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Will There Ever Be a Female Japanese Prime Minister?

Yokota Yumiko [Profile]


Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko and newly elected Democratic Party President Renhō have helped shine the media spotlight on Japan’s female politicians. However, even as more women step into political leadership roles, there is still a long, hard road ahead before Japan sees its first female prime minister.

A New Face for Tokyo

When Koike Yuriko won Tokyo’s gubernatorial race on July 31 with an impressive tally of nearly 3 million votes, I was filled with emotion as I sat in front of the television, my eyes fixed on the new governor leading a banzai cheer with a beaming smile on her face.

There have been several female governors in Japan, but Koike is the first to lead the nation’s capital. The reason this hurdle has been so tough to overcome compared to other prefectures likely lies in the prominence of the position. The governor controls an annual budget of more than ¥7 trillion (and some ¥13 trillion when special accounts and public enterprise accounts are added in), which is on a par with the national budget of Sweden, providing the office an importance that extends well beyond the boundaries of Tokyo. The spotlight on Koike is set to intensify with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in the offing. Heading toward the Games, the images and words of the governor in the media will come to represent Tokyo on the world stage.

Having started her career as a newscaster—and only an assistant anchor at that—her fortitude in scaling the steep route to her lofty position speaks volumes of her strong will and determination.

Down But Not Out

When I published my book Hirarii o sagase! (Searching for Hillary!) back in 2008, the hearts of American voters were turning away from the Republican Party. As the administration of President George W. Bush wound down it was almost assumed that the next US president would be a Democrat. At the front of the pack of presidential contenders was Hillary Clinton.

In the end, though, Barack Obama ascended in the polls, winning the party’s nomination and claiming victory in the general election to become America’s first black president. Yet, as Democratic candidates battled it out in the primaries, I think many pundits—me among them—were certain that the race would end in victory for Clinton. Female prime ministers and presidents had been elected in South America, Europe, and other parts of the world, but to see a woman elected president of the United States, arguably the most influential office on the planet, would have been monumental. My heart leapt.

The experience inspired me to launch a new reporting project to answer a burning question for me: could there ever be a female prime minister in Japan? To answer this question I interviewed numerous female Diet members, including Koike. As a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, she was the only female lawmaker who openly admitted considering the possibility of being prime minister. She would subsequently cause an uproar in her party by rounding up sufficient backers to become the first woman to make a bid for LDP presidency. In the end, though, she was soundly defeated. Similarly, the dream of America’s first female president also vanished as support for Clinton waned.

Clinton stayed in the political spotlight, joining the Obama administration as secretary of state. Yet for me and many others, a female presidency seemed so far off as to be impossible. The situation was even direr in Japan, where Koike had fallen out of power in the LDP for siding against Abe Shinzō during his successful bid for a second turn at party president.

Many in Japan were convinced that Koike’s time was up. In Nagatachō, the center of Japan’s political world, she was labeled a has-been. Abe gained a firm hold on the LDP from a wave of popular distrust of opposition parties that emerged following a string of disastrous DPJ administrations and then used a dearth of talent within the party to solidify his position as head. Frozen out, Koike no longer had a place in the LDP and the prospect of mending fences seemed glim. Beaten, but not defeated, she patiently bided her time. When that moment came in the form of the Tokyo gubernatorial election, she put all her chips on the table.

Although Koike did not become Japan’s first female prime minister, she did shatter the glass ceiling to become Tokyo’s first female governor. Putting her political views aside, I consider that to be a giant step forward.

Token Gestures

Eight years ago the ratio of female Diet members in Japan was a woeful 9.4% in the House of Representatives and 18.2% in the House of Councillors. In 2016 this increased slightly to 9.5% and 20.7%, respectively, but according to international statistics on female legislators Japan comes in a lowly 157th out of 188 countries. This means that in terms of political representation, Japan is an underdeveloped country. Ever since I set out to cover Nagatachō, I have continued to be seized by dissatisfaction and doubt about this figure.

During each election in Japan, there are always a few high-profile female candidates that garner the lion’s share of press coverage. It has also become customary to appoint a handful of women as “flowers” to spruce up every new cabinet. In fact Abe, who has pledged to create a society in which “all women shine,” has made a point with each cabinet reshuffle of tapping female leaders, including a parliamentary secretary and an LDP division director, for positions regardless of age or experience, seemingly selecting candidates simply on the merits of being a woman. However, these women remain in the political limelight only briefly, and truthfully speaking, I have very little idea of what they accomplish. The only two who have had a real impact over these last few years—even as they are constantly blasted by the media—have been Environment Minister Marukawa Tamayo and Defense Minister Inada Tomomi. It is still important to remember, though, that these two women did not fight to the top, but gained their posts through the inclinations of the prime minister and the Cabinet Office.

The Barriers Facing Female Politicians

There was actually another, hidden significance in my aforementioned “Searching for Hillary” project. When I launched it I had in mind Rosanna Arquette’s documentary Searching for Debra Winger. When she made the film, Arquette, a successful actress in her own right, was struggling against barriers that aging leading women face and with finding balance in her work and family life. In the film she set out on a journey to find the popular actress Debra Winger, who at the time had married and retired from the film industry. Along the way she interviewed numerous actresses, teasing from them their most intimate thoughts and feelings. Watching the film, I felt that Japanese female politicians face similar barriers such as age, marriage, and demands of childrearing, and I wanted to ask them how they coped with these obstacles.

There is the additional aspect that Japan’s political structure is failing in every sense of the word to bring up powerful female politicians. Some women are lifted up for a brief time and bathed in the spotlight, such as with Marukawa and Inada today, but as they age the tide turns, their political allies disappear, and their influence fades with astonishing speed. This has been the fate of countless female legislators on both sides of the aisle. Women like Koike and Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Takaichi Sanae, and even Noda Seiko, who failed in her own bid for the LDP presidency a year ago, understand this all too well.

In September of this year, Renhō took the reins as president of the main opposition Democratic Party. At the same time Yamao Shiori, who ascended as a mere two-term legislator under previous president Okada Katsuya to the important post of party Policy Research Committee chair, was demoted to a low-profile post in the DP.

  • [2016.11.04]

Journalist. Graduated from Aoyama Gakuin University in 1996. Focuses on politics, the central bureaucracy, and women. In January 2015 launched women-oriented web magazine Mulan. Works include Hirarii o sagase! (Searching for Hillary!), Kanryōmura seikatsu hakusho (White Paper on the Lifestyles of Bureaucrats), and Naze meimon joshikō wa ‘hitoaji’ chigau no ka! (What Makes Graduates of Top All-Girl High Schools Different!).

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