The Rise of Women in Japanese Politics
Photo Credit: South China Morning Post
By Tai Wei Lim

The Rise of Women in Japanese Politics

Apr. 06, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Japanese women are making great strides in Japan’s political arena. Notable milestones include the emergence of a female leader in the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ). Doi Takako led her party to a good showing in the February 1990 elections, capturing almost one quarter of the vote. In that faithful year, almost all SDPJ female candidates who ran got a seat in the Diet, along with a large number of socialist candidates. This was a significant victory for the party, given that it was the largest opposition party at that point of time, for the political opposition, as well as for women in general. Doi’s foreign policy then included a policy that wanted to seek a balance in ties with both South and North Korea.

Doi was a professor specializing in constitutional law. She did not mince her words and was regarded as a straight talker, something rare within Japanese culture. The people of Japan, including politicians, tend to value consensus and high-context cultural communications, rather than straight-laced talking. Within the party, she was a reformist and was less ideologically-inclined, often running up against conservatives within her own party. In other words, there was resistance against Doi’s attempts to reform the party to appeal to more mainstream electorate members. Doi’s domestic policies centered around activism for the disenfranchised in the era of globalization that is dominated by large multinational companies and large-scale foreign players entering the Japanese economy. Small and medium sized enterprises and the farming sector experienced pressure from such forces of globalization. Some of them rallied or lobbied behind the Social Democrats.

A more recent female politician is opposition party leader Renho Murata, popularly known in Japan by her one-word name, Renho. She broke another glass ceiling in Japan’s political world as she is the first half-Japanese and half-Taiwanese leader to assume this important portfolio. She has become a symbol of diversity and multiculturalism in the political world and the society in general. In Renho’s era, the baton for the main opposition party has passed from the hands of the SDPJ to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ or Minshinto in Japanese). On September 16, 2016, TIME magazine touted Renho as a possible future Prime Minister of Japan. Renho is pushing the boundaries of discourses in gender and race in Japan, embodying the hopes of these two minority groups in furthering their representation in the political world (seikai).

The long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has also mustered impressive female candidates amongst its numbers. One of the most important female politicians to have made a mark on Japan’s political scene in the past was Makiko Tanaka, daughter of former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. She was Japan’s first female foreign minister under the charismatic Koizumi administration. She was seen as a rebel within the Japanese political circle and was at points of time Japan’s most popular politician. Her father Kakuei Tanaka was an old China hand and was the Japanese Prime Minister who normalized relations with China in 1972. He was highly regarded in China and was known to be a China-friendly (youhao) politician and an old friend of Beijing.

For the first time in contemporary Japanese history, the Defence Minister, Tokyo Governor, and an opposition leader are all female.

One of the most outstanding female politicians currently is Japan’s Defence Minister, Tomomi Inada. Inada is Japan’s second female defence minister after Yuriko Koike, who will be discussed below. Inada’s strong and robust political profiles have led people to describe her as Japan’s version of Sarah Palin, the right-leaning conservative tea party member in the US political circle. Inada graduated from Waseda University’s Faculty of Law and eventually rose through the party ranks to become Defence Minister in August 2016. She has held impressive portfolios in the past, including the Minister in charge of promoting “Cool Japan” — pushing Japan’s creative, design, and knowledge-based industries towards the country’s next phase of economic development. She is also a wife and mother, with a son and a daughter.

Another prominent female politician who won the hearts and minds of Tokyoites is Yuriko Koike, who is the first female Governor of Tokyo. Koike has great achievements in many areas, including being an Arabic speaker (Koike’s father was a senior private sector salaryman who travelled extensively to the Middle East to cut oil deals and brought his family along with him); an anchor-woman in the mass media world (where she interviewed dictators and scaled pyramids); and a strong symbol of feminism in Japan. Koike’s first political patron was Morihiro Hosokawa, who made history as the first opposition party leader to become Prime Minister after decades of uninterrupted rule by the conservative LDP.

Koike eventually joined the LDP when Hosokawa’s party broke up. She eventually rose to become the Minister of Environment, during which she promoted “Cool Biz” wear, encouraging executives to discard their suits and ties for cool attire during the summer to save electricity through the reduction of use of air-conditioning. Japan is a resource-scarce, energy-importing country and such campaigns help to conserve resources. Koike ran for the prime ministership against Taro Aso but lost the party election. When she ran for governorship of Tokyo, her party, the LDP, refused to endorse her and so she had to run as an independent candidate. Despite this, she scored an overwhelming and convincing victory, even over her former party’s candidate. Running Tokyo is not an easy feat as the city has an economy equivalent to the size of a medium sized country. Like Inada, Koike is also a conservative whose views align closely with those of the ruling LDP.

For the first time in contemporary Japanese history, the Defence Minister, Tokyo Governor, and an opposition leader are all female. It is only a matter of time before more glass ceilings for women in Japanese politics are broken. Perhaps politics in Japan and the world may improve if more women are in charge. It may bring about changes in Japan and the world which are now ruled by male dominance. Such political changes will complement the advances made by women in the business and commercial sectors.

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