The election of Renho Murata as leader of the Democratic Party (DP), Japan’s main opposition party, in mid-September, has amplified speculation that Japan could soon elect its first female prime minister. Renho, as she is known, rose to the DP leadership a few weeks after the promotion of Tomomi Inada, a member of the Diet in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to defense minister, and a few months after the victory of Yuriko Koike, another female LDP member, in an election that made her Tokyo’s first female governor. Taken together, these high-profile victories represent among the most notable political successes to have been achieved by Japanese women in recent years. That they occurred nearly simultaneously has signaled to many observers that Japan’s political glass ceiling may soon be shattered. Yet serious obstacles to the further political rise of all three women remain.

Japan may be beginning a virtuous cycle by which the ascent of female politicians helps legitimate women’s advancement more broadly.

The rise of Inada, Koike, and Renho has come amid a broader shift in public attitudes about the role of women in Japanese society. Traditional gender norms have had more sticking power in Japan than in many other advanced industrial countries, which, among other effects, has long limited the professional opportunities for Japanese women. As recently as 1992, a government survey found that 60 percent of Japanese agreed that “husbands should work outside the home [and] wives should protect the home.” In the latest version of that survey, conducted in 2014, 45 percent of Japanese agreed—a significant portion, but a minority. Over the years, the same survey has shown increasing public approval of mothers working outside the home: from 23 percent in 1992 to 45 percent in 2014. On the whole, Japanese society is more committed to gender equality than it was in the past. The 2010-2014 World Values Survey, a long-running international study of cultural attitudes, found that 49 percent of Japanese respondents agreed with the statement that “having a job is the best way for a woman to be an independent person”—roughly the same proportion as in the United States. 

In recent decades, there has also been a significant increase in Japan’s female labor-force participation rate, from around 56 percent in 1989 to more than 66 percent in 2015—a level close to that of United States, although still well behind Japan’s male labor-force participation rate of 85 percent. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to accelerate this process through a series of policies known as Womenomics, which aim to improve the status of women in the workforce and to encourage their assumption of leadership roles. To that end, in August 2015, the Diet passed a law that requires local and national authorities and firms with more than 300 employees to gather data on gender and employment and outline how they plan to improve conditions for female workers. 

Yet it is also worth remembering that Womenomics, beyond its progressive goals, is an economic program aimed at offsetting the effects of the decline in Japan’s working-age population by bringing more women into the labor pool. And although the Abe government has helped advance the discussion about the role of women in public life, it has also benefited from a decades-long shift in beliefs about the role of women outside of the home that should be attributed both to the broad erosion of traditional values that has followed economic modernization throughout the developed world and to Japanese society’s greater openness and sensitivity to global norms. Popular attitudes have changed in Japan, but the country’s women still face enormous barriers. In 2015, Japan ranked 101 in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index, well behind all of its peers in the G-7. Italy, which ranked closer to Japan than any other country in that grouping, took 41st place.

Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada reviews an honor guard in Tokyo, August 2016.
Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada reviews an honor guard in Tokyo, August 2016.
Kyodo / via REUTERS


Inada, Koike, and Renho are not breaking entirely new ground. A number of women have held prominent cabinet posts since the 1960s, and Koike served as defense minister in 2007, during Abe’s first premiership. Nor is Koike the first Japanese woman to win a governorship, although she is the first to win in Tokyo, the country’s most populous prefecture. Renho follows in the footsteps of Takako Doi, who in 1986 became the first woman to head the opposition Socialist Party. In this sense, Japan’s new class of female leaders reflects less unprecedented change than the gradual normalization of women, including mothers, taking on prominent public roles. Women still face massive obstacles in Japanese society, especially in the private sector, where long hours, uneven maternity and family leave policies, and shortages in childcare availability are the norm. Yet the idea that women would want to stay in the workforce and compete for high-level positions after marriage is no longer controversial. What is more, as Koike and Renho’s handy victories over male rivals demonstrate, voters are increasingly willing to back female leaders. A 2013 opinion poll by Tohoku University found that 56 percent of Japanese did not care whether a would-be prime minister was male or female. Another 36 percent said a woman should be named prime minister; only five percent opposed the idea.

Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, it could be years before Japan sees its first female premier. Of the 717 members of parliament who serve in the Diet’s upper and lower houses, 78 are women. Only a few of those 78 have served long enough to compete for the premiership and other top jobs; in Japan’s parliamentary system, the allocation of top posts tends to involve considerations of seniority. The LDP, for example, usually requires that members of parliament win at least five elections before being appointed to cabinet posts. (In this respect, Inada’s appointment to the defense ministry was an anomaly: she had won four elections.) The requirements of the Democratic Party are less stringent, but there, as in all of Japan’s parties, politicians have to put in time before they can compete for leadership positions. At the moment, those rules disproportionately disadvantage female members of parliament. The expectation that lawmakers wait their turn for top jobs is frustrating for many ambitious politicians; in the male-dominated environment of Japanese politics, the resentment that some men harbor toward female colleagues who secure important posts can be crippling. When Abe appointed a record five women to his cabinet in 2014, for example, the Japanese press was full of reports of grumbling by anonymous male LDP politicians who complained about reverse discrimination.

Given the small number of women who have managed to rise to positions of prominence, it is not surprising that, according to Tohoku University’s 2013 poll, two-thirds of Japanese believed that there was no female politician who would have been an acceptable prime minster. The top choice among respondents was Koike, named by nine percent as an adequate choice, followed by Renho and the LDP politician Yuko Obuchi, who served briefly in the crucial role of minister for economy, industry, and trade in 2014 before resigning amid a corruption scandal. 

Democratic Party leader Renho with party lawmakers in Tokyo, September 2016.
Democratic Party leader Renho with party lawmakers in Tokyo, September 2016.
REUTERS / Toru Hanai


By leaving the Diet to run for Tokyo’s governorship, Koike dramatically raised her profile on the national stage. The governor of that prefecture is Japan’s most visible, and that will be especially true for Koike, because Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympics. If she manages to limit cost overruns in the run-up to the games and has an otherwise successful term, she could be in a position to compete for the leadership of the LDP and the premiership once she steps down from the governorship. But if she stays in office through 2020, she would be at least 68 by the time that she would be free to return to national politics—near the upper limit to be a viable contender for the premiership. And then there is the matter of reputation: even before Koike defied her party to run for the governorship, she was considered an opportunist who had jumped from party to party before landing in the LDP in 2002. It is possible that a successful stint as Tokyo governor could make it difficult for Koike’s detractors to block her reentry into national politics or help her launch a new party based on her personal following. But she will face opposition from within the LDP no matter what.

Inada’s path to power could similarly founder on opposition from LDP rivals. But whereas Koike’s weakness is that she is viewed as too independent, Inada’s challenge is that she appears to be tied too closely to Abe. Personally recruited by Abe to run as an LDP candidate in 2005, Inada has been promoted to increasingly prominent roles since Abe returned to power in 2012: in December of that year, she filled a minor cabinet post as minister for regulatory reform and later took on an important party post as the LDP’s policy chief before becoming defense minister. Abe wants to anoint a successor when his term ends—for now, in September 2018, although there has been talk within the LDP about changing party rules to allow him to run for a third term. Inada is one of the contenders to replace him. Her membership in Abe’s Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai faction, the hawkish, pro-constitutional revision group which is the LDP’s largest and has produced five of the party’s last seven leaders, could give her an edge. But even if Abe does endorse Inada, there is no guarantee that the LDP will embrace that choice. Inada is a relatively junior member of parliament; her nationalism and historical revisionism with respect to Japan’s actions during World War II are outside of the Japanese mainstream; and other LDP factions may push back against the long-standing dominance of Abe’s clique. At the very least, Inada’s path to power would be contested.

Renho, by becoming the Democratic Party’s leader, has already overcome the main obstacle faced by both Inada and Koike. On the other hand, the DP has struggled to regain the trust of voters since leaving office in 2012 and it is uncertain whether it will ever again be able to compete for power. (In a number of recent opinion polls, the party has been favored by only around ten percent of respondents.) Renho thus faces an uphill battle: she must discipline a divided party, bolster its ability to recruit candidates, and challenge an administration led by a party that is far more popular than her own. Even if the DP’s fortunes improve, it could be years before it can seriously threaten to unseat the LDP. That could make it difficult for Renho to survive long enough to lead her party back into government.

It is therefore unlikely that a member of Japan’s new class of female political leaders will be the first to win the premiership. But their emergence on the national stage suggests that Japanese voters are gradually becoming accustomed to the idea of women in leadership positions. More important, it suggests that Japan may be beginning a virtuous cycle by which the ascent of female politicians helps legitimate women’s advancement more broadly, further lowering barriers to female participation in politics at the highest levels. After all, Koike, Inada, and Renho are not alone. Obuchi is experienced, relatively young, and well-connected; she could soon become a strong contender again. Seiko Noda, a 23-year veteran of the Diet’s lower house, has served as a cabinet minister and in LDP posts and was the only politician who seriously considered running against Abe in his bid for reelection as LDP leader in September 2015. One of the DP's rising stars is the 42-year-old Shiori Yamao, who served as the party’s first policy chief and is known for having criticized the prime minister for his performance on Womenomics. As the Japanese political system gradually moves away from the old boys’ networks that historically determined who entered politics and rose to the top, female politicians such as these could start to push on an open door. It may only be a matter of time before someone breaks what Koike has called Japan’s “steel ceiling."

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  • TOBIAS HARRIS is the Economy, Trade, and Business Fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and an analyst at Teneo Intelligence.
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