Will There Ever Be a Female Japanese Prime Minister?


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.

Little Chance of a Female Prime Minister

Most of the women Diet members I have talked about thus far all share the skill of self-promotion. Perhaps because many of them have media backgrounds, they are highly adept at presenting themselves in a way that is based on a careful analysis of their own strengths and distinguishing characteristics. This careful attention to their image manifests itself even in the how they dress and the way they talk. In my opinion, Koike has proven herself the most accomplished in this art.

By contrast, Inada and Yamao have cast themselves in a different mold. It is intriguing that these two women are from the legal profession. Although they lack flair when presenting themselves to the public, they have earned reputations for their skill in deftly handling different situations. Inada and Yamao undoubtedly have natural political talent. However, neither rose to their posts through the kind of all-out battles their male counterparts in the Diet engage in. And to that extent, I do not think either will become anything more than political “billboards” for their parties.

As things stand, I do not believe any of the women I have talked about here are seriously considering taking a run at becoming Japan’s first female prime minister. However, even if I’m wrong, I think it still all but impossible for a woman in Japan to rise to the post. This is because a person’s political bloodline still counts for so much, particularly in male-dominated rural society, which becomes more conservative the deeper in the countryside you go. There is still a chance, however, if the environment is right and the candidate possesses all the skills and abilities that I will talk about below.

Policy-Centered Thinking

First, a candidate must possess the charisma, measure, and experience needed to win people over to her way of thinking. Take for instance the transformative income-doubling plan of Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato and the plan of Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei for remodeling the Japanese archipelago. These massive initiatives were forged by brain trusts that devised suitable policy frameworks, refined those frameworks, and then rolled them out under the banner of the prime minister. Once in place, Ikeda and Tanaka then had the task of shaping the core policies of the plans and explaining them to the nation. In building brain trusts, there is no denying that politicians, male and female alike, from political families enjoy a distinct advantage.

Take for instance Abe, who was able to announce a wide range of policies beginning with his trademark Abenomics in rapid succession by relying on his personal brain trust. It goes without saying, though, that these policies had to tack closely with the prime minister’s own thoughts and beliefs—or, as some view it, the legacy of his grandfather, Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke.

Brain trusts are made from bureaucrats, business leaders, and academics that see in the belief system of a given politician an avenue for realizing policies they themselves have aspired to implement. These people come to the task fully aware that laying the groundwork for their candidate’s rise to the top office will be a long, arduous, and mostly thankless job. But they are highly motivated as success will mean their long-held ideas will finally see the light of day. This is how it works across politics.

Supporting Women Leaders from Within

Japan’s old political factions have weakened considerably and are being replaced by new groups led by politicians with their own brain trusts. To form a group, though, a politician must be able to raise the funds necessary to secure posts for their supporters. The rules are no different for female legislators.

For women to head their own factions, however, there first needs to be an environment where more strong female legislators can win single-seat districts and hone their skills by battling it out together over policy on the Diet floor. It is also essential that there be more women in top positions in business, the central bureaucracy, and academe who can support the rise of women politicians. Only in such an environment will it be possible for leading women legislators to be measured by their deftness in reading situations and depths of their political decision making. The final decider will be their ability to hold their own in a world currently dominated by men.

Clinton formed her brain trust amid a much different political environment, structure, and background in the United States back when she was first lady. It is easy to imagine how it has served her in the exceedingly fierce struggle for power she has faced within the Democratic Party leading up to her nomination and throughout her presidential campaign.

Japan has only a handful of women in political, business, and bureaucratic leadership positions largely due to the fact that securing important posts requires obtaining the backing of a power broker. This situation is gradually changing, however, and more than ever women are breaking through the glass ceiling armed with their own networks and acumen. When Japan finally gains a diversity of women in the Diet who can go toe-to-toe and emerge victorious from long, hard political battles will be the day the nation sees its first female prime minister.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 25, 2016. Banner photo: Democratic Party head Renhō meets with Tokyo governor Koike Yuriko, right, at Tokyo City Hall following her election as party president on September 9, 2016. ©Jiji.)

politics women Koike Yuriko