Running for National Office in Japan: The Institutional and Cultural Constraints Faced by Women Candidates1

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Running for National Office in Japan: The Institutional and Cultural Constraints Faced by Women Candidates1

Alisa Gaunder, Ph.D.

Southwestern University

Prepared for delivery at the Stanford Conference on Electoral and Legislative Politics in Japan, June 11-12, 2007.

Please do not cite without author’s permission
A record number of women were elected to the Lower House of the Japanese Diet in 2005. Forty-five women now have seats in the 480 member chamber, bringing the percentage of women representatives in the Lower House to 9.4%. The strong performance of women is at least partially related to Prime Minister Koizumi’s decision to run several women against postal reform rebels in high profile districts. However, since the late 1980s, the number of women in the Diet has been increasing. Data from the 2005 Cabinet White Paper for Planning Gender Co-operation (Danjyo Kyōdō Sankaku Hakusho) reveal that the percentage of women winning seats in the Lower House has increased from 1.4% in 1986 to 7.3% in 2000 before jumping to 9.4% in the last election (see figure 1). In contrast to the increases in the number of women representatives in the Lower House, the number of women in the Upper House has declined since the so-called “Madonna Boom” of 1989 when a record number of Socialist women were elected under the leadership of Doi Takako. Women constituted 17.5% of the representatives elected in 1989. In the last Upper House election, however, women only won 12.4 % of the seats contested (see figure 2). This paper seeks to explain these trends in the number of women representatives in the Diet. Is the general upward trend in female representation the result of the creation of institutions that support women running for office or is the gradual increase better explained by incumbency effects following elections where party leaders supported a larger number of women for office? Moreover, what obstacles remain and influence the comparatively low percentage of women elected to the Diet?

In Japan, all candidates are said to face three main obstacles—jiban (building a constituency), kanban (publicity/name recognition), and kaban (money). The question is whether these obstacles are more difficult for women to challenge. Moreover do women face any additional obstacles that inhibit their ability to run for office? This paper illuminates the institutional and cultural obstacles women candidates face when running for national office in Japan. It also seeks to understand how women candidates and organizations that support women candidates overcome these obstacles. In particular, it will explore the activities of so-called “back-up schools” sponsored by organizations like the Ichikawa Fusae Memorial Association and campaign funding organizations for women such as WINWIN to identify the strategies employed to elect candidates at the local and national levels. Interviews with women who are members of the National Diet and representatives from the aforementioned organizations reveal that while back-up schools and funding organizations do help women overcome some of the obstacles that stand in the way of running for national office in Japan, the institutional structure of political parties as well as political and social norms still represent formidable obstacles for women who aspire to be politicians. To date, the leadership of Doi Takako and Koizumi Junichirō has played a significant role in the election of women to national office. Women candidates from any one party have had the most success at the national level when party leaders have made the election of women a priority.


Women Diet members have not been the focus of many scholarly studies. Instead, most studies have explored the involvement of women in local level activism.2 Many scholars who limit their focus to local level politics and activism claim there are too few female representatives at the national level to hold any amount of power or to exercise influence. Members of this school argue that the local level, not the national level, is the main arena for women and their influence over policy in Japan (Eto 2005; Gelb and Estevez-Abe 1998; Iwao 1993; Ogai 1999, 2004).

Traditionally, politics has not been the realm of women in Japan. Many women, especially middle class, educated women, however, do become active in community activities and organizations, such as local PTAs, consumer movements and citizen/protest movements (Iwao 1993: 242). These women initially join these groups in accordance with their roles as wife and mother, expressing concern over issues that directly affect the household, including education, the environment, and food safety (Iwao 1993: 244). If, however, in the process of participating in these groups women begin to challenge society’s dominant image of women and their role, the likelihood of their involvement in the political realm will increase (Pharr 1981: 12-13). Indeed, many of these women realize that they can only affect real change by becoming part of the political decision making process, at least at the local level (Iwao 1993: 244).

Several scholars have found a connection between local level organizations, social movements, and involvement in politics (Eto 2001; Gelb and Estevez-Abe 1998; Ogai 1999, 2004). A prime example of this relationship is the Seikatsu Club Co-op, a consumer centered social movement promoting activism on food safety. The club has been quite successful and over time developed network offshoots, the Seikatsu Networks, which have been integral in the election of women to local level political positions in certain geographical locations (Gelb and Estevez-Abe 1998: 270-271; Ogai 2004: 99-100). The members of the Networks also exert influence over the local bureaucracy due to the policy expertise fostered by the organization (Gelb and Estevez-Abe 1998: 274). By organizing their efforts into social movements and participating at the local level through activism, these women develop a unique sense of citizenship based both on their experience as women and housewives and their concern with issues connected to daily life (LeBlanc 1999: 196). This type of involvement provides the foundation for Japanese women, particularly on the local level, to motivate large grassroots support bases for desired candidates or policies (Iwao 1993: 244).

Clearly activism at the local level and social movements have had an impact on electoral politics. For example, as we shall see below Doi Takako’s vital support networks in her campaign to increase the number of women in politics, particularly on the national level, were local housewife organizations, civic leaders and feminists (Iwao 1993: 230). Indeed, women’s organizations play a critical role in getting voters to the polls and are much better at such activities than male-dominated organizations (Steel 2004: 241). Scholars who have focused solely on local activism, however, have not fully explored the extent to which women’s organizations aid candidates for national office in overcoming the cultural and institutional constraints they face. In this paper I highlight the constraints facing women candidates for national office. Then, I explore how campaign organizations for women and back-up schools prepare these candidates to challenge these constraints. I argue that the failure to tie funding to specific gender policies has limited the effectiveness of these organizations. While such organizations have provided important tools and resources to women candidates running for office, these activities have not been sufficient. For the most part, women candidates have had the most success when a party leader has made electing women a priority. A look at Doi’s and Koizumi’s support of women candidates will illustrate this point.


Women who consider running for national office face several barriers at three different stages: self selection, party selection, and voter selection (Matland 2002: 1). Most of these barriers are either institutional or cultural.

The Effects of the Electoral System

The electoral system influences the desire and ability of women to run for office at all three stages. Electoral systems in general establish incentives and constraints for parties, candidates and voters. An exploration of the Lower House’s old multiple member district system as well as its new combined single member district/proportional representation system reveals how some of these incentives and constraints have remained constant while others have changed.

For the LDP, especially, the multiple member district (MMD) system with a single nontransferable vote (SNTV) in place in the Lower House from 1947-1993 created incentives to compete based on a personal vote, not on policy.3 Under this system 2-6 representatives were elected in 129 districts. In order to gain a majority in the Lower House which had 511 seats, a party needed to win two seats in each district on average. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was the only party that had enough resources to field multiple candidates in each district.4 LDP politicians (as well as JSP politicians) created kōenkai, personal support organizations, to respond to the incentives and constraints created by the electoral system.

Kōenkai play a critical role in helping candidates respond to one of the main obstacles they face when running for office—jiban (building a constituency). As we shall see below, women have found it difficult to cultivate the personal connections to local politicians and businesses necessary to support kōenkai. The old electoral system rewarded those who could gain the personal vote. Very few women had entered politics before the momentum of incumbency had taken hold under this system.5

Incumbents with established kōenkai proved very difficult to unseat, as is the case in all systems that favor the personal vote (Darcy and Nixon 1996: 14).

Women were expected to perform better under the new combined single member district (SMD)/proportional representation system (PR) adopted in 1994.6 While single member districts pose some obstacles to women since SMDs favor incumbents and provide incentives to gather the personal vote, in general, proportional representation systems favor women, if parties are willing to prioritize electing women as has been the case in several European countries (Matland 2002). The proportional representation system adopted by Japan is similar to the German system in that candidates who lose in the single member constituencies can be elected through the proportional representation list.7 This provision provides incentives for candidates to challenge well-entrenched incumbents (Reed 1995). Candidates who benefit from this system have been termed “zombies” because the PR list resurrects them from the dead (Krauss and Pekkanen 2004). These so-called “zombies” who tend to be older male candidates can also have the effect of moving women further down the PR list. Because ranking on PR lists can be and has been connected to candidates’ performance in single member districts some observers predicted women would do less well than could have been the case with different PR rules (Darcy and Nixon 1996: 16-17).

The revisions to the Public Office Election law have made it more difficult for independent conservative candidates to run for office, closing a potential path to office for women who find it difficult to gain party endorsement. Single member constituencies favor party endorsed candidates. Even if independent candidates have strong, independent kōenkai, they are unlikely to have enough funding and voter support to challenge the officially endorsed LDP candidate (Taniguchi 2006). With single member constituencies a candidate needs a larger portion of the vote share. In addition, official party candidates receive government sponsored party subsidies. Independent candidates are denied such funds. Official party endorsement is the best way to be competitive in an SMD. The barriers to women facing women who seek party endorsement are considered after a discussion of the factors that influence self selection.

Factors that influence the self selection of women

In general, electoral systems influence women’s self selection to run because electoral rules influence candidates’ assessment of their chances of winning. As in the United States, incumbents are formidable opponents and difficult to unseat in single member districts. Running for an open seat versus challenging an incumbent in the single member district contests involves a very different calculus for potential candidates. The decision to challenge an incumbent is made easier with party endorsement and monetary support. With proportional representation incumbency can be less of a factor if parties choose to place female candidates higher up on the list.

Funding regulations also influence a woman’s decision to run for office. The Political Funds Control Law has undergone two major revisions in postwar Japan—one under Prime Minister Miki in 1975 and another under the anti-LDP Hosokawa coalition government in 1994. The stated goal of both revisions was to reduce the incentives for money politics in Japan. The current funding regulations passed in 1994 pose a variety of incentives and constraints to women who wish to run for office. The revised Political Fund Control Act provides party subsidies. These subsidies were supposed to lessen the burden on the individual. One would expect that such reform would make it easier for women to run, since women generally have less access to private funding. But, in order to benefit from these subsidies a candidate needs to receive party endorsement. As we shall see below, several barriers to party endorsement exist for women.

Especially in the LDP, the burden of raising funds falls on the individual candidate. A survey of LDP (Lower House) Diet members revealed that the money received from the LDP prefectural branch offices through the party subsidy provision only covers 14% of the average politician’s annual expenses (Taniguchi 2006). Candidates in the single member district systems continue to rely on kōenkai to cultivate the personal vote (Krauss and Pekkanen 2004). Building and maintaining kōenkai is expensive. Noda Seiko, a former member of the LDP who was kicked out of the party due to her position on postal reform, reflected on the barriers that financing campaigns posed for women who wished to run with LDP endorsement:

In the conservative party, it [campaigning] is all self-financed. The amount that the party gives us is really not much, and so in Japan, members receive election and daily operation support not from individuals but from companies. The corporate culture is a male one. So companies do not bother giving money to women. Thus, it is difficult collecting donations. The reason why men can run again and again even if they lose is because they are able to receive so many donations. In contrast, if women use up donations [from companies], they do not receive additional donations. As a result, they cannot run in the next [race]. (personal interview, 10 June 2005)
According to Noda, women are held to a higher standard if they are able to run for office—that is, they often only get one chance. Moreover, women often do not have connections to the most likely funding sources.

Whether or not a woman decides to run for office is also influenced by cultural and social norms. As we shall see, women in Japan tend to think of politics as distant from their lives (Iwao 1993; LeBlanc 1999). Even if women become more interested in politics through their involvement in local activism, certain gender expectations remain. Specifically, a tendency still exists to see a woman’s role as being that of a “good wife, wise mother”. Several interviewees pointed to a woman candidate’s family as being a large obstacle to running for office (Nishimoto, personal interview, 28 March 2005; Yamaguchi, personal interview, 24 March 2005). If a woman runs for office the question raised for the politician’s family as well as the public is who is going to take care of the family. This question never emerges for men running for office.8

Factors that influence party selection of women

Gaining party support has been difficult for women in Japan. At this stage women face barriers related to party structure and norms. In particular, the rules and/or norms governing candidate recruitment and nomination play a large role in excluding women. No party in Japan currently has quotas for women. Party quotas for women ensure that women will be included. Indeed, quotas have helped increase the number of women in parliament in several European countries (Kittilson 2006). The now defunct Japan New Party had a 20 percent quota for women. Significantly, however, the party was unable to find enough women to meet this quota in the 1993 election. Women only constituted five percent of the candidates supported by the party. The difficulty in recruiting women reflects the barriers they face in building a kōenkai and cultivating the personal vote (Darcy and Nixon 1996: 15).

Even if parties do not have quotas, clear and open selection criteria and processes aid women who seek party endorsement. The more open the process, the more able any candidate is able to adopt an appropriate strategy for securing the party’s nomination (Matland 2002: 4). As we shall see, though, in Japan candidate selection has gone on behind closed doors, especially in the LDP.

Party gatekeepers play a key role in the selection of candidates (Matland 2002: 1). Who the gatekeepers are and their attitude towards women influence the extent to which women are tapped as candidates. The position of gatekeepers varies by party. Potential gatekeepers include party leaders, faction leaders or local party officials. Below I will consider the recruitment and nomination procedures and the role of gatekeepers for the two largest parties in Japan—the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The LDP’s candidate selection

The LDP’s party structure, rules and norms have not favored women candidates. Nomination and recruitment rules and norms, factions, kōenkai and conservative ideology have all proven barriers to entry to the LDP for women. Since its inception LDP endorsement has been guided by the following principles: (1) endorsements only are to be granted to candidates with a realistic chance of being elected; (2) unofficial endorsements are not to be given and the party is not to endorse more candidates than the district magnitude; (3) incumbents are to receive priority; (4) indicted criminals are not to be endorsed; (5) recommendations from LDP branch offices are to be considered (Cox and Rosenbluth 1996: 261). Under the old multiple member district system the LDP established an Electoral Strategy Committee to avoid over-nomination. This committee is composed of twelve members with factional representation proportional to faction size. The LDP president and vice president also serve on the committee (Cox and Rosenbluth 1996: 261; Shiratori 1988: 171). The consideration of official candidates is a bottom up process with the Electoral Strategy Committee considering recommendations from the local branch offices. The Electoral Strategy Committee passes its recommendation along to the Executive Council. If the Executive Council is unable to resolve who should receive official party endorsement in any of the districts, the decision is left to the five major party officials—the LDP president, vice president, secretary general, PARC chairperson, and Executive Council chairperson (Shiratori 1988: 172-3). Under the old multiple member district system factional balancing was a major decision rule in determining official endorsements. After incumbents, second generation politicians or candidates who could demonstrate strong support in a given district were given priority (Woodall 1996: 108). In the multiple member district system it also was common for LDP members who did not receive official party endorsement to run as independents provided they had a sufficient personal support network of their own. The LDP would issue these independents a certificate of party membership and retroactively give these candidates party nomination if they won a seat in the election (Shiratori 1988: 172). This practice increased the number of conservative candidates running in any district and favored candidates with resources and connections to establish their own local political machines in the constituency (Shiratori 1988: 175).

Under both the old and new electoral systems, local party branch offices, factions and kōenkai have played a key role in the recruitment and nomination process in the LDP. Women faced barriers to entry in all three areas. Local branch offices as well as factions are very patriarchal. Iwamoto notes that one of the largest obstacles potential women candidates face is “the aged male gatekeepers who select candidates in almost all the districts” (2001: 226). Very few women have the type of experience rewarded by local party gatekeepers and/or factions when considering who to recruit and endorse as a potential LDP candidate. The favored career paths of LDP politicians are in the civil service or politics. The LDP often recruits bureaucrats, local and prefectural assembly members or political assistants to politicians (Ogai 2001: 208). Far fewer women are bureaucrats or local politicians due to similar gender barriers in these professions as in national politics.9

Kōenkai are difficult for all aspiring LDP politicians to build, but women face even greater obstacles because they often are excluded from the old boys networks that are crucial to the creation of these organizations.10 These connections come from education, work and family. Women who graduate from elite universities and work in the aforementioned careers do have some connections, but even so their networks are not as extensive as those of men. Women without this pedigree do not have these connections. If women candidates are married, they likely moved to a region based on their husband’s career. This common practice denies them family connections in the district where they live and would run for office (Bochel et al 2003: 27). Due to the personal allegiances kōenkai foster, these organizations often are passed from a retiring politician to a family member or a former political assistant. Daughters and wives have occasionally inherited a kōenkai, but the norm has been to pass these personal support groups on to a male representative of the family or a male political assistant. Still, of the three main paths most likely to lead to recruitment in the LDP until Koizumi women had fared best as second generation politicians (Ogai 2001: 209).

Many predicted that kōenkai would become obsolete under the new electoral system. The hope was that under the combined SMD/PR system candidates would compete on policy, not personal favors and connections. The logic of competition in single member districts continues to reward candidates with kōenkai (Krauss and Pekkanen 2004). The critical role of kōenkai in both the old and new electoral systems favors candidates with money or connections to money. The LDP gives its candidates very little organizational or financial support. This fact has made it difficult for women to run as LDP candidates because they have fewer political connections to build their own kōenkai as well as less experience to prepare them to become Diet members (Iwai 1993: 115).

Factions also present obstacles to women who seek LDP endorsement. Under the new electoral system, factions fight to receive party endorsement when open seats become available in the single member constituencies because such openings provide an opportunity for a faction to increase its overall strength in the LDP (Park 2001: 438). The factions of the LDP president and secretary general often are able to recruit more potential candidates because these candidates realize these officials have greater weight in deciding party endorsements (Park 2001: 438). Candidates who receive LDP endorsement, however, have an incentive to keep their factional affiliation a secret during the election so as to secure more votes (Köllner 2004: 94). Since no faction has made it a priority to increase its number of women members, many of the same constraints to recruitment and nomination as under the old electoral system remain.

Even if these structural barriers did not exists, the conservative ideology of the LDP acts as a deterrent to the recruitment of female candidates. The LDP has not advocated progressive gender policies. LDP sponsored legislation tends to support women in their traditional gender role (Ogai 2001: 209). As a result, the LDP does not have much to offer many potential women candidates. Not surprisingly, historically the SDP (formerly the JSP) and the JCP have attracted more women (Aiuchi 2001: 221; Ogai 2001: 209).

Figures 3 and 5 illustrate the effects of the various constraints on the selection of women candidates in the LDP since the implementation of the new electoral system. Until Koizumi’s recruitment of women candidates in 2005, the LDP had the second fewest women candidates in both single member district and proportional representation constituencies in most elections. In most instances the Komeitō was the only party with fewer women candidates than the LDP.11 While the LDP has supported very few women for office, its success rate for the women it has endorsed is quite high in comparison to other parties as shown in Figure 7 for single member districts and Figure 8 for proportional representation. The Komeitō’s success rate for women in proportional representation was higher than the LDP’s in 2003 and 2005. As Figure 7 illustrates, however, the LDP’s success rate in single member districts is much higher than other parties running women candidates in these elections. One should not read too much into the high success rate of women candidates in the LDP given the small number of candidates. Indeed, as Figure 4 and Figure 6 illustrate the total number of women elected in the LDP under the new electoral system has been quite small with the exception of the 2005 election.

The DPJ’s candidate selection

In contrast to the LDP, the DPJ, the largest opposition party in Japan, has a party structure, rules and norms that have been slightly more favorable to women candidates. Unlike the now defunct Japan New Party, the DPJ did not incorporate quotas for women as part of its party platform. It did, however, establish certain institutions and rules to attract more women to the party as candidates. Specifically, it has a recruitment program for women and provides some open training classes to potential women candidates. If women decide to run as DPJ candidates, the party provides funding to help them get their campaigns off the ground.12 Its highest profile members also are committed to campaigning on the behalf of women candidates (Aiuchi 2001: 221). Stump speeches by well-known politicians aid all candidates in overcoming kanban, the need for publicity when campaigning.

The DPJ, like the LDP, contains factions. The two major institutionalized factions in the DPJ have ties to labor unions. In general, DPJ factions, like factions in the LDP, are interested in recruiting new members and provide campaign assistance in order to aid in the election of their members (Köllner 2004: 100). As with the LDP, though, DPJ factions have not made the recruitment of women a priority.

Party gatekeepers in the DPJ pose less of a constraint on women candidates than in the LDP. In 2001 Aiuchi predicted “the current lack of strong leadership in the DPJ is expected to facilitate the incorporation of traditionally underrepresented groups like women and youth (2001: 221).” For recruitment this suggests that party leaders are not actively seeking one type of candidate. In this sense, the old boys network might be less of a factor in party nominations. Strong leadership, however, could help ensure that women candidates were actively recruited and that quotas for women candidates became part of the party platform, something Aiuchi’s assertion does not consider.

The DPJ’s Committee for Gender Equality oversees the recruitment of women for party nomination. DPJ candidates are recommended by local party officials or representatives of DPJ supporting organizations such as unions. Candidates also can express their interest in receiving the DPJ’s endorsement through the party’s open recruitment program (Aiuchi 2001: 221-2). The open recruitment program offers the greatest opportunity for the entry of women. Still, only ten percent of the applicants through this program were women in the 2000 Lower House election cycle, illustrating the reluctance of women to self select themselves as potential candidates (Aiuchi 2001: 222).

In comparison to the LDP, though, the DPJ has attracted and supported more women candidates in both single member and proportional representation contests in most elections as illustrated in Figures 3 and 5. In fact, the LDP only has supported more PR candidates in the 2005 election when Koizumi and the LDP placed 25 women candidates on its PR list while the DPJ placed 24 on its list. In all other elections the DPJ endorsed two to three times more women candidates than the LDP.

The success rate of women candidates in the DPJ has been much lower than that of LDP endorsed candidates, especially in single member districts (see Figures 7 and 8). The lower success rate for DPJ women candidates is highlighted by comparing the total number women candidates elected in the LDP and DPJ. Figure 4 shows the number of women elected by party in single member districts and Figure 5 shows the number elected by party in proportional representation. As illustrated in Figure 4, the DPJ only had a higher number of women candidates elected than the LDP in SMDs in the 2003 election. The DPJ, however, had more women candidates elected by PR in 1996 and 2003 as shown in Figure 6. Given that the DPJ ran a considerably larger number of women candidates than the LDP in these contests though the actual number of women elected is small and constitutes a weaker success rate.

The lower success rate for women in the DPJ is related to the fact that all DPJ candidates face certain constraints when running for office. The DPJ does not have financial resources to match that of the LDP. Moreover, while DPJ candidates certainly have the best chance of mobilizing support to challenge LDP incumbents in single member districts, many potential candidates do not wish to fight this uphill battle. Women in the DPJ, like women in the LDP, face the additional constraint of building personal networks in the districts without the full time support of a spouse to foster these ties (Aiuchi 2001: 223).

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