This wasn’t the first time the lawmaker and member of the ruling LDP party’s Women Activity Promotion Taskforce has alienated parts of the electorate with her conservative views.
Experts say Sugita’s recent apology missed the mark, and her comments are damaging — especially in a country with so few female politicians.
Toeing the boy’s club line
Tomomi Inada, a former defense minister who served in former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government before she resigned in 2017, said being part of a minority comes with its stereotypes.
“We are often judged to be emotional and are treated with skepticism when we voice our opinion strongly. That’s because we are such extreme minority in Japanese politics,” says Inada.
To survive, some women in Japanese politics feel the pressure to comply with their male counterparts’ views to fit in, according to Chizuko Ueno, a sociologist and the chief director of the Women’s Action Network. “They can become more hawkish than their male colleagues,” she adds.
Inada acknowledges feeling pressure to conform to the male majority’s viewpoint while in government, but says it is important for women not to give in to this.
However, Sugita’s latest actions encourage the normalization of casually misogynistic views, says Kukhee Choo, a Japan-based media scholar.
“Countless feminists paved the way for Sugita, but she is using her position of power to dismantle the privilege they built for her. It’s like she turned against that very fight,” says Choo.
In the past, women in Japan who defied expectations and pushed the needle on gender equality have faced backlash.
“All generations in Japan have access to the internet, and younger people, in particular, have mobilized on social media to express their opinions and force politicians to change their stance on topics,” says Choo.
Increasingly, people in Japan are no longer willing to turn a blind eye to discriminatory remarks made by politicians, adds Ueno, the sociologist.
“Society is changing and the media’s high attention on Sugita’s remark is proof of such change. Not long ago, remarks like hers were so commonplace they were overlooked but now it’s getting a headline,” says Ueno.
Inada says people in Japan think a strong woman will climb the political ladder alone, but that’s a myth. “We will never be able to change the system if we stick to the idea,” she says.
Today, for instance, 127 countries use electoral gender quotas to increase women’s representation in politics, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
Inada has backed implementing enforced electoral quotas, arguing that increasing female participation raises responsiveness to policies concerning women, and is also beneficial to men.
“(Japan is) probably 20 to 30 years behind many other countries, but now is the time for female politicians to take action,” says Inada.
Some steps have been made towards change. In 2018, a law was passed to encourage political parties to set targets for gender parity.
However, as with an 1985 equal employment law which aimed to promote gender equality in private companies, there are no legal requirements or penalties for parties that fail to comply, according to Hiroko Goto, a gender equality expert at Chiba University.
The situation didn’t get much better in 2020.
When Yoshihide Suga took over office in September, he appointed only two women to his 21-strong team, to the chagrin of many, including the former defense minister Inada. She declared shortly afterward that Japan was a “democracy without women.”
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike was the LDP’s first and only female candidate — and that was in the 2008 presidential election.
Strength in numbers
Despite the barriers, more women are applying for political office than ever before.
Last year, of 370 candidates seeking one of the 124 seats being contested in the Upper House of Councilors, 104 — or almost 30% — were women, according to public broadcaster NHK.
Ueno, the sociologist, says while these women can serve as role models in Japan, many of them are members of smaller, left-wing parties such as the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), which have a less influential presence in the Japanese parliament. Also, Japan’s upper house is the less powerful of the parliament’s two houses — for instance, laws are generally passed by the lower house before being sent to the upper house for approval. The lower house can overrule the decisions of the upper house with a majority vote on significant national issues, such as the selection of the prime minister and budgets.
The LDP Secretary General’s office said they did not accept the petition of the Flower Demo as it is not usual practice for them to do so.
“(Sugita) has always made remarks like that and the ruling LDP party has forgiven her. But as the Japanese #MeToo is gaining momentum, the LDP can’t ignore this,” says Kitahara.
“Japan is such a male dominated society, we really want the few female politicians to be feminists. We also need (male politicians) to be better allies to women, and understand that the gender issue is important.”