A record number of women are running for office in Japan’s general election on Sunday to fill 124 of the 245 seats in the upper House of Councilors. Half of the upper chamber of the National Diet is elected every three years and this election includes three new seats.
The increase seems promising for advocates of gender equity. However, if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) retains it dominance, the election could result in a barely perceptible shift.
That’s because many of the female candidates are members of smaller, left-wing parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP).
The ruling LDP is fielding as many candidates as the CDP and JCP combined, but only 14.6% of their candidates are women.
That means, if the House of Councilors retains its current party makeup, women will hold around 21% of the seats, compared to 20% currently.
That’s a lot better than the 10% of women members in the lower house, which does not go to the polls until 2021.
Last year, a law was passed encouraging political parties to set targets for gender parity. However, there are no incentives or penalties for parties which fail to do so.
At local level, women comprised 17.2% of large municipal assemblies and 14.9% of smaller city assemblies in December 2017. But they only made up 10.1% of prefectural assemblies and 9.9% of town and village assemblies, according to data from the Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office.
While an opposition sweep could reshape the upper house both politically and gender wise, polls suggest this is unlikely.
Waqas Adenwala, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), said the LDP’s popularity had been boosted by a fractured opposition and the party’s “successful track record of economic and political stability.”
The Prime Minister will be hoping the polls prove correct and that a similar pattern will play out in the Upper House, leaving him in firm control of the entire parliament and clearing the decks for his long-desired constitutional agenda.
Japan’s current constitution came into effect in 1947 after its defeat by allied forces in World War II. Article 9 of the document says that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential will never be maintained.”
Despite this, Japan maintains a large military known as the Self-Defense Force. Abe and other supporters of constitutional change argue there is a contradiction between the constitution and the existence of the SDF.
“I believe that we must establish the status of the SDF explicitly in the constitution during our generation’s lifetime and leave no room for contending the SDF could be unconstitutional,” Abe said on the 70th anniversary of the constitution in 2017. “I strongly wish to make 2020 the year that the reborn Japan will make a new start.”
To call a national referendum on amending the constitution, Abe needs a two-thirds majority in both houses. He already controls the lower house, and Sunday’s vote could give him the numbers in the upper chamber as well.
But though the constitution issue has been a driving priority for Abe and the right-wing of the LDP, most other parties in parliament are fiercely opposed to changing the current document, which was formulated in reaction to Japanese expansionism and militarism before and during the war and has long been a point of pride for the country.