Japan women knock on political door -- but no one is answering

Why do women fare so poorly in politics in Japan? This was the theme of a recent broadcast by NHK, Japan's public radio-television network. The conclusion, implied rather than spelled out explicitly, was that for all the progress that Japanese women have achieved since World War II, their country remains one of the bastions of male chauvinism.

The grand old lady of Japanese politics is Fusae Ichikawa, who at 87 has just won her fifth six-year term to the upper house, the House of Councillors. Miss Ichikawa has spent a lifetime fighting for women's rights, for clean elections, and for ethics in government.

"Women themselves need to become more interested in politics," Miss Ichikawa told the television panel. "I so often find that women whom I think would make splendid legislators just don't want to get involved."

If Miss Ichikawa is the oldest member of the House of Councillors, the youngest member is also a woman -- 31-year-old Chinatsu Nakayama. Both ran as independents from the nationwide constituency (the upper house has 100 members elected at large, the remaining 152 from the provinces), both won the enthusiastic support of young people, and both piled up smashing majorities.

"I think the whole structure of society itself has to change before women can feel comfortable in politics," said Miss Nakayama. And that, she continued, is true of the work world as a whole, because it is men who set the standards of work, who consider the summum bonum is to sacrifice themselves for their companies.

"But women have different needs, and I think it would be healthy for our Japanese society if men didn't have to work such extraordinary hours," she said.

Miss Nakayama, a child actress who became a successful novelist and television personality, is a women's rights worker of the new generation. Other members of the panel -- all women legislators -- more or less suggested that it was up to women to prove themselves in a world dominated by men. Miss Nakayama kept asking why it was always the men who set the norms.

Only one political party, it was charged, did not discriminate against women: the Communists. In fact, of nine women members of the lower house, the House of Representatives (the more powerful of the two chambers of the Diet, or parliament), no fewer than seven are Communists. The remaining two are Socialists. None belongs to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

And yet the Liberal Democrats have just won a landslide victory, in both houses of the legislature. They hold 286 seats in the 511-seat lower house and 135 seats in the 252-member upper house.

(One reason for the Communists' favoring of women is that they are trying to present themselves as a party concerned with grass-roots improvements -- including many of interest to women.)

The Liberal Democrat's record on women in politics has been poor.

There have been only two women Cabinet ministers -- both appointed for brief periods during the prime ministership of Hayato Ikeda (1960-64). The late Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, Mr. Ikeda's protege and chief of staff, named no women ministers. But he did appoint Japan's first woman ambassador, to Denmark.

In the upper house, to which both Miss Ichikawa and Miss Nakayama belong, women have fared better, largely because many of them run from the nationwide (or at-large) constituency. Former actresses and television personalities enjoy an obvious advantage here.

But the advent of a Japanese Margaret Thatcher is still probably decades away. "Men just don't like working under a woman," said a woman commentator. "And even women legislators are surrounded by men on their own staffs."

"In the end," said one panelist, Liberal Democrat Mayumi Moriyama, "the only answer is education. Boys and girls start out as equals in school and continue as equals straight through university. It is only when they get out into the world that inequality begins."

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