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JAPAN: Women Changing the Face of Politics, Slowly but Almost Surely

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, May 22 2010 (IPS) - Junko Hamada, 59, is now in her 12th year as an elected member of the city council of Isehara, a sprawling bed town west of Tokyo with an estimated population of 150,000.

The former women’s rights activist, married and with three adult children and a grandchild, exudes energy and elegance and talks quietly. She shows no sign of what analysts say she represents – today’s breed of plucky Japanese women who are making inroads into politics, one of Japan’s toughest male-dominated arenas.

“Their determination,” says Nori Araki, “is all the more valuable when you consider that Japanese women, 65 years ago, had not a single female politician to represent them.”

National women’s suffrage was enacted after Japan lost World War II in 1945.

Araki is the spokesperson for the League of Women Voters of Japan, a leading organisation dedicated to encouraging women to vote as well as enter politics.

Indeed, Japan, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, citing a November 2009 survey, ranks 106th among 189 countries in terms of the proportion of female parliamentarians in the House of Representatives.

Japan just has 45 women parliamentarians in the powerful lower chamber, occupying just 9.4 percent of the total 480 seats. The corresponding proportion in the 242-member Upper House is 18.2 percent.

Still, as analysts point out, the overall level of women’s representation in local politics is not as dismal as it may seem. Overall, women represent 20 percent of local assembly seats across Japan.

In the city council of Isehara, where Hamada resides, women comprise seven, or 40 percent, of the total 24 assembly members.

On a few rare occasions, in some areas such as Oiso town, located in Kanagawa, a densely populated suburb south of Tokyo, the percentage of women representatives climbs to 52 percent, equivalent to eight of the total 14 members.

Let it not be said that outside of parliament, at the national level, Japanese female politicians have not made it to the top. A landmark was the appointment in 2001 of Takako Doi as the first female speaker of parliament. She also used to head the Social Democratic Party, now led by another female, lawyer Mizuho Fukushima.

Even the conservative Liberal Democratic Party-led government two years ago appointed the first female defense minister, Yuriko Koike, who was often cited in the Japanese media as the equivalent of U.S. State Secretary Hilary Clinton, and admired for her strong personality and fashion sense.

Still, such national positions are not common and should not be taken as the norm for Japanese female politicians, cautions Masae Wada, the second in command of the influential Shufuren (or Japan Housewives Association as it was initially known), launched in 1945 by women who were struggling to support their families soon after the defeat of Japan in World War II.

The Association, which Wada says is now ready to change the outdated term ‘Housewives’, is spearheading efforts to lobby for the passage of certain laws such as those requiring higher standards on food and electronic product safety and has also seen some of its members enter politics on that platform.

Wada explains female politicians at the local level, either at the city or prefectural assemblies, enjoy widespread public support because of their advocacy for grassroots social issues that are more crucial to women in Japan.

“The key to understanding Japanese gender politics is our gender-based society. Traditionally, women are assigned to look after the family while men work outside,” she says. “Thus, women do better in local politics when they focus on regulations that will improve the quality of life rather than grandeur accomplishments such as changing defense policy.”

Hamada agrees. She says her political ambitions were stirred when she started caring for her aged and ailing mother with very little support from her husband, who was too busy at work.

“I struggled on my own and realised women had to change such a situation by getting out there and demanding better conditions,” she says.

Hamada entered politics as an independent, supported by her female friends who had formed the grassroots-based Kanagawa Network Movement as an advocate of women’s issues. At the top of the movement’s agenda is the increase in publicly funded elderly care services to help ease the caregiver burden of homemakers for the sick elderly.

In the city assembly, Hamada says the women members are actively advocating new regulations and budgetary allocations for better health care and support systems for children and the disabled.

The male counterparts are often supportive, says a delighted Hamada. “Most often, it must be because the older men are forced to give in. But the main point is, women in local politics are successful in changing lives for the better,” she says.

Analyst Wada says as Japanese society ages, the role of women politicians will strengthen as elderly care increasingly becomes a central issue and the national economy becomes more affected by demographics and reproductive issues.

“Both male and female politicians will have to collaborate as partners to tackle emerging social issues that will become national ones, thus weakening the traditional gender divide in politics,” she insists.

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