDP. Do these appointments signal the beginning of the end of gender inequality and herald a departure from a system largely dominated by men all these years? It is too early to say so, though Renho shows optimism to break the glass ceiling and create a new generation of people who are politically empowered in the party she now heads.

Though few Japanese women are coming of age in Japanese politics, Japan still lags behind most nations when it comes to gender equity in politics. Among democracies in the developed world, Japan has one of the worst records of empowering women with political powers and positions. Though women were first permitted to run in national elections in 1946, the number of female lawmakers in Japan’s National Diet has remained relatively stagnant. Abe’s “womenomics” aspires to push more women to join the labour force, seen as a strategy to address the decreasing number of persons joining the labour force because of declining birth rate. The so-called “womenomics” reform is a pillar of Abe’s economic plan, often dubbed as “Abenomics”. Abe wants females to take up 30 per cent of the leadership roles in Japan by 2020 from just 7.5 per cent in 2015 and plans to create 400,000 new day care places by 2017 to enable more employees to return to work after giving births. By adopting such progressive ways, Abe aims to make his attempt to achieve gender equality a success. The plan is laudable but seems difficult to realise. Can women save Japan is an issue for women as much as for men and both have to address in unison.

With three women in important positions now, time may not be too far when Japan could see a woman as the country’s Prime Minister. Japan needs to take some encouragement from countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Britain, Germany and now could be the US with Hillary Clinton being the first female nominee of a major party for president. Even in South Asian nations, women have served in the past at top political positions. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka had females either as prime ministers or as presidents. In India, even the Speaker of the Lower House is a woman. In some of the important states in India, women political leaders have formed governments in the past (Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, Nandini Satpathy in Odisha, Rabri Devi in Bihar, Shiela Dikshit in Delhi). While India had also a female president (Pratibha Patil) in the recent past, three Indian states (Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal) have chief ministers (Jayalalitha, Mehbooba Mufti and Mamata Banerjee) at present who are women. Indeed, elevating more women to leadership positions is long overdue in Japan.

Compare this with Japan and Japan makes a low score. In the past, Japan did make few experiments in inducting women into the political mainstream. Nearly 30 years ago, the Socialist Party which was the largest opposition party, elected Takako Doi as its first female leader. Subsequently, some more female lawmakers were elected to the Diet but the trend was short-lived. Abe has been making sincere efforts to recruit more women into the political office, sometimes without success. For example, in 2014 he appointed five women to his Cabinet, which was an all-time high for women in minister-level positions. Unfortunately two of them – Midori Matsushima and Yuko Obuchi (former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s daughter) – resigned soon because of election campaign scandals. What the first-time lawmakers when they make to the Diet need is proper mentoring by the leaders of the party they belong to, which normally is not the case. Therefore, with Renho now occupying top post in the Democratic Party, the old pattern is expected to change for the better, or so optimists hope.

Changing Political culture

But Renho is also likely to face both the overt and subtle sexism of Japan’s political culture where influence of men over women is still overwhelming and it is not easy to dent such stereotypes. Japanese male politicians sometimes judge women political leaders more by their looks than performance and Renho with not enough experience shall find not easy to sail through the political current of the country. What one could expect from her is greater focus on women-centric issues such as better child care, equal pay and protection from domestic violence.

There have been instances in the past when Japanese male lawmakers have made disparaging statements about women such as they are baby-making machines and that their place is at home and they should not venture beyond their domestic duty. There was a case in June 2014 when a lawmaker from Japan’s ruling party had to apologise a female member of the Tokyo city assembly over his outburst and interrupting her speech wherein she was arguing for child rearing support by saying “You should hurry up and get married,” and “Can’t you even have children?”, moving her to tears. Akihiro Suzuki had to apologise to Ayaka Shiomura as he embarrassed the government as Abe is trying to make a major push to increase women in the workforce. It looked as if Japan’s power centre had descended into the dark ages.

The above incident is not the only instance that one hears on the attitudes of men on women in Japan’s political circles. In January 2007, for instance, Japan’s Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa did not endear himself to female voters when he described women as “birth-giving machines” and implored them to “do their best” to halt the country’s declining birth rate. At present the birth rate is quite low of 1.26 children per woman and an average fertility rate of 2.1 children is needed to keep the population stable. Not discounting the issue of change in the nation’s demography as a serious one, it needed to be respected that having children or not having children is a matter that women and households are free to decide themselves, and therefore such an “uncivil” observation demonstrated the kind of attitude that Japanese politicians hold towards women. Besides, there are other factors such as the cost of raising children and social pressure to leave work when they become pregnant discourage women to have children. The frequent description of women working in offices as “office ladies” tasked to do mundane job such as serving tea to their male colleagues degrades their status in the society. Renho is likely to take up this kind of issues with the government.

Unless the male lawmakers change their mind-set towards their female counterparts in the Diet and learn to respect their dignity, Abe’s objective to empower women as a pillar of a growth strategy would continue to face hurdles. Goldman Sachs forecast that bringing women’s participation into the workforce up to the same level as that of men could raise the country’s GDP by nearly 13 per cent and Japan with a sluggish economy cannot overlook this fact. Japan is projected to have a much smaller, older population in the middle of the century and unless the gender gap at work is bridged, the country will be missing the economic rent that the country could fetch if more women join the labour force. In order to achieve this aim, Japan needs to change its male-dominated corporate culture.

But breaking the “bamboo ceiling” is not easy. There are few women in senior positions in one of the world’s biggest economies and this is shameful. The statistics are equally grim across the pay scale. Though women make up 40 per cent of Japan’s workforce, on average they earn 70 per cent of a man’s salary for the same work. A large number of women still face a choice between raising a child and pursuing a career. More than 60 per cent of Japanese women leave their jobs after having their first child, a rate that has remained unchanged for the past two decades. This work-life conflict leads to both low female labour force participation and a declining birth rate. It seems therefore that despite the recent cases of women elevated to eminent positions, and Abe government’s pro-women policies, it seems to be a far cry that Abe’s “womenomics” will succeed as envisaged.

One also notices a bit of contradictions in the attitude of Japanese men when they look at the women folk. While the Japanese men take pride in their racial purity, they tend to discriminate against the women by discouraging them to aspire to be at par with men. Even in their obsession to maintain racial purity, inter-cultural marriages are frowned upon and even the children born out of wedlock between Japanese men and women with foreign nationals are scorned as ‘haafu’, from “half” meaning “person of mixed race”. This came to media highlight in September 2016 when Priyanka Yoshikawa born of an Indian father (Bangali) and a Japanese mother won the Miss Japan title. Questions were raised about Priyanka’s credentials in the social circles and if she was eligible at all to contest for the title as she was seen not as a “full” Japanese. Being a modern society, Japan is expected to come out of such conservative thinking and be more progressive.

Even earlier, another multiracial woman Ariana Miyamoto born of an African-American father and Japanese mother had represented Japan in the Miss Universe contest, one of the world’s three most prestigious Miss beauty pageants. These cases show that Japan’s beauty queens have begun to rewrite old rules on race and nationality. In a historically racially homogenous country such as Japan where multiracial children make up just 2 per cent of those born annually, there still exist prejudice against children of mixed race. Priyanka and Ariana, whose names seem exotic, are now breaking these barriers, another demonstration of women power in Japan. In the coming days, the issue of “racial purity” shall become less and less relevant in the world that is already globalised and inter-connected and Japan shall have to come to terms with the idea that there is more to determining nationality (kokuseki) than just bloodlines. Over time, the term ‘haafu’ would have disappeared from the Japanese lexicon. Renho needs to articulate her party’s views on this.

Expectations from Renho

While the newly elected leader of the Democratic Party is expected to fight in support of the above-mentioned women-centric issues that gel well with Abe’s present agenda, there could be minor differences in their implementation. That does not seem to be a major problem for an opposition party to work with the government. What looks promising with Renho at the helm, is that she has promised to rebuild the party with the aim to change the current political landscape to present a political alternative to the people. She will also have to present alternative policies to counter Abe administration that would be attractive to the electorate when the country goes for the elections. Her dual nationality issue could continue to haunt, however.

Lessons from India

India and Japan being close friends historically and culturally and having reinvented those traits for injecting a stronger spine in other domains as well now, can Japan be expected to learn any lesson on the issue of women empowerment from India’s inclusive and progressive policies towards women? Even when President Barack Obama during his visit to India in January 2015 stressed reforms aimed at boosting the value of girls in the economy, and the government of Narendra Modi has adopted many progressive policies towards the girl child and women education, many countries now see female empowerment as necessary for growth. It is already mentioned earlier in this essay how there are many cases of women having exceled in the political field. Indira Gandhi as former Prime Minister of India is often compared with Margaret Thatcher of Britain as Iron Ladies of their respective countries.

Besides the names in the political sphere already mentioned, the names of Arundhati Bhattachayra in the banking sector and Indra Krishnamurthy Noogi as the Chairperson of Pepsico are household names that continue to inspire the younger generation of women entrepreneurs. Unleashing potentials of female population is seen by many countries as way to revive their economies during a global slowdown.
There are many deficiencies in the process of women empowerment in India as well. Owing to cultural factors, preference to a male child has led to killing a girl child even before birth by sex determination tests. For this, both men and women are to be blamed. The government is taking measures to change the attitude of the people to reject this abhorrent practice through education and other means. The present Modi government is not only invoking laws to break such practices but is focusing on women empowerment by launching a campaign called “Educate the Girl, Save the Girl” (Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao) as a way of making India as an economic powerhouse.

Research done by economists have also shown that participation of women in a nation’s economic activities can spur economic growth, which is why women should be seen as equal players in commercial life. The G-20 group of large economies recently set a goal to bring more than 100 million women into the labour force. Indeed, if the economic power of millions of women is unleashed, that could be game-changer in a nation’s economy. Prime Minister Abe’s policy objective to bring in more women into Japan’s labour force needs to be appreciated from this larger perspective. Studies done on this issue estimate that if Abe achieves his goals as enunciated in his ‘womenomics’, the per capita income of the country would rise by 4 per cent. There can never be any magic bullet that could help such of Japan’s problems. What is needed foremost is the change in attitude and that must start at home. The government can make laws and facilitate the appropriate environment to help people change their perception but people must cooperate with the government to let women power unleashed for the benefit of the country.

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

One thought on “Women Empowerment In Japan – Analysis

  • January 22, 2017 at 9:46 am

    What Renho needs to do is allow and reinstate all overseas Japanese with dual citizenship.


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