After spending months promoting his campaign to raise the profile of women in the upper reaches of public and corporate life, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might have chosen today's election to demonstrate that "womenomics" is finally laying siege to the patriarchal fortress of the country's politics. Instead, Japan's gender gap has barely merited a mention in campaign speeches. And voters hoping to back a female candidate will struggle to find any in their constituency: of the 1,093 people running for office, just 69 - or 6 per cent of the total - are women. Only two months ago, Abe was winning international praise for appointing a record-equalling five women in a cabinet reshuffle. But he will lead his Liberal Democratic party (LDP) into today's election with just 42 women, or under 12 per cent, among the 352 candidates. The Japanese Communist Party has the highest ratio of female candidates, with 79 out of 315, followed by the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, with 29 among 189 people running for lower-house seats. "This just goes to show that what Abe says and what he does are two different things," said Noriko Hama, an economics professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto. "Women who want to go into politics find it difficult to get nominated because they have to penetrate a particularly thick wall [of male chauvinism]." Hama, who describes the dearth of women candidates as "shameful and damaging" to Japan's international credibility, was similarly scathing about womenomics - Abe's mission to fill 30 per cent of senior public and private positions with women by the end of the decade. "Womenomics isn't really about improving the overall position of women in Japanese society, but about mobilising an under-used resource for Abe's growth agenda," she said. "There's no genuine concern about the gender gap." For political lobbying group Ikareru Joshikai ("The Angry Girls Group") the prime minister's talk of womenomics is patronising lip service. "Abe's government is trying to use women either as some sort of icing on a cake or as a tool to get the economy going," said Mizuho Nakayama, 44. For fellow mother Yuko Takato, 38, there needs to be some wholesale reforms of Japan's male-dominated working environment. "It remains difficult for women to climb the career ladder and have children when companies have no systems to help, and there is no real support from the country," she said. The project hasn't been without high-profile successes. This year Chie Shimpo became the first woman since the end of the second world war to head the banking arm of Nomura Holdings, Japan's biggest investment banking and brokerage group, and Hideko Kunii became the first woman to join the 13-member board of directors at Honda. Abe says he wants to raise the number of women in the workforce and reduce the pay gap - women on average earn 70 per cent of a man's salary for the same work. He has also promised to create 400,000 new nursery school places within five years to encourage more women to go back to work. Now, 70 per cent of women leave permanent employment after having children. Many settle for work in the low-pay, part-time economy that has flourished in post-bubble Japan. But campaigners accuse him of not coming through on female empowerment. "The real issue is discrimination throughout the workforce, especially wage disparities, not how to promote a few women at the top so that they can be as successful as men," said Yuki Kusano, of the Japan Women's and Human Rights Network. Japan performs poorly in international gender equality comparisons. In the World Economic Forum's 2013 global gender gap index, it ranked 105th out of 136 countries. At 63 per cent, Japan's female participation rate in the labour force, compared with 85 per cent for men, is one of the lowest among the 34 leading economies of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Ironically, in his rush to go to the polls to secure a fresh mandate for his economic policy, Abe appears to have put female empowerment to one side: the dissolution of parliament meant MPs had to abandon a bill mandating big companies to set numerical targets for the employment and promotion of women. Japan's centre-left Democratic Party planned to introduce quotas for female candidates ahead of the next general election, which was not scheduled until 2016. The election has come too early for all-female candidate lists. It was not long ago that Hillary Clinton publicly praised Abe for appointing five women to his cabinet, although two quickly resigned over alleged funding and campaigning irregularities. Clinton told him: "I'm very impressed with the comprehensive approach you are taking, not only providing more services like childcare and home-care positions that will enable more women to go into the workforce, but also leading by example - increasing the number of women in your cabinet and your party. All of that is important because it sends the right signal." Yet Abe has barely dented Japan's male-dominated corporate and political cultures during his first two years in office. By the last count, there were 39 women in Japan's powerful lower house of parliament, or 8 per cent of the 480 seats in the National Diet, putting it in 129th place in a global survey of 189 countries by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. And just as Abe uses public forums to push his vision of a Japan "in which women can shine", his LDP colleagues offer reminders of the party's regressive tendencies. Last weekend, the gaffe-prone finance minister, Taro Aso, said: "Many people have created the image that the elderly are the main cause [of growing social welfare costs in Japan's ageing society]," he said. "But the problem is [people] who refuse to give birth." That came after an episode earlier this year that grabbed attention around the world when a young Tokyo assemblywoman was heckled during a debate on helping the city's mothers. Shouts of "Why don't you get married?" and "Are you not able to have a baby?" erupted in the chamber as Ayaka Shiomura spoke. One LDP man apologised in public, but others who took part were never identified. To Kusano, Aso's outburst was all too predictable. "Womenomics is nothing more than a performance," she said. "The image Japan is trying to project to the outside world bears no relation to reality. The women who live here know that it is all a lie."