The general election for Japan’s lower house last October was the first since the act on “promotion of gender equality in the political field” three years earlier. Yet the number of women elected to the 465-seat House of Representatives actually fell—to 45, down two from 2017, when Japan ranked 163rd among 193 countries for gender equality in politics. Feminists wanted the act to require parties to field equal numbers of male and female candidates. But after fierce opposition from right-wing Diet members, it only requires political parties to make “every possible effort.”

Only 9.7 percent of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) candidates were women. The center-left Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), the main opposition party, had 18.3 percent women. The Communist Party (JCP) did better with 35.4 percent, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) had 60 percent, though only nine candidates in total.

Feminism in Japan dates back to the end of the 19th century, when women demanded easier access to education and greater political rights. As part of modernization during the Meiji era (1868–1912), primary education became compulsory for all from 1872; an 1886 decree required prefectural authorities to provide secondary education. Most universities, however, only accepted women after 1945, and even then, until 1995, most women attended two-year junior colleges. Everyone in Japan remembers the scandal, in 2018, when Tokyo Medical University (private) admitted that it had been reducing female applicants’ entrance exam scores for years. (Japan has a very low percentage of female doctors by international standards.)

Women began demanding the right to vote as soon as “universal” adult male suffrage was granted in 1925. But in 1941, the World War II forced them to disband their campaign organizations and join the Patriotic Women’s Association, and, in 1942, the Greater Japan Women’s Association (membership compulsory for all aged 20 or over). This was a considerable setback.

Despite postwar democratic reforms, the conservative right’s virtual monopoly on power (the LDP has been in government almost continuously since 1955) was an obstacle to progress on gender equality, adding to the stagnation in social attitudes and politics.

Even so, there have been signs of change in recent years. In January 2021, Akiko Matsuo, founder of the feminist publisher Etc.books, opened Tokyo’s first feminist bookshop. In March 2019, Matsuo and feminist writer Minori Kitahara had launched Japan’s #MeToo #WithYou movement, calling for demonstrations against the acquittals of four men accused of sexual assault.

Rapists acquitted

Nagoya District Court had acquitted a man accused of repeatedly raping his daughter between the ages of 13 and 19, saying there was “reasonable doubt that it was not impossible for her to resist.” Shizuoka District Court had found another man not guilty of raping his daughter between the ages of 12 and 14 because her testimony was “unreliable.”

Fukuoka District Court acquitted a middle manager of raping a female colleague after getting her drunk on the grounds that he was unaware of her state. And Shizuoka District Court acquitted a man of raping a woman after beating her, saying he could not have known that her unresponsiveness did not signify consent.

The first three were eventually convicted on appeal, after the demonstrations. Since then, monthly protests known as Flower Demos have become a forum where victims of rape and incest can speak out. As Kitahara explains, “Thanks to WithYou, we can finally hear and believe them. We just needed a safe space for them to talk. Now we have a place where everyone can tell their story, and show solidarity.”

Feminists’ struggle to reduce Japan’s tolerance of sexual and domestic violence began decades ago, as sociologist Chizuko Ueno describes. The women’s movement is fighting discrimination: An association formed in 1999 to “condemn sexist comments by Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara”and eliminate them from the public domain, ranks such comments by other public figures. In 2021, equal first place went to Yoshiro Mori, a former LPD prime minister, and Mio Sugita, an LDP Diet member known for her anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ remarks, who had said the 2019 acquittals were justified because women lie about sexual assault.

110,000 signatures in two days

Mori, who was head of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizing committee, provoked worldwide outrage in February 2021 with remarks about “talkative women” prolonging meetings. A petition launched the following day calling for “appropriate sanctions” against him collected 110,000 signatures in two days. A Kyodo poll found that 60 percent of Japanese believed he should step down as committee head. A number of Olympic sponsors and celebrities distanced themselves from his remarks, and more than a thousand volunteers refused to help out during the Olympics. Despite Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s support, Mori was forced to step down, the first time an LDP heavyweight had resigned over sexist behavior.

On February 6, the Choose Life Project livestreamed on YouTube a two-and-a-half-hour forum titled “Don’t Be Silent,” hashtag (in Japanese) #WomenWhoRefuseToKnowTheirPlace. Twenty-five writers, publishers, NGO members, and activists were invited to comment on Mori’s remarks, especially his statements (less publicized abroad) that women were “competitive”: “When one raises her hand and speaks, they probably think they should speak, too.” He added that the committee included seven women, but “luckily they all know how to behave.” The participants agreed that the LDP was incapable of bringing about change, and that it was time for them to speak out.

The younger generation is more open, and more engaged on issues such as the environment and the work/family balance. Activist Tamaka Ogawa says she joined the women’s movement after receiving insults—such as “filthy feminist” (kusofemi)—over a 2013 article defending working mothers.

That’s a major issue in Japan, where the birth rate is falling, the population is aging, and many young people are in precarious, low-paid jobs. Less than 3 percent of children were born out of wedlock in 2020, and the decision to marry still largely depends on the man’s ability to provide, though attitudes are starting to change.

The post–World War II socioeconomic structure forces women to choose between family and career. The M-shaped curve showing women’s participation in the labor force—rising with age, falling after marriage or the birth of a child, rising again as children grow up—has shifted: Women now tend to first drop out of the workforce at 30 instead of 25.

Since 1986 it has been illegal to require women to resign when they marry or have children (most companies once made female employees sign a contract agreeing to this). But even today, only 38 percent return to work after their first child, despite government campaigns since 2012 to promote a better work/family balance.

‘Career’ and ‘non-career’ workers

In 1985 the Diet ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) and adopted an equal employment opportunity law. But company bosses circumvented the legislation by inventing a two-track system with “career employees” (sogoshoku), who could qualify for promotion, and “non-career employees” (ippanshoku), who could not. Women had to choose their track when they were hired, but opting to be a “career employee” meant accepting long work hours and frequent relocation to provincial offices, like their male colleagues, making it hard to balance work and family life.

Only around 9 percent of middle managers in companies are women, and at senior management level the figure is much lower. Government figures show the pay gap between men and women has fallen from 40 percent in the 1990s to 24.5 percent in 2020 (compared to 16.5 percent in France). But this is due more to a drop in men’s pay over the last 20 years than a rise in women’s pay. And women often have precarious jobs (part-time, short-term, temporary, etc.) paying less than 55 percent of men’s average salary, a trend that is growing.

This is partly due to two laws passed in 1986. The first introduced a personal allowance of ¥380,000 ($3,300) for income tax on one spouse’s earnings, provided the other spouse’s earnings did not exceed ¥1.03m ($9,000)—the kind of pay that comes with a part-time job, mainly affecting women. The other legalized temporary contracts, banned until then. Applying to 13 sectors in 1986, 26 from 1999, and all since 2015, this law has mainly affected women and young people.

This highlights the government’s mixed messages on women’s place in society against a background of neoliberal reforms. In December 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presented increasing women’s labor force participation as a key structural reform to revitalize the Japanese economy, saying he wanted to create “a society in which all women shine.” Feminists remained skeptical. Though the LDP victory in last year’s election was a setback for Japanese women, with fewer female candidates elected than in 2017, the #MeToo movement is inspiring women to mobilize against sexism. But there’s a long way to go.