Despite years of promising to tackle Japan’s yawning gender-gap, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week appeared to take a step backwards, halving the number of women in his cabinet from two to one.
But don’t worry, he told reporters, Satsuki Katayama – who is in a much more junior role than her predecessors – could do the work of “two or three” women.
The cabinet reshuffle, which saw the country’s most senior female official, Seiko Noda, leave government entirely, was greeted with disappointment by many observers, who said it highlighted how Abe’s actions rarely match his rhetoric on the issue.
Noda, who had been a leading advocate of improving gender representation in politics, said it was “very worrying that the number of female ministers has decreased from three down to one in the last three reshuffles.”
Her role as interior minister now falls to a man, but the gender equality portfolio passes to Katayama. She had a rough introduction to her new role, when she was forced to rush out and buy a new outfit for a photo call, after male colleagues reportedly complained about her original choices.
Katayama’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the issue or the cabinet reshuffle.
Japan has struggled for decades with the gender pay gap and issues of female representation in politics.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, more than 90% of Japanese lawmakers are men, and the country ranked 163 out of 190 in its latest report on women in politics.
Abe has promised to tackle this issue and his government still lists women’s empowerment as a major priority. In 2013, he described women as the country’s “most underutilized resource,” and vowed to improve gender representation and closing gaps in the workforce with “womenomics.”
At a press conference Wednesday, acknowledging the lack of representation within his own cabinet, Abe said “the society in which women can have active roles has just started in Japan.”
“I believe that more and more (female) talents who can make it into the cabinet will see advancement now,” he added.
But these comments will ring hollow to many critics who point to Abe’s wealth of opportunity – he’s on course to be the country’s longest-ever serving prime minister – to promote change.
While more women have joined the workforce, there remains a disparity in the type of work done, pay and seniority. Around 75% of male workers are in regular employment, compared to 42% of women, the majority of whom are in casual or part-time jobs that do not provide the same security or benefits.
“(Abe) pushes women into the labor force because there is a shortage in labor,” said Yuka Ogata, a councilwoman in Kumamoto, a city on Japan’s southern Kyushu island.
“But this just means there are more women in the labor market who have part-time jobs without much social security. Not many women are in decision-making positions.”
Women who do attempt to break through in politics or business often face resistance from older men who continue to dominate those spheres.
That’s something Ogata knows only too well. Last year, she was ejected from the Kumamoto council chamber after she brought her seven-month-old son to a session in protest at the lack of childcare facilities.
“I requested that I could bring the baby to the chamber so I could breastfeed and join the vote at the same time,” she said.
The move came after council leaders repeatedly refused her requests for support during and after pregnancy, such as providing daycare for council staff and visitors, or allowing her to nominate a stand-in to vote on her behalf during maternity leave.
“All of those ideas were dismissed right away,” Ogata said. “In Japan, the number of children is decreasing year-by-year, and here I am speaking up for people who are raising children in modern Japan. I know the challenges and I am suggesting the solutions, but they really wouldn’t listen.”
When she eventually did bring her son to a short, 15-minute session, male colleagues told her to leave the chamber immediately and refused to proceed, eventually ejecting Ogata.
“It (was a) struggle between somebody who is trying to bring about change and those who want to keep things the way they are and have been,” she said.
Ogata saw echoes of that event this week when she was again told to leave the chamber during her questioning of a senior council member about a decision to reject several petitions related to making the assembly more accessible, such as broadcasting sessions on YouTube and improving how quickly transcripts are produced.
Members complained that she had a lozenge in her mouth – which Ogata said was necessary to avoid coughing during the session – and demanded that she apologize, when she refused she was ejected.
A spokesman for the council said Ogata had been found to have “hurt the dignity of the assembly” by her fellow lawmakers.
Ogata said she hoped her continued actions and refusal to be cowed by men in positions of seniority would give hope to young Japanese women, “by showing I’m standing up and sticking to my beliefs.”
CNN’s Junko Ogura contributed reporting.