Shin, Youngtae

Youngtae Shin is Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, USA. She earned her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Washington in Seattle. She has published widely on various women’s issues. Her research interests include relations between state and society, especially in the areas of protest politics and social change. She is currently writing a book on the role of housewives in protest politics in South Korea.

Women and Politics in Japan and Korea
2004 0-7734-6374-7
This book is about the role of women in Korean and Japanese politics over the past century. It is exceedingly rare to have a comparative analysis of politics in Japan and the Republic of Korea, which gives this book a special status. At the same time these are countries with remarkably low levels of political participation by women, so it is very important to have an analysis of the reasons for this outcome. In the 1970s women accounted for less than two percent of legislative representatives in Japan, and less than one percent in Korea; today women constitute about seven percent of the members in each legislature, but these levels are still comparatively low in the developed world: about forty-three percent of Sweden’s legislators are women, and women constitute more than 30 percent of Germany’s Bundestag; the level in the U.S. Congress is about thirteen per cent.

The explanation for this phenomenon is by no means simple, and the author traverses a complex argument beginning with the “late” industrialization of both countries, followed by long periods of military rule and excesses of nationalism in both that until relatively recently subordinated women to state-sponsored goals of rapid development and national unity, to the situation today where, at least in Korea, the role of women in politics is growing rapidly. Her account is based on numerous interviews in Korea and Japan, a deft use of public opinion polls, and a wide comparative reading in the literature on the history and politics of both countries. After examining a host of theoretical and conceptual approaches to understanding the role of women in politics, she combines an historical analysis with an examination of patriarchal culture in Japan and Korea, and then scrutinizes the way in which the two respective political systems have both formal and informal mechanisms that militate against women’s participation. Furthermore at many points in the text she makes comparative judgments concerning women’s participation in Europe and the United States.

Both Korean and Japanese history in the early 20th century were marked by women who fought multiple battles on several fronts: to get any recognition at all outside the demands of the home, to fight discrimination against any woman who would dare challenge the suffocating society-wide support for family-based patriarchy, to suffer ostracism for joining socialist groups (which tended to more open to women) or for living lives independent of men (for which they were labeled promiscuous and even a threat to national unity). Ichikawa Fusae, the founder of Japan’s Women’s Suffrage League in 1924, suffered much ridicule from the society for decades, only to be forced into supporting Japan’s wars in Asia. Korea was then a colony, not a nation, but from the early point of the massive March First Movement in 1919 right down to the present, when thousands of civic groups and NGOs co-exist in Korea’s strong civil society, women have often been the leaders of protests. This sharp contrast with Japan makes for one of the most interesting aspects of this book.

Her discussion of how the postwar Japanese political system excludes women (without necessarily intending to do so) is also particularly illuminating. The Liberal Democratic Party, in power continuously since 1955 (with one brief interruption in 1993), is made up of factions which resemble one-man political machines or groups, with strong ties of patronage and favoritism in the local areas. These virtually all-male informal networks of patron-client ties, reinforced by male bonding rituals in drinking houses all over Japan, represent a formidable barrier to the entry of women into political careers. Even civic and grass-roots organizations seeking progressive goals tend to be run by men in Japan.

On the other hand, the largest number of women representatives in the history of the Republic of Korea is seen under the system of the Revitalization Congress. However, given the nature of the Congress at the time, one can hardly say their representation had much to do with the peoples’ will. Ironically though, the long history of the dictatorial military regimes gave Korean women the opportunity to hear their own political voices, and through their participations in anti-dictatorial protest movements they gained political experiences necessary to engage in politics in the future. She interviewed and observed many women involved in grassroots political organizing; their future seems to be a comparatively bright one compared to women in Japan, who still have not found a route to significant participation in the world’s second-largest economy.