The blocked road to a woman prime minister in Japan

The blocked road to a woman prime minister in Japan
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Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last week selected former foreign minister Fumio Kishida as its new leader, which means that he likely will become the country’s 100th prime minister. Kishida soon will stand at the helm of the incumbent LDP coalition, which has approached or won a two-thirds supermajority in the last three elections, countering opposition parties in the upcoming general election.

Some might argue that even though a man, yet again, will become the next prime minister, there are signs that his successor, at long last, might be a woman. Of the four candidates for party leader, two were women — Seiko Noda and Sanae Takaichi. Combined, they won 33 percent of party votes in the first round. This is the second LDP election in history to include women candidates, and the largest number of women candidates in a single contest. 

Yet, a more balanced perspective would lead to a different conclusion. While some women candidates made it near the top of the party structure, they seem to have made it that far only to block the maverick and widely popular Taro Kono from ascending even more. Their candidacies were insufficient against the larger tides going against women occupying the highest echelons of power in Japan. Taking the broader view, three key factors ensure that women candidates will continue to face an uphill battle in Japanese political life.

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One factor has to do with what voters think about women candidates, or the demand for them. While the evidence is mixed, some prior work shows that when Japanese voters are presented with identical candidates for political office who vary only in gender, they are about 5 percentage points less likely to choose the woman candidate. This work also shows that women candidates could lose support when they diverge from gender-based behavioral expectations. Additional work shows that women candidates are penalized for being ambitious. The issue here is that voters tend to think that ambitious women will not be popular among the broader public, and therefore not a viable (or “electable”) candidate for office.

A second factor is what women candidates think about running, or the supply of candidates. Cross-national research shows that women tend not to run for election unless they think that they are clearly better candidates (i.e., higher quality) than the men who might oppose them. This is a particularly difficult issue in Japan, where the share of women with college degrees is lower than with men, unlike many well-developed democracies, and there remain fewer in leadership positions at companies and other organizations. There is also a significant gender gap in salaries, with women being paid less than men. This means that women often lack the professional qualifications that men do. Partly because of this, women typically have fewer resources (e.g., money, networks) than men, which also makes it difficult for them to run.

A third factor has to do with the electoral rules, or institutional factors. Structural issues also face women candidates at nearly every turn. For example, positions in the House of Representatives, from where prime ministers are elected, are more valuable politically, but prefectural LDP officers often act as gatekeepers and fail to nominate women candidates for those races. While the Japanese Diet passed a law to promote gender equality in politics on May 16, 2018, it has no real power, only encouraging political parties to voluntarily equalize the number of men and women candidates as much as possible.

Further, the selection processes to become party leader and win legislative seats are distinct and pose structural obstacles to candidates who may not represent the established party line. The LDP leadership election has democratized over the last several decades, as seen in other party selection processes in developed democracies. However, the decision is still very much in the hands of the party establishment in the Diet. The first round of the LDP leadership election requires a majority of 764 votes to win: half from LDP Diet members, half from rank-and-file LDP members. This is potentially a problem since as long as the LDP Diet members do not find an unorthodox (e.g., woman) candidate to be suitable, the road to a woman leader is rocky.

An alternative path to a woman leader of Japan is through a different party in government. However, this LDP leadership election showed a possible disadvantage for opposition parties in this realm. The last entrant to this LDP leadership contest was Noda. Although her own explanations for running emphasized her disregard for helping the party agenda — she ran on unorthodox ideals of diversity and relatively progressive social policy — her campaign may have helped the party’s overall image ahead of the general election. A woman’s perspective in the LDP may have gained her party some votes in the upcoming general election, but not enough for herself in the leadership contest. This would be in line with broader findings about how the inclusion of women in institutions helps improve them, but not necessarily to the benefit of the women putting in the work.

In short, three key factors stand in the way of a woman candidate leading the LDP — and eventually the country — any time soon. On the candidate side, women remain unlikely to enter political life. On the demand side, voters are unlikely to support this if they do. On the institutional side, the party is unlikely to put women up for good offices, or to support them for leadership if elected. Without considerable structural or cultural reforms, it will be difficult to increase the number of viable women candidates for elected office, in general, and for the prime ministerial position, specifically. 

Charles Crabtree is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.

Yoshikuni Ono is a professor of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo, and a faculty fellow at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo.

Hikaru Yamagishi is an East Asian Studies Prize Fellow at Yale University.