By: Todd Crowell

In an effort to burnish his avowed policy of empowering women, sometimes known as “womenomics,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed five women to his cabinet in his September 3 re-shuffle.

It is not the most women in a Japanese cabinet – former premier Junichiro Koizumi also had five women in one of his cabinets, but it is unusual for Japan, which also lags most every democracy in the world for female MPs.

The well-intentioned move has turned into a major embarrassment for Abe. Japan has never seen the spectacle of two cabinet members, both of them women, resigning their posts in one day.

Yoko Obuchi  and Midori Matsushima both resigned their cabinet posts on Oct. 20 to take responsibility for public fund accounting mistakes made by their staff and  support groups that some say verge on buying votes.

In Matsushima’s case, the staff handed out free tickets to a famous singer’s concert. Her mistake apparently was handing out handheld fans with her profile on printed on them. 

Known as uchiwa in Japanese, they are the kind of thing that stores hand out for free to advertise their wares. Since the resignation story broke, hand fans with Matsushima’s profile on them have been selling for US$100 or more on eBay.

The ink was hardly dry on Obuchi’s resignation letter than her replacement was in trouble. Yoichi Miyazawa had to admit that some of his staff took supporters to a Hiroshima S&M bar and listed the US$170 expense as “political entertainment.”

The new and possibly soon to be ex- minister told reporters, “It is true that such expenses were made, but I did not go there at all.” He said that sadomasochism “is not my hobby.”

Abe appointed Yoko Kamikawa to replace Matsushima as Minister of Justice, so the number of women in the cabinet is just minus one.

Japan’s campaign financial reporting laws are complex, and to outsiders often seem picayune, and they trip up many a politician. Hardly any government gets by without at least one minister resigning over a gaffe or financing scandal. It’s practically an occupational hazard.

It was considered remarkable that the Abe government managed 20 months in office without a single resignation. This was in stark contrast to his first term in office (2006-2007) in which three ministers resigned and one committed suicide in a single year.

Such scandals, however do not necessarily ruin careers. Obuchi, for instance, remains an MP and, being only 40, almost certainly will return to office after a couple years on the back-benches. Before this latest incident, she was on track to becoming Japan’s first female prime minister.

The opposition in parliament, mostly moribund for Abe’s first 20 months in office, has suddenly come alive, sensing blood in the water and gleefully demanding further investigations and even criminal charges.  Abe’s swift action in accepting the two resignations may have neutralized the political fallout – provided no new scandals emerge.

But it is not just the two short-time ministers among the five that are causing Abe occasional heartburn. Obuchi was a kind of mainstream politician but the other three come from the far-right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Led by Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Taikaichi, a vocal advocate for making regular visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, three female ministers visited the shrine during the recent autumn festival. Abe did not join them but sent an offering as prime minister.

The Japanese leader is angling for a summit meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of November’s meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and thus does not want to irritate Beijing any more than necessary at this particular time.

The Chinese government strenuously objects to Yasukuni visits by the prime minister or any members of his cabinet, contending that the shrine glorifies Japan’s invasions of China. Seoul also complains that the visits sanctify Japan’s colonization of their country in the first half of the 20th century.

Besides making a formal protest, Beijing dispatched several coast guard vessels into Japanese-controlled waters around the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, the disputed uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea.

Eriko Yamatani, chairman of the national public safety committee — the police – and minister in charge of Japanese abducted by North Korea, embarrassed herself being photographed standing next to members of the Zaitokukai, an anti-Korean group that routinely hurls invectives at Koreans living in Japan.

Expecting to answer questions on the abduction issue during a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, she ran into a buzz saw of angry questions asking her to explain her possible association with hate groups. She maintained that she didn’t know the people were with the Zaitokugai.

 Abe handed the portfolio of female empowerment to an anti-feminist, Haroku Arimura, whose views are well in in line with cultural conservatives in the US. She opposes women keeping their maiden name after marriage, a major issue with Japanese feminists, or allowing a woman to succeed to the Imperial throne.

Takaichi subscribes to most of the right-wing tropes on Japan’s past history: namely that the “comfort women” issue was a Korean libel; that the Nanjing massacre never happened or was grossly exaggerated; that Japan fought a purely defensive war in China.

Most of her and the other minister’s conservative views would not truly upset Abe, as he holds many of the same views himself. It is just that as prime minister he has to be more circumspect in voicing them.