Lawmaker says Japan needs woman leader to halt population slide

While it was time for a woman to lead Japan, that would require changing a lot of minds in the male-dominated society

By ISABEL REYNOLDS & EMI NOBUHIRO

ONE of the three women to snag a senior position under Japan’s new Prime Minister (PM) Yoshihide Suga is already planning to challenge him for the ruling party leadership next year.

Noda was named to a post where she will act as a conduit between the premier and the political group that’s been in power almost continuously for the past 65 years (pic: Bloomberg)

Veteran Seiko Noda, who last week was appointed executive acting secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), said that while it was time for a woman to lead Japan, that would require changing a lot of minds in the male-dominated society.

“Unfortunately, the people of this country still don’t believe women are qualified to be PM,” Noda said in an interview at party headquarters in Tokyo on Wednesday. “I want to convey to them that if women don’t do it, we won’t be able to stop the population falling,” she added, referring to the demographic crisis that’s threatening the economy.

Noda, one of the most prominent women in the ruling party, was named to a post where she will act as a conduit between the premier and the political group that’s been in power almost continuously for the past 65 years.

Due to the LDP’s dominant position in the Parliament, its leader is almost assured of becoming PM.

Only two women were included in Suga’s 20-strong Cabinet line-up, well short of the government’s own target of having women in 30% of management positions in all fields by 2020.

That came as a disappointment to some after his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, had touted female empowerment as a key policy for almost eight years.

The gender imbalance in Japan’s Cabinet is largely in line with the country’s politics as a whole. Only 10% of the MP’s powerful Lower House are women, and Japan ranks 166th among the 193 countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in terms of female representation — below Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

“Japanese politics is democracy without women,” Noda’s predecessor in the party post, Tomomi Inada, said at a news conference on Wednesday, adding that this leads to blind spots on urgent issues like helping single mothers weather the virus crisis.

Barriers to women’s advancement in politics are higher than in other fields, and can even include their own families, according to Inada. Her father cried and threatened to disown her when she decided to run for political office as the mother of two teenage children, she told the news conference.

Even before the pandemic, it was debatable how far women across society were actually empowered during the Abe administration. While the female employment rate hit a record high, women continue to hold roughly 68% of non-regular jobs, according to Japan’s internal affairs ministry. Non-regular work is typically less secure and usually offers lower pay.

When Covid-19 hit, women suffered the brunt of job losses as companies cut part-timers, contractors and seasonal workers. They continue to be paid about 26% less than men, according to the ministry.

Nonetheless, Noda said she appreciated Abe’s decision to pass legislation on women’s empowerment, an unexpected policy move from a politician previously more supportive of housewives than working women.

“At least people around the world now understand how little Japan is able to empower women,” she said.

Noda holds that women are best placed to put together policies that can help offset Japan’s aging and shrinking population. Now the mother of a young son, she has been open about her own experiences with infertility, and Suga has already adopted her idea of expanding the coverage of fertility treatment under health insurance.

Suga has also pledged to implement measures that would help families and ease the burden of childcare, but has made little mention of plans to reduce a gender pay gap that is one of the widest among advanced economies, according to the World Economic Forum.

Noda’s planning to bolster the Women’s Affairs Division within the LDP to help deepen the bench of women capable of serving in the Cabinet. The “shy” Suga has few connections with female lawmakers, according to Noda. More controversially, she wants to get rid of the tax incentives that encourage married women to take only poorly paid jobs.

The LDP faces another leadership election in a year, as Suga was elected only to take over the final stretch of Abe’s term. While a handful of women have considered a run for LDP leadership, only one — current Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike — has ever managed to garner the necessary 20 backers to get her name on the ballot for the race.

Noda was first elected to the Parliament in 1993, has more election victories under her belt than Suga, and has been touted for decades as a potential future PM. She’s never gained enough lawmaker support to become an official candidate and advocates changing party rules to allow any LDP lawmaker to run.

“If you look at Japanese mythology, women are seen as strong,” she said. “But Japan will have a bright future if women can take leadership in a visible, concrete way, rather than just an emotional way. We need to continue to work for that.” — Bloomberg