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Japan women struggle as representation trails Saudi sisters

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A look around his own workplace would show Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe he still has much to do on his flagship "womenomics" policy.

[TOKYO] A look around his own workplace would show Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe he still has much to do on his flagship "womenomics" policy.

Japan ranks 117th out of 190 countries in terms of female representation in parliament - lower than Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh. The 83 women (there are 634 men) are fewer in number than the business leaders and politicians from around the world speaking Friday and Saturday at Mr Abe's showcase "World Assembly for Women" event in Tokyo.

In Japan, fostering the representation of women is as much about economics as gender equality. The country's aging population and low birthrate are shrinking the work force, and in a nation averse to immigration, Mr Abe needs to put more women to work to relieve labor shortages that could crimp growth in Asia's second-biggest economy. Now, legislators are turning to affirmative action to boost the ranks of women in the nation's parliament.

Mr Abe's colleagues are hardly setting a good example. Less than 10 percent of lawmakers in the lower house are female. This compares with 29 per cent in the UK and 37 per cent in Germany. It's also well shy of Mr Abe's goal for females to hold 30 per cent of supervisory positions in all fields by 2020.

While the gender stereotypes that tend to keep women out of politics are common to many countries, the difference is that Japan has done less to counter them, according to Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"Other countries have implemented lots of mechanisms to increase the number of women and Japan hasn't done anything," said Ms Miura, who provided the ideas for the bills. "That's why Japan lags so far behind." South Korea, by contrast, has compulsory quotas for party candidate lists, and women now occupy 16 per cent of the seats in the national assembly.

One of the draft Japanese bills would urge parties to aim for gender parity in the selection of candidates, while the other puts forward a new system to help more women into the lower house via proportional representation. Miura said penalties have deliberately been avoided to make it easier for all parties to agree on the bills.

Having more women in the legislature would increase the chance that lawmakers would address the issues that triggered Japan's demographic woes, said ruling party lawmaker Seiko Noda, who is part of the group working on the new legislation. Mothers are disadvantaged at work by a range of factors, including shortages of childcare, gender pay gaps and long working hours.

"If you want children to be born, you need women," Ms Noda said in an interview last month. "But their voices have not been heard. So no one has dealt with all the issues surrounding children and we are facing this fatal problem." Without intervention, the working-age population could fall by almost half to about 44 million by 2060, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. Tapping Japan's pool of non-working women could help ease any resulting labor shortage. Less than 64 per cent of Japanese women between the ages of 15 and 64 were working in 2014, compared with 81.5 percent for men, according to government data.

Mr Abe was able to show off some progress toward his goal of what he calls a society "where women shine" in opening remarks at the conference, hours after the upper house passed a law requiring employers with more than 300 workers to draw up plans to promote women. More than a third of new recruits to the elite track of the bureaucracy are now women.

Japan wants to emulate northern Europe, where women combine motherhood with active participation in society, Mr Abe told the assembly, according to a translation provided by the Foreign Ministry.

"Our greatest barrier is a working culture that endorses male-centered, long working hours," he said. Japan would make it "ordinary practice" for men to take childcare leave and for couples to share household chores, he said.

Independent upper house lawmaker Kuniko Koda said the electoral system makes it tough for women to be voted into lower house constituencies.

Rather than checking a box, voters must write the name of their preferred candidate, which means would-be lawmakers must ensure they are well-known in the constituency. To do that, they have to spend every spare moment at parties and festivals, Koda explained. "If you are a mother with small children, you just can't do it." Masaharu Nakagawa, a member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan who set up and heads the caucus, said he wants to submit the group's bills in the the next session of parliament. The draft outline is currently being considered by all the major parties.

With Mr Abe's popularity among women damaged by his battle to pass controversial defense bills, he may throw his weight behind the new legislation in an attempt to win back their support, Miura said.

"The cabinet needs some kind of achievement that will please women voters," she said. "It's an opportunity."

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