Japan's Steel Ceiling

And the Women Cracking It

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike talks to reporters in Tokyo, August 2016. Kyodo / via REUTERS

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

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