The Overlooked Problem of Sexual Harassment in Japanese Politics
For the first time, the LDP leadership race featured two female candidates to become the first female prime minister of Japan. Her entry into the race is noteworthy given the country’s notoriously low Global Gender Gap Index, which reached 120 out of 156 countries, largely due to the low economic status of women and the extremely low number of women in Japan’s national legislative assembly, the state parliament. While many commentators and many politicians wrestle their hands over the fact that the Japanese economy has been stagnating for nearly 30 years, nowhere near as many express the same concern that Japan is stagnating in international gender equality indices. Sexual harassment in politics is a factor in the low participation of women in Japanese politics, has a negative impact on women’s ambitions for political office and degrades the quality of democracy.
Japan is lagging behind when it comes to tackling sexual harassment in politics and tackling sexual harassment in the workplace in general. The 1986 Employment Equal Opportunities Act does not provide a clear definition of sexual harassment, nor does it prohibit it. Sexual harassment is an entrenched practice in legislative assemblies, according to several polls of politicians across the country at all levels of government. In 2014, a poll by a group of feminist politicians found that 56 percent of women councilors had experienced sexual harassment. In 2019, an Asahi Shimbun poll of first-term community assembly members found that a quarter were sexually assaulted. In 2020, the Cabinet Office polled local councilors and found that nearly 60 percent of women were bullied versus 33 percent of men.
These polls reveal nothing about party affiliation and ask whether some political parties tackle sexual harassment better than others? Research collected around the world shows that this is not necessarily the case. However, members of conservative political parties appear to be less likely to accept gender as an issue in politics, and conservative women politicians in Japan appear to be less enthusiastic about sexual harassment than women on the other side of the political spectrum.
In terms of political representation, the LDP’s lack of commitment to gender equality has been reliably persistent. In the last national election – the House of Lords election in 2019 – only 15 percent of LDP candidates were women. The respective share of the main opposition CDPJ was 45 percent and the total value across all political parties was 28 percent. When it comes to sexual harassment, the party has no internal mechanisms to counter it, and as a broader societal issue of equality and respect for women, it is rarely up for debate. Indeed, the dominance of the LDP in politics has resulted in women remaining severely underrepresented at all political levels; his stranglehold on political decision-making has maintained the low social, economic and political status of women compared to men.
If Noda – or any other woman – speaks openly about sexual harassment, you run the risk of marginalization or be accused of playing the “gender card”.
Noda Seiko, one of the two candidates for the LDP chairmanship, is remarkable precisely because she appears relatively unusual for her gender-friendly views in the LDP. She has often spoken of her male colleagues making sexist comments and has shared her own experiences of sexual harassment as a young politician, encouraging younger women to consult her or their party superiors if they are harassed. If Noda – or any other woman – speaks openly about sexual harassment, one risks marginalization or is accused of playing the “gender card”, as Australia’s first and only female Prime Minister Julia Gillard has often done.
Noda’s perspective is important because, relatively recently, the behavior of some LDP men showed a lack of awareness of the severity of sexual harassment and a lack of respect for their female colleagues. In 2018, longtime LDP state MP and finance minister (and former prime minister) Aso Taro defended his deputy administration minister, Fukuda Junichi, when he was accused of sexually harassing a journalist by saying that if media companies wanted to avoid sexual harassment problems, she did should employ male journalists. Around the same time, LDP Diet member Nagao Takashi tweeted that the women politicians who were holding a peaceful #MeToo solidarity protest were definitely not the kind of women to be molested and that they shouldn’t worry about him molesting them . (He deleted the tweet and apologized after much criticism.)
Last year the government passed laws to prevent harassment in the workplace. However, the law is weak and unenforceable and does not meet the requirements to ratify the ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment at Work. The 2020 legislation is a huge disappointment for many as sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem for working women: Of the several thousand complaints about workplace equality filed each year by the labor offices of the prefectural and city government equal employment offices Sexual harassment is most often common. The 2020 law also doesn’t apply to freelancers or others who are not employees, including politicians.
Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming general election and the debate over Noda’s inability to secure her party’s leadership, the fight against sexual harassment of working women, including politicians, should be high on the political agenda of the next cabinet.
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