“I hope to see a society where women can comfortably work and raise a family … at the same time.” University student Eri Ochiai’s words may well echo the sentiment of many a Japanese woman, hopeful for a change that has eluded them for many years under the previous administration. When Ochiai, 20, trooped to the polls for the first time in late August, she was resolute to give her vote to her district’s female candidate, who had pledged “to improve the social environments for women.” Ochiai’s optimism resonates with many women in Japan. “The Japanese voters have greater expectations of women than before,” said Yoriko Madoka, a member of the House of Councilors (the upper house of Japan’s National Diet) since l992. The women in parliament will bring changes to Japanese politics, added the acknowledged gender advocate within the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). DPJ became the new ruling party in the East Asian economic powerhouse following its overwhelming victory in the last national elections. About a third of the women elected for the first time to the lower house — many of them from the DPJ — are in their 20s to 30s while another third are in their 40s. Several young female candidates of the DPJ beat the veteran conservatives from the once formidable party. Inexperienced in politics, their presence in the legislature has prompted some of the LDP stalwarts to voice their scepticism: “What can these young girls do in politics?” they asked. “What is wrong with women and young people making decisions in politics?” Madoka said. Newly elected parliament member Mari Kushibuchi, 41, expressed to ‘Asahi Shimbun’, Japanese daily, soon after the election her readiness to “transform the significance of the votes given to her into new power.” Exposed to the realities of Japanese society, the new and younger female members of parliament are more aware of gender issues and of the need to get rid of discrimination against women, said Madoka. “They are ready to provide different perspectives on agendas involving not only gender but other issues as well such as peace, economy and education,” she added. Such perspectives will be put to good use in a nation still struggling to make women’s voice sufficiently heard on a host of issues. In terms of female presence in politics, Japan ranks 99th in the world, up from its previous standing of 134th, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of Parliaments. This shows that women’s involvement in politics is increasing. The current female composition of the lower house, numbering 54 , or 11.3 percent of the total — up from 9.2 before the last election — is still far below the 30 percent government had set in 2005 as the target ratio of women in important positions by 2020. Yet the number of women parliamentarians who now sit in the House of Representatives is already unprecedented in the history of Japanese politics, thanks in part to women’s groups that campaigned hard to send more women to parliament. One of these is the ‘Women in New World, International Network’, founded in 1999 by Ryoko Akamatsu, former Education Minister and erstwhile chief of the Women and Minors Bureau at the Labor Ministry, along with her friends. WinWin, as the network is simply known, supports progressive female candidates running for public office. The group believes that Japan’s society will change for the better if it has more women in parliament. Madoka’s School of Politics for Women, launched with other parliamentarians in l993, has trained more than 600 women interested in political careers. Of these, five have been sent to the parliament and at least 70 others to the local assembly. Complementing these groups’ efforts are those of other women outside the public sphere who have been pushing for more gender equality in their country. The Working Women’s Network (WWN), a civic organisation of female workers in Osaka, made an urgent appeal to the new government in early September for the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Optional Protocol is an international treaty adopted in 1999 establishing complaint and inquiry mechanisms for the CEDAW. Japan ratified the CEDAW in l985, but not the Optional Protocol. Japanese gender specialists agree that there is an urgent need to ratify the other treaty, believing it will effectively eliminate discrimination against women in Japan. More than 80 women’s groups across the nation endorsed the WWN’s proposal urging the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, to publicly pledge the ratification of the Optional Protocol during his speech at the United Nations summit on Sept. 23. But he made no mention of it, focusing instead on diplomacy and Japan’s initiative about climate change. Hatoyama’s party, nonetheless, has already made known its intention to amend the antiquated provisions of the Civil Code, which, among others, will allow women to keep their maiden names even after marriage. Such efforts were unheard of under the conservative LDP. Notwithstanding all these efforts in and outside the government, Japan, it appears, still has a long way to go in bringing women’s equality in society into reality. In the Gender Empowerment Measure ranking compiled in the 2007-2008 Human Development Index Report by the United Nations Development Programme, Japan placed 54th among 177 nations, lagging far behind other industrialised nations. Having ratified the CEDAW in 1985, Japan is subject to monitoring by the U.N. Committee monitoring the Convention’s implementation. In August, the Committee evaluated the status of women in Japan, one of 11 countries up for review this year, and found that the country had not shown improvement based on the previous monitoring reports. In its April 2008 report to CEDAW, Japan claimed to have already implemented the equal-pay-for-equal-work rule based on Article 4 of the Labor Standard Law, which prohibits sexually discriminatory wages. Yet it admitted that there was still a wage gap between men and women workers in Japan. The challenge for the progressive women’s force in the parliament is to build a base for untying the gender bind in Japan, said Madoka. Such bind manifests in a number of ways. “More women belong to the ‘working poor’ class” compared to men, she said. “They have also less access to fulltime jobs, less pay and fewer benefits.” A 2008 report published by ‘Japan Times’, an English daily, quoted the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as saying that fulltime female workers in 2007 earned on average 66.9 percent of what men earned. The gnawing disparities between genders should be narrowed, said Madoka. “If women’s life is improved, then men’s life should be better, and the whole society will be more human-friendly,” she reasoned. “At the moment working mothers are burdened with unchanging multiple tasks both at work and at home, said Akamatsu. “That is why over 60 percent of working women quit jobs at their first child birth,” she added, referring to the M-curve — or the workforce participation rate of women by age — that reflects a dip considered distinct to Japan. First-time voter Ochiai may not know how long she will have to wait to see her dream for women in her society come true. But she remains optimistic, especially now that there are more female parliamentarians in her country. Sixty two-year-old Yasuko Aoki cannot wait for that day to come. “We expect that the women in parliament would carve a better future for our 13-month-old granddaughter, Hiroko,” the wife of a retired engineer in Tokyo told IPS. She may have known only the traditional life of a homemaker, but she nevertheless shares the hopes and dreams of many other Japanese women. Already she is seeing a modicum of change within the confines of her own family. While Aoki’s daughter is busy tending to Hiroko after a hard day’s work as a bank employee, her son-in-law is dutifully taking the garbage out. An auspicious portent of things to come, she muses.