Gender and Japanese Political Science

by Claire Annesley (University of Sussex)

Claire Annesley (Sussex) and Susan Franceschet (Calgary) at JPSA in Japan


Autumn sun shines bright

Angry women’s club

Thaws the Tokyo freeze.

Japanese political science and Japanese politics share a reputation for being men’s clubs. But this appears to be changing.

In 2003, the share of women members of the Japanese Political Science Association (JPSA) was just 8%, and this does not appear to have grown much since then. JPSA wants to encourage women to join the association, but as Jackie Steele (ISS, University of Tokyo) observed, they require new applicants to be nominated by two other members -- just to be ‘considered’.  From a UK perspective this type of gatekeeping does not seem conducive to opening up the professional association to all Japanese scholars of political science, young and old, male and female.  

But things do seem to be changing.  In an address at the reception of the 2015 Japanese Political Science Association (JPSA) annual conference, past JPSA president Hiroshi Watanabe reminded of the need to integrate sex and gender into Japanese political science. He appeared to lament the lack of progress since his special issue on this topic in 2003.  

Mari Miura, a feminist professor from Sophia University, is now a member of the JPSA executive and is actively supporting more politics and gender content. I participated in her gender and politics panel at the 2015 JPSA annual conference at Chiba University as an ‘exchanger’ from the UK Political Studies Association (PSA). I presented my research on gender and cabinet recruitment, alongside colleagues from Taiwan and South Korea, who each spoke about gender gaps and identity politics.  I am grateful for the excellent feedback I received from my discussant Professor Kaori Shoji (Gakushuin University) and members of the 50-strong audience.

The buzz around this international gender and politics panel at JPSA runs in parallel to a broader sense of urgency about the need to make progress in gender equality in Japanese politics.

The share of female MPs in the Diet has hit a ceiling of 8-9% even though unprecedented gains continue to be made in women’s political representation across the world. In October 2015, three days before the JPSA conference I attended, Japanese Prime Minister Abe reshuffled his cabinet, in the process reducing the number of female ministers from 5 to 3.

Within civil society, Japanese women are getting increasingly angry about the lack of change or progress in Japan politics. Professor Miura is a founding member of the Ikareru Joshikai, the ‘Angry Women’s Club’ (2014), a movement of grassroots activists, academics, and politicians formed to put pressure on the political class to regender Japanese politics. Without gender equality, they argue, Japan will not keep up in the global world.

Fed up with the dearth of political science debates in Japan on politics and gender, Mari Miura, Kiyoung Shin and Jackie Steele established a bilingual Research Network on Gender and Diversity in Political Representation in 2014 to bridge between Japan and the rich expertise at the international level.  To date, six successful research talks have been hosted, rotating between the, Sophia University, Ochanomizu Women’s University and the University of Tokyo.  

To build on these successes and to launch a programme of research on Global Women’s Leadership, Dr Shin (Ochanomizu University) hosted an International Symposium on 12 October 2015. This brought together gender and politics scholars from the UK, USA, Canada, South Korea and Taiwan with Japanese politicians, journalists, activists, scholars and students.

The goal of the International Symposium, sponsored by the University’s Institute for Gender Studies, was to discuss which institutional mechanisms and political strategies have improved women’s representation in parliaments and executives internationally, and what would work in Japan.  I talked about how the informal nature of cabinet recruitment often keeps women out and presented some options for improving gender balance in executives – for example, introducing formal job criteria or executive gender quotas.

The symposium – packed out despite being scheduled on a public holiday – was opened by the President of the International Political Science Association, Aiji Tanaka, and Diet Member Masaharu Nakagawa, chair of the parliamentary group established to draft a bill to increase women’s participation and empowerment in the field of politics.

Clearly, Japanese women are fed up. But they are also motivated and focused on this exciting political moment that might just thaw the freeze in Japanese politics.