Photo/Illutration Civil advocacy group OP CEDAW Action holds a meeting in Tokyo’s Nagatacho district on Nov. 19 to deliver a petition to lawmakers calling for Japan’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. (Sawa Okabayashi)

Foot-dragging by Japan on ratifying a protocol to a U.N. convention to empower the rights of women is back at the forefront of Diet debate with senior opposition lawmakers demanding an explanation from the government for the two-decade delay since the document was adopted.

Ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) would form a major pillar in the government's oft-stated desire to achieve gender equality at some point.

The issue attracted renewed attention in the extraordinary Diet session that ended Dec. 4.

Two senior opposition lawmakers took Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to task on the issue during their allotted periods to question him in the Diet and called on him to finally ratify the protocol.


Civil advocacy group OP CEDAW Action established in March last year held a meeting in a lawmaker’s office building in Tokyo’s Nagatacho district on Nov. 19 to lobby for ratification of the protocol at the earliest possible date.

Opposition lawmakers who attended agreed on the urgency of the issue, which was taken up in October by Yukio Edano, head of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and Akira Koike, head of the Secretariat of the Japanese Communist Party, during their own Diet interpellations.

“Now is an opportunity for a change,” said Lower House member Kiyomi Tsujimoto of the CDP in the Nov. 19 meeting.

“A groundswell is also rising in the Diet for gender equality,” said Upper House member Tomoko Tamura of the Communist Party. 

OP CEDAW Action planned to submit a petition to the Diet before the session ends in December with more than 20,000 signatures calling for a ratification. 

Japan has, however, ratified the main body of CEDAW.

The Optional Protocol to CEDAW, adopted at the United Nations in 1999, has already been ratified by 114 countries. Japan keeps saying it is “considering” the option of ratifying the document.

The sticking point for Japan concerns a mechanism in the protocol for “individual complaints.” It allows individuals or groups to turn directly to a U.N. committee and seek remedies when any of the rights set out in the convention have been violated and all domestically available remedies, such as going to court, have ended to no avail.

The system, which is intended to make the convention more effective, would basically provide a path for cases of rights violation in Japan to be put to review by international standards.


The Foreign Ministry of Japan offers its own rationale for only “considering” possible ratification.

“(The U.N. committee) could give comments and recommendations that are at odds with court decisions delivered in Japan and call on our country to compensate complainants or amend relevant laws (if Japan were to sign the protocol),” said a ministry official. “What we would have to do in such a case, among other things, is still open to question.”

Suppose, for example, the United Nations were to recommend that Japan, in response to an individual complaint, provide a remedy that would allow a married couple to have separate surnames? That would run counter to a Supreme Court ruling stating that the Civil Law’s provision requiring a married couple to have a common surname is constitutional.

The government fears there would be little it could do, judicially or politically, in such a case, which explains its cautious approach to ratification.

It issues a Basic Plan for Gender Equality every five years.

The second basic plan of 2005 contained a passage saying, “The possibility of signing the Optional Protocol to CEDAW will be considered.”

The third plan of 2010 said, “Early signing of the protocol will be seriously considered.”

The fourth plan adopted the same wording.

A fifth plan, to be approved by the Cabinet at the end of this year, has seen, in the stage of a draft called “master plan,” the addition of wording “including work to sort out the challenges involved.” There has, however, been no substantial progress.

As the master plan was being worked out in November last year, the Foreign Ministry said it considers it appropriate to remove the words “early signing.” The ministry retracted that opinion in March after an opposition lawmaker called the matter into question in the Diet.

“The last thing we want to do is to give the impression that the government is backing off from work on the subject,” a ministry official said at the time.

“The points of contention have been made clear to a certain extent, so we should discuss the matter properly and reach a conclusion at some point or other instead of dragging it out among the ministries and agencies concerned,” Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told the Diet in March.

And there the issue lies in the absence of noteworthy moves on the part of the government.

Suga, answering a question during the extraordinary Diet session, only said, “We are seriously considering early signing” while reiterating that he advocates the creation of a society where “all women shine.”

Mutsuko Asakura, a Waseda University professor emerita of labor law, finds the government's stance laughable.

“Ratifying a convention but not an optional protocol to it is so funny, because it’s like you are saying you will be making a law but you don’t want to abide by it,” said Asakura, who serves as co-head of OP CEDAW Action.

She summed up the situation saying, “If individual complaints were to become an available option, the judiciary would begin to deliver decisions that reflect the spirit of the convention.”

(This article was written by Sawa Okabayashi, Taro Ono and Ryutaro Abe.)