What Democracy Means for Women in Japan

2013-06-11 02:59

   I found myself scratching my head and deciding as to whether Japan is a truly functional democratic country. Truthfully speaking, it is a democratic state but “functional” is debatable.

  It’s important we really find a definitive aspect to this highly contested notion, namely,  democracy. The core pillars of democracy are, among others: the sovereignty of the people—that is, full participation of civil society and government based upon the consent of the governed—free and fair regular elections, majority rule, minority rights, guaranteeing of basic human rights, and equality before the law.

 That being said, the Constitution of Japan stipulates that Japanese people elect the House of Representatives and they (the house of representatives) elect the prime minster, further he appoints ministers, and the ministers control their ministries. With the above being said, however, coming from Africa and observing the internal affairs of other countries, such as Zimbabwe, and having a political science and international relations background has made it clear to me that, democracy doesn’t consist of merely elections and a functioning parliament.

It was interesting to see that the Japanese democracy lacks some of the core functions, of what I would consider would make a fully functioning democracy. As Okabe Kazuaki states in “Why the Japanese system isn’t a true democracy”, Japan lacks the following: a commission system with the role of releasing administrative information. Essentially, commissions are a means for civil participation and a check on the bureaucracy. He further explains how public hearings encourage policy suggestions from civil society. In addition, Kazuaki emphasizes the importance of Referenda, Autonomous local government, Non-profit organizations (NGOs), and civil participation in the enactment of regulations (ordinances, statutes).

Civil participation is a particularly important component in a fully functioning democracy because one can truly differentiate between the input that helps shape policy making and how civil participation can help foster democracy. Citizens can give input through public hearings and during comment periods, which are essentially opportunities to sound off with their opinions. But effective solutions would only surface when citizens participate in decision-making through workshops and other forums where they engage in listening, pooling resources, and evaluating the trade-offs. Civil participation would thus become an extremely important core that would serve as an integral intermediate between the government and the man on the ground.

Having said the above, and being a socioeconomic feminist at heart, I couldn’t help but wonder why women in Japan face inequality in the public sphere. Traditionally, and it’s even evident today, women were sought to remain in the private sphere, which would denote taking care of the household while the husband would provide for the family. Having inherited traditional work customs and ethics, it has been made almost impossible for women in Japanese society to have both a family and a career. These further results in an even bigger barrier to the advancement of women. As stated by Martin Fackler in an article on “Career Women in Japan find a blocked Path”, he states that the nation’s notoriously demanding corporate culture, which includes an expectation of morning-to-midnight working hours, worth noting is how Japanese people are hard workers, and don’t seem to mind working longer hours just to get the job done. Economically speaking, without even considering the amount of segregation and inequalities women face within the workplace, Japan is losing half of its brainpower that could help economic productivity as it faces a labor shortage because women are forced to quit their jobs to cater to their families.

Albeit, Japanese people inherited a very patriarchal system, but in order for Japan to rescue it’s stagnant and declining economy there’s an even greater need to include women in strengthening the Japanese economy after the ordeal from the massive earthquake and tsunami. "Women are Japan's most underutilized resource." So said Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April as he outlined a raft of measures aimed at closing the gender gap in the Japanese workforce. There seems to not be much difference in adjusting the work sphere to assist and be customized to fit women and mother’s needs, but for the reason that there is no civil participation and there is a tradition of maintaining harmony amongst citizens, people seem to turn a blind eye when it comes to inequalities, specifically those against women. Hence, we can see the importance of civil participation and the need of NGOs, which would essentially help represent the marginally oppressed and represent women in the workplace.

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