Photo/IllutrationWomen planning to campaign in the unified local elections gather in Tokyo’s Nagatacho district on Jan. 29. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The unified local elections scheduled for next month will be the first since a new law took effect last May, requiring political parties to make every effort to field equal numbers of male and female candidates in national and local elections. There is also the Upper House election coming up this summer.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and others are responding to the new law by setting specific targets to increase their female candidates.

But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is a different story. Women constitute a mere 10 percent of the candidates the LDP plans to field in the Upper House election.

The LDP’s lack of drive is beyond belief, given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pet slogan of “creating a society where women can shine.”

According to an Asahi Shimbun survey of 1,788 local assemblies nationwide, 339 assemblies had zero female representatives, and 460 had only one woman each. In other words, 45 percent had “one or less.”

A dismal picture emerged from a separate survey of women who were elected to local assemblies for the first time in the 2015 unified local elections.

Of these women, 41 percent responded that the number of female legislators “will not increase” despite the equal candidacy law, compared with only 29 percent who believed the number will grow.

The pessimistic 41 percent cited such reasons as men invariably call all the shots in local administrative organs, and it is difficult for women to keep pace with their male colleagues because most of the parenting and home-related responsibilities fall on their shoulders.

The law to field equal numbers of candidates of both genders is dubbed “the Japanese version of France’s Loi sur la Parite.” Instituted in 2000, this French law comes with a penalty clause for offenders--namely, any party that fails to field the same numbers of male and female candidates will have its public subsidy slashed.

Before this law was enforced, France had the second-lowest percentage of female legislators in the European Union. A move to change this situation gained momentum in 1997, when a leftist party won handily by fielding a large number of female candidates.

But the law did not immediately help increase female representation because some parties continued to prioritize male candidacies even at the cost of getting their subsidies cut.

For the law to really work, the law was repeatedly amended to impose stiffer penalties and to require parties to pair every male candidate with a female counterpart in prefectural assembly elections, which, until then, were exempt from this law.

Over time, the percentages of female legislators rose steadily in all assemblies.

In 2003, the percentage of women in France’s National Assembly was 12 percent, while the corresponding number for Japan’s Lower House was 7 percent. And in 2018, the gap widened to 39 percent versus 10 percent, respectively.

The Japanese law is essentially “toothless” because of its lack of punitive provisions. While there is no question the law is a significant step in the right direction, it is obvious from the French example that penalties are needed to render the law effective.

It is probably not realistic to expect Japan to catch up with France in one sweep. However, because this law was unanimously approved by the Diet, it is definitely the responsibility of every party to make every effort to ensure its efficacy.

In the meantime, the voting public is just as responsible for demanding change from the current “abnormal and outdated reality” of women occupying only 10 percent of elected seats.

It is vital that voters keep pushing slow-moving parties.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 13