In fewer than two months over the summer, Japan’s famously male-dominated political system elevated three ambitious women into positions that could become stepping-stones to the prime minister’s office.
Although Japan is now flanked by neighbors such as Taiwan and South Korea, both with women presidents, no Japanese woman has ever served as prime minister, or more accurately even been in a realistic position to become premier. Until now.
In July voters in Tokyo elected it first female governor, Yuriko Koike, and this month, the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) selected Renho (who goes by one name) to be party leader. Both were chosen by wide margins.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe named the third member of the female troika, Tomomi Inada, Minister of Defense in a cabinet reshuffle in early August. Inada is not the first women to head the defense ministry. In fact, Kioke herself served briefly in 2007.
Defense Portfolio Takes on Gravitas
But Koike’s short tenure was not long enough to have her leave a mark. More importantly the defense portfolio was a political backwater then. It has become much more influential, and more visible, as Japan’s security environment has worsened.
Political commentators often tout Inada as a potential successor to Abe. The premier is in the last term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is a prerequisite to becoming premier in Japan. His term ends in 2018.
Abe chose a record five women to serve in his cabinet in the 2014 reshuffle, but the new ministers tended to head the “softer” portfolio, such as those connected with gender equality. Inada was selected to head one of the “hard” departments like foreign affairs or finance.
Many see Abe and Inada as political soulmates, as the new minister of defense is considered to be, if anything, more conservative in a Japanese way, than Abe himself.
World War II Apologist
Inada endorses all of the shibboleths of Japanese right wingers, such as denying the Nanjing Massacre, opposing the legacy of the post-war Tokyo Trials, which condemned many of Japan’s war time leaders for waging aggressive war. She denies Japanese responsibility for the “comfort women” conscripted into Imperial Army brothels during World War II.
As a lawyer in private practice, Inada defended families who complained that their relatives that had been defamed with stories about committing atrocities such as contest to see which one would kill 100 Chinese soonest after the capture of Nanjing.
Those issues would seem to alienate countries such as South Korea, and possibly even the United States, that Japan needs to counter what it considers Chinese provocations in the South and East China Seas.
But like her boss Inada seems able to hide or suppress her more revisionist instincts. In mid-August, when the anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II raised issues such as annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where many of Japan’s convicted war criminals are buried, Inada skipped the Yasukuni went - or was sent – to Djibouti.
The small country on the Horn of Africa hosts Japan’s only overseas base, which is aimed at supporting anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.
Off to See the Wizard
In September Inada visited Washington, where she conferred with American Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter about regional security issues, and where she spoke of “globalism” and “strengthening the alliance” at every opportunity.
“She’s trying to update her image and become more acceptable to the general public,” says Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University.
Inada’s chances of becoming premier are no slam dunk, of course. Several other (male) MPs, such as Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishida, himself a former defense minister who chose not to continue in the Abe cabinet, will likely challenger her if she runs.
Moreover, the continued division of the government party into factions of 30-40 members along with the ability to raise campaign funds for them, makes it more difficult for a woman to prevail in intra-party politics, unless Abe were to throw his total weight behind her.
Tokyo Governor a High-Profile Job
Yuriko Koike’s election in July as Tokyo governor puts her in a very high profile job that may not be that helpful if she wants to replace Abe as premier someday. She ran successfully without seeking any support from the LDP, which is something that the male MPs might not forget or forgive in any party election.
It is probably no coincidence that both Koike and Renho, the new leader of the opposition, were both ex-broadcasters and came across as more articulate than their male competitors.
However, Japan has a parliamentary form of government, so the leader and premier are chosen by their parliamentary colleagues. The candidates’ ability to talk directly with the voters is not such an advantage.
Renho, the third woman in the troika, became the first woman to lead a major opposition party since Takako Doi assumed the leadership of the old Socialist Party of Japan, shortly before it folded in the 1990s and later regrouped as the Democratic Party.
The young mother of twins, a television presenter and a sometime swimsuit model before running for parliament, Renho brings some much needed sex appeal to the main opposition party.
Renho won in a landslide despite a last minute controversy over her dual Taiwan-Japanese citizenship. The daughter of a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother, she was born in Tokyo as a Taiwan citizen and later became a naturalized Japanese.
She was embarrassed to learn in the midst of her campaign that she still had her Taiwanese citizenship, which she quickly renounced. So to her other attributes she is a mixed blood, or a Japanese say a “haafu” (from English ‘half’).
That might not be a political burden for her as being a haafu has become fashionable of late. Several recent Japanese beauty queens have had one parent who was foreign.
For all of her beauty and charisma Renho’s path to the premiership is entirely dependent on the potential revival of the Democratic Party from recent crushing defeats. It shows no signs that it is any more popular with the public than it ever was.