Japan’s leading women look set to finally break the ‘steel ceiling’

Three women now hold powerful political posts in a country that has never had female PM

Japan's career ceiling for women is made of steel, not glass, Yuriko Koike, the new governor of Tokyo, famously said.

Koike was paraphrasing Hillary Clinton but her successful battle through the male ranks of her profession is all her own.

Japan has never had a female prime minister. About nine per cent of lawmakers in the lower house are women, putting Japan 155th in the world.

Now, in the space of a few weeks, three women hold some of the country’s most powerful political posts.

A former model, Renho Murata (48) was this week elected the first female head of Japan's main opposition Democratic Party.

Tomomi Inada (57), a fast-rising star in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), elected defence minister in July, completes the troika.

All three may be set for higher office. Some believe Renho can rescue her floundering party and challenge the LDP, which has been in power for all but a handful of years since 1955.

Inada is already being tipped as a future prime minister, and Koike, who once launched a failed bid for Japan’s top political job, is thought to want another try.

Their rise hardly represents a sexual revolution; Japan still sits at the bottom of the developed world for gender equality.



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Still, the magic phrase "Japan's first female prime minister" is once again in the political ether. The last woman to trigger similar speculation, Yuko Obuchi, a trade and industry minister, fell victim to scandal two years ago.

Koike missed her chance in 2008 when she lost out for leadership of the LDP.

Their gender, however, may well be the least important thing about them.

Renho is a rare bicultural politician in a still largely monocultural nation. This week she ran into trouble after admitting that she retains citizenship of Taiwan, her father's birthplace (her mother was Japanese).

Though she blames it on an oversight, conservatives have been quick to accuse her of divided loyalties.

"Although Taiwan is friendly toward Japan," said the Yomiuri, Japan's most-read newspaper, "it is in conflict with the Japanese standpoint regarding some issues. Renho could become the target of undesirable suspicions regarding her relations with Taiwan."

Koike (64) has been dubbed a feminist, but like Margaret Thatcher, a politician she admires, her defining characteristic may be her vaunting ambition.

In July, she infuriated LDP bosses by running against their candidate, Hiroya Masuda, in Tokyo, trouncing him by more than one million votes.

The campaign showed she has the popularity to go further – and the toughness: when one of her predecessors, Shintaro Ishihara, said that running Tokyo could not be left to "a woman with too much make-up," she laughed and said she was used to such insults. In truth, Koike's hawkish politics trump her feminism.

A former defence minister, she fought for a tough line on China and she is one of the few Japanese politicians to call for the nation to have nuclear weapons. Ironically, her nearest equivalent is arguably Ishihara, a crusty hawk who loved to bait China.


Inada, too, is far better known for her nationalism than her feminism. As a lawyer, she rose to prominence by challenging conventional views on Japan’s behaviour in the second World War. She has questioned the post-war trials that convicted Japan’s leaders as war criminals.

It remains to be seen how these three politicians will advance the cause of Japanese women. Most analysts say a core reason for Japan’s rock-bottom gender ratings are workplaces, which still depend on fulltime male employees working long hours. The system makes it difficult for women to rise.

Prime minister Shinzo Abe has been stung into action, less by feminist concerns than by a shortage of labour. He has pledged to boost the number of women employees and managers. His cabinet even boasts a new department – the Headquarters for Creating a Society in which All Women Shine.

While Japan waits for the impact of his initiatives, which most agree have been slow to come, the nation’s women at least have some serious role models. The principal contribution of Koike, Inada and Renho for now may be to show that, ultimately, ambitious women will simply not be held back.

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