Why a female Prime Minister in Japan will NOT change the status quo
Updated: Feb 16
So at long last, Japan has a female candidate for Prime Minister, Sanae Takaichi, who even has the backing of former Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. For a country that is facing labour shortages and international pressure to gain higher levels of gender equality and female leadership and ranks 147th out of 156 in the field of women’s political empowerment on the WEF’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, this seems like a sign of positive progress. Providing a pipe-line for women to get into decision-making positions is seen as a key strategy for raising the level of female leaders. Takaichi san could also act as a role model for other women to feel empowered enough to break the ‘bamboo ceiling’ in Japanese politics, which has long been seen as an uber-conservative and male-dominated domain and is renowned for its very traditional and entrenched attitudes towards the role of a woman as caregiver/mother/wife, as evidenced by recent comments by leading Japanese politicians promoting the primary role of Japanese women as ‘baby makers’ One male politician even went so far as to admonish a female politician in Parliament telling her to ‘go and have babies’ and a Kumamoto city assembly member who brought her newborn baby into the chamber to breastfeed was removed and forced to apologise. New regulations were subsequently drafted prohibiting anyone other than adults to enter the room and the member alleges that she has since been subjected to subsequent criticisms of her abilities as a mother.
So the fact that Takaichi san has become a candidate within the extremely conservative LDP party, who last year felt that allowing some women to observe board meetings as long as they didn’t speak (they could submit comments afterwards) was a way to increase female participation in decision-making, is a great achievement. As is the fact that she has even got to this point within an election process that relies on factions, clubby ties and internal party selection.
However, getting women into leadership positions doesn’t always equate to female advancement or changes to the status quo, especially when the female candidates are keen to uphold that status quo.
Female politicians in Japan would most probably not have even got to that position in the first place if they had tried to oppose the patriarchal order in any significant way, let alone advocate for changes in laws that set back women’s rights and openly negate gender equality. Such a strict adherence to conservative and patriarchal views on gender and diversity is not uncommon amongst many leading Japanese female politicians-it was a female politician who won the prize for the most sexist comment in 2019 after casting doubt on sexual assault claims. The same politician had previously called the LGBTQ community ‘unproductive’. Sanae herself seems to hold very non-progressive views concerning gender equality: she is reported to oppose any changes to the law that states that women can not assume a different surname to their husband and also opposes female ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne despite the fact that Japan is recorded to have had 8 successful empresses in ancient history.
Although embracing diversity and achieving gender equality is one of the key ways Japan can emerge from an economic downturn and truly capitalise on its international competitiveness, it can only be done through grass-roots changes to the status quo of the entrenched gendered norms.
These entrenched norms have formed many barriers to sustainable gender equality in Japan and have ultimately resulted in a gendered workplace that discriminates against women at every turn and a society that values women primarily for their baby making and home making qualities as well as their ability to uphold Confucian patriarchal principles and adopt certain behavioural characteristics. Within this context, I have doubts about the effectiveness of certain strategies of ‘pipeline’ management to mobilise Japanese women into leadership roles (target setting, mentoring, sponsorship and enhancing training). These certainly have a role to play but will only be truly effective once there has been an honest examination of the impact these gendered norms have and a re-imagination of them going forward, which will have to include a change to the status quo.
However, instead of forcing any kind of change, it seems like the Japanese Government is trying to tick the gender diversity box by bringing through women who will not change the narrative or question these roles and will instead uphold the conservative patriarchal ideology that prevents Japan from achieving true gender equality and embracing diversity. A lost opportunity.
Sarah recently appeared as a Panellist on the BBC World Service’s Programme: The Real Story to give her views on female leadership in Japan. She has just submitted a chapter for the upcoming Routledge book ‘Anthology and Sustainability’ entitled Re-imagining the gender roles within Japan to achieve sustainable gender equality ,where she puts forward a new way for Japan to achieve sustainable gender equality.