A Gender-Equal Society


Mamiko Ueno
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Constitutional Law, French Public Law

The significance of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

Article 14(1) of the Japanese Constitution provides that all people are “equal under the law,” an explicit statement that discrimination on the basis of sex, among other such factors, is forbidden. Article 24 also prescribes “individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes in family matters.” Article 13, meanwhile, stipulates respect for individuals, which is a premise of the principle of equality. Nevertheless, gender equality was not actually seen as a problem in Japan until the country signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in December 1979 by the United Nations. The idea behind the Convention is that traditional divisions of fixed roles between men and women should be abolished, and that basically no distinction between men and women should be made other than in pregnancy and childbirth. It declared that social and family responsibilities should be borne by both men and women and that housework and childcare should be done by both sexes, while of course during pregnancy and childbirth women should be protected. It recognizes that gender equality will not come about so long as traditional divisions of fixed roles for men and women are assumed. Not only does the Convention take up the problem of equality under the law, it also aims to establish practical gender equality by abolishing discriminatory customs. Furthermore, it recognizes affirmative action as a means of establishing equality. More than a simple declaration, the Convention also raised questions about the actual effect of resolving discrimination in the ratifying countries, and was binding to a certain extent, and so represented Japan’s first step toward a substantive safeguard of gender equality.

Passing of the Basic Act for Gender-Equal Society

Later, the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 recognized the challenge of promoting the advancement and empowerment of women. The Conference adopted the Beijing Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action, explicitly stated that women’s rights were universal rights, and acknowledged things such as the right to control matters related to one’s own sexuality, the importance of economic independence for women, and the relationship between women’s rights and peace. Since then, it has focused attention on eliminating violence particularly toward women and establishing the legitimate evaluation of women’s labor on a par with that of men. To that end, Japan passed the Basic Act for a Gender-Equal Society in 1999 and the Act on the Prevention of Spousal Violence and the Protection of Victims in 2001. In accordance with the Basic Act for a Gender-Equal Society, the government formulated a Basic Plan for Gender Equality in order to promote the creation of a gender-equal society.

In December 2010, the Cabinet approved the Third Basic Plan for Gender Equality. This sets out the direction of far-sighted long-term policy until 2020 along with concrete measures to be implemented by 2015. In it, the government has established priority areas to deal with changes in socioeconomic conditions, set targets in each priority area to make a viable action plan, promoted efforts aimed at having women in at least around 30% of leadership positions by 2020, and emphasized the socioeconomic rejuvenation and the “M-shaped curve issue” resolution that would result from increased female activity. The first of the 15 priority areas is the “enlargement of female participation in the decision-making processes for policies and administrative measures,” and the government is examining positive action in all fields, including politics and the judiciary, through a range of methods such as quotas and initiatives toward the goal of “30% by 2020.”

The status of Japanese women

In an OECD survey on education, the employment rate of female university graduates in Japan is 69%, which is 31st among the 34 member countries, an indication of how women’s abilities are not sufficiently developed in this country. It is noticeable that the countries with the most favorable employment rates of highly educated women are northern European countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark, which have the best child support. Also, as of 2013, Japan ranks 105th out of 136 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, created from data in various fields of economics, education, health and politics. This low position is a reflection of Japan’s low ratio of women in the field of politics and of female managers. The highest ranked countries are Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden. According to a survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union formed by the parliaments of various countries, Japan ranks 127th out of 189 countries in terms of the percentage of women in its national legislature (the House of Representatives), with a rate of 8% (as of 2014). Top was Rwanda, while the leading region was Northern Europe. 

The use of affirmative action

So, the challenge is how to achieve a 30% rate of women in the field of politics by 2020. Many countries are currently conducting some form of affirmative action, particularly quota systems, in order to increase the number of female lawmakers. There are mainly three such quota systems in the political field: reserved seating, candidate quotas, and voluntary quotas by political parties. Reserved seating is a system of allocating a given number of legislative seats to women, in accordance with the constitution or the law, and has been introduced in 17 countries. Candidate quotas ensure that, under the constitution or the law, a certain proportion of the list of candidate lawmakers are female, a system that has been introduced in 34 countries. Voluntary quotas by political parties, introduced in 52 countries, are a system in which parties, in accordance with their own party rules, stipulate that a given proportion of their candidate lawmakers shall be women. The question, however, is whether making it a requirement under the constitution or the law to allocate a certain number or certain percentage of places to females, albeit with the goal of gender equality, is itself a violation of the principle of equality. That could be why a system of voluntary quotas by political parties seems the easiest to introduce. Sweden, Norway and Germany, whose percentages of female lawmakers are 45%, 39.6% and 32.8% respectively, have all increased these figures through a system of voluntary quotas by political parties. (Figures given are for 2010.)

Challenges in Japan

However, there seem to be a number of difficulties with the introduction of such a system of voluntary quotas by political parties in Japan. First of all, what happened in Sweden, Norway and Germany was that the system was introduced in one party before gradually spread to other parties, and it took about two decades until all the parties had adopted it. We would be waiting for a very long time if we relied solely on such self-initiative in Japan’s political parties. In our case, I believe we need compulsory measures or inducement measures so that all parties introduce such a system in some form or other. Secondly, Sweden, Norway and Germany did not only increase the proportion of their female legislature members, but simultaneously conducted gender mainstreaming to try to build a better working environment for women. It is because men there have taken on more family responsibilities and made it easier for women to work as lawmakers that the latter have increased. In light of this, Japan would at the same time require substantial policies to bring in things such as child support and care support. Third, we need more women who aspire to join the legislature. We therefore have to make people more aware that lawmakers have an attractive job in which they contribute to society by creating better policies. Fourth, putting in women just to make up the numbers could actually damage women’s reputation rather than make use of their abilities. There needs to be a mechanism for consistently developing female candidate lawmakers. Finally, Sweden and Norway have adopted proportional representation, and Germany mixed-member proportional representation, in their electoral systems. Proportional representation is more adaptable to quota systems, but if used alongside a single-member district system as in Japan, knowing how to effectively incorporate a quota system becomes a major issue.

*My research for this article includes the “2011 White Paper on Gender Equality” from the Gender Equality Bureau of the Cabinet Office, along with various related websites.

Mamiko Ueno
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Constitutional Law, French Public Law
Professor Ueno was born in Tokyo. She graduated from the Faculty of Law at Chuo University before completing her master’s degree and withdrawing at the end of her doctoral course at the university’s Graduate School of Law. She has served as lecturer, assistant professor and, since 1993, professor on the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Chuo University. Since 2004 she has also served as a professor of the doctoral program of the university’s Graduate School of Law and professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy. She obtained her law doctorate from Paul Cézanne University Aix-Marseille III in 2006 before serving as Principal of Chuo University High School from 2008 to 2010 and chair of the Graduate School of Public Policy, Chuo University from 2009 to 2013.

Major Works
Professor Ueno is the author and editor of: Contemporary Transformations of Laws, Systems, and Rights [Ho, Seido, Kenri no Konnichiteki Henyo] (Chuo University Press, 2013); The French Constitution and Structure of Governance [Furansu Kenpo to Tochikozo] (Chuo University Press, 2011); Women’s Policy in the 21st Century [21 Seiki no Josei Seisaku] (Chuo University Press, 2001)
and the author of: Justice, Constitution et droits fondamentaux au Japon (LGDJ, 2010); Article 24 of the Constitution of Japan Today: Thoughts on the Function of the Family [Kenpo 24 Jyo Ima Kazoku No Arikata Wo Kangaeru] (Akashi Shoten, 2005); The Fundamentals of the Constitution: Rights, Peace, and Gender Equality [Kenpo No Kihon - Jinken/Heiwa/Danjyo Kyosei] (Gakuyo Shobo, 2000).

Every year, Professor Ueno attends the International Association of Constitutional Justice held in Aix-en-Provence, France as reporter on Japan’s Constitutional Court. Her current research theme is “France’s protection of human rights and judicial system.”