Japan’s Reluctant Feminist

For the hawkish new governor of Asia’s biggest city, fighting for female empowerment was a necessity, not a calling.

Yuriko Koike, a lawmaker of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and former Defence Minister, attends the Renault General Meeting in Paris on April 30, 2013. Koike is to be appointed as member of Renault's Board of Directors during the meeting.   AFP PHOTO ERIC PIERMONT        (Photo credit should read ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)
Yuriko Koike, a lawmaker of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and former Defence Minister, attends the Renault General Meeting in Paris on April 30, 2013. Koike is to be appointed as member of Renault's Board of Directors during the meeting. AFP PHOTO ERIC PIERMONT (Photo credit should read ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO, Japan — On July 31, Yuriko Koike, a member of parliament and Japan’s first female defense minister, shattered yet another glass ceiling by becoming the first-ever female governor of Tokyo, Asia’s largest city.

In a May interview with Foreign Policy, Koike didn’t say a word about her plan (not made public until June 29) to run for governor of a city with an annual budget larger than that of Sweden. She sat in a small conference room while young women served green tea, amid the maze of offices and meeting halls in the building for members of parliament, next to the stately National Diet in Tokyo. A seasoned politician, Koike was impeccably dressed in a white blazer and simple gold necklace, her responses as crisp and authoritative as her demeanor.

Though Koike speaks fluent English as well as Arabic, she conducted her end of the interview in refined Japanese using an interpreter. In between questions about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, and territorial disputes with China, Koike went off script with impassioned English retorts only twice. The first time was to offer an unwavering defense of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial attempt to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist constitution to grant the country more expansive military powers. The second was in response to a question about her experience as one of Japan’s few female politicians in a heavily male-dominated culture. The first part of the question began by citing the country’s miserably low global ranking in terms of female representation in parliament — and at that point she interrupted and exclaimed, “Shame!”

Koike is one of the loudest voices in Japan calling for greater female participation in politics and the workforce. Her activism at times seems to have been born out of necessity, and she has criticized the idea that female politicians should be relegated to dealing with women’s issues. But upon entering politics in 1992, Koike found that no one was taking female empowerment seriously as a policy issue. So she helped lead the charge by getting the vote out to women and trying to integrate them into the labor force.

As a woman in Japanese politics, the new Tokyo governor has had plenty to fight for. According to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global organization for legislatures, Japan ranks 155 out of 193 countries in terms of female representation in parliament — worse than Saudi Arabia. There has been little progress since Japanese women earned the right to vote 70 years ago. In 1946, women held 8.4 percent of seats in the House of Representatives, Japan’s lower house. As of this July, they held 9.5 percent of lower house seats, an increase of just over 1 percent.

For women with political ambitions, the system in Japan remains stacked against them. Noelle Takahashi, a politically active woman who currently works for a private firm in Tokyo, is angling for a seat in the next House of Representatives general election as a candidate with the Democratic Party of Japan, the country’s second-largest political party. Takahashi says political parties prefer a certain kind of profile when they are selecting candidates for office. “They prefer a man,” she said, “who graduated from Tokyo University, majored in law, and used to work in the Ministry of Finance,” long regarded as Japan’s most powerful ministry.

And when women are able to run for office, it’s often for vacancies — less desirable political districts that established, usually male politicians can avoid. “Women candidates can only get the leftovers,” Takahashi said.

Even the women who have managed to make it into elected office tend to hold less influential positions and have less experience than their male counterparts. That’s because Japanese women, unlike men, are rarely career politicians. They may have entered office from a less competitive district or on the coattails of a popular national leader. When they are later voted out, as seats are difficult to keep over the long term in Japan, they are likely to give up on politics and move on with their lives.

Koike is one of the few women who has transitioned permanently into politics. After graduating from Cairo University in 1976 (her father, Yujiro Koike, was heavily involved in the oil trade), she made a name for herself as a news anchor — a fairly common path to politics in Japan — before finally winning her first election in 1992. But her feminist debut didn’t come until September 2005, as one of “Koizumi’s assassins” — a group of female candidates mobilized by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to get out the vote, shake up the traditional base of power, and refurbish the staid image of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). After a few stints in the House of Representatives and several cabinet appointments, she became Japan’s first female defense minister in 2007 but resigned after just over a month in office. And in 2008, as a member of the LDP, she became the first Japanese woman to launch a bid for prime minister, eventually losing to former Foreign Minister Taro Aso.

Along the way, Koike became increasingly outspoken on women’s issues. “One of the things that I hated the most when I was a minister is that when a male minister makes a mistake, he is not strongly criticized for what has gone wrong,” Koike told the Telegraph in 2008. “But if a woman minister makes a mistake, even her colleagues would accuse her, simply because she is a woman. Or if she happens to do a good job, then it is often said that she only managed to achieve it because she had assistance from someone else.” When she announced her campaign for governor in June, she said, “As the [central] government pushes for a society where ‘women can shine,’ I think a female governor of Tokyo would be the perfect embodiment of that idea.” She has also faced overt sexism. Shintaro Ishihara, a political heavyweight who served as Tokyo’s governor from 1999 to 2012, remarked before the July 31 election that Tokyo should not be run by a “woman with too much makeup.”

As a rare woman in the upper echelon of Japanese politics, when she first took office in 1992, Koike by default inherited a raft of social problems that had long been ignored. “When I entered politics, I expected other female politicians to have already started working on politics and issues related to that, but it turned out that nothing had been done about the female issue,” she told FP in May. These problems persisted for another two decades. In addition to their miserably low representation in politics, women in Japan had low rates of participation in the workforce — 60 percent in 2013 compared to 80 percent of Japanese men who work; women often left their jobs after marriage or childbirth and never resumed work outside the home. Working Japanese women earned about 30 percent less than their male counterparts, according to government data for 2013. In Japan’s two-track workforce, where elite salaried employees enjoy higher wages and job security while contract workers perform the same work for fewer benefits and lower pay, women continue to disproportionately hold contract positions. And Japanese women, at 63 percent, are far more likely than American women, at 26 percent, to cite frustration with work as a reason they leave their jobs.

So four years ago, while still serving in the House of Representatives, Koike decided to pick up the slack and do something about it. She came up with seven recommendations and presented them to Shinzo Abe, who became prime minister for the second time in December 2012 after a short stint the previous decade. Three of these proposals, she told FP, made it into “womenomics,” the set of measures Abe announced in April 2013 aimed at revitalizing Japan’s long-stagnant economy and staving off the effects of population decline by increasing women’s labor participation. Abe also set in place a goal to raise the proportion of women executives in Japanese companies to 30 percent by 2020.

With little progress made on the goal so far, this quota may have to be adjusted to a more realistic level. But Abe’s administration has at least made women’s issues a prominent talking point. “Japanese people have been used to this culture of the male being a bit more dominant,” said Masato Otaka, the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s deputy press secretary, during a May meeting in Tokyo while speaking to a group of journalists on a reporting fellowship with the Hawaii-based East-West Center. Otaka said that how the family functions in Japan is a major factor in the difficulty women face in entering or remaining in the labor force. “Many women still feel that when they have a family to look after, it’s not a particular advantage for them in their careers,” he said. Otaka went on to say that the 30 percent quota for women in managerial positions will help companies understand the importance of creating more flexible schedules and hiring practices.

For her part, Koike said she supports this quota but was quick to add that she had a hand in its implementation. “Actually, this policy was made in 2005, but although the policy was made, no one executed or implemented this policy,” she said. “So the policy was put away inside a freezer, so to speak, and I was the one who took it out of the freezer to work on it.”

Not everyone in Japan admires her. In some political circles in Tokyo, Koike is viewed as actively competing with other female politicians, striving to align herself with powerful men while stepping on other women to get ahead. “As a politician, Ms. Koike has never been enthusiastic about improving women’s social status, as that agenda turns off men,” remarked Mitsuko Shimomura, a founder of Win Win, an organization that supports female candidates, in 2008.

But that’s not how Koike tells it. Back in May, she represented a Tokyo district that included Toshima, which, like the city’s other special wards, has its own local elected assembly. Koike said she used her political will in the April 2015 ward election to make sure the LDP ran many female candidates for the constituency. “As a result,” Koike said, “we were able to have more than 30 percent of LDP assembly representatives in the Toshima ward be female.”

She hasn’t always enjoyed that much support from her own party. In order to run for Tokyo governor, Koike had to break with the LDP and run as an independent. The party backed a male candidate.

Media outlets have long compared Koike to Hillary Clinton, and it’s a comparison — or, perhaps, rivalry — that she seems to have taken to heart. Her grandfather moved to Seattle in the 1910s, Koike related. He returned to Japan several years later. “But had he stayed living in Seattle,” Koike concluded the interview with a cool smile, “then I would have been born in Seattle, and I would be running against Hillary.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian traveled to Japan on a fellowship with the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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