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Noda now a force in her own right — and name

by Junko Takahashi

Seiko Noda, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker in the House of Representatives, wrote in her elementary school composition class that her dream was to become a politician — and ultimately prime minister.

Born into a political family, Noda embarked on that career at age 26 as a member of the Gifu Prefectural Assembly, after working at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo for four years.

In 1993, she was elected to the Lower House from the Gifu No. 1 district at age 32. Five years later, she became posts and telecommunications minister, becoming the youngest postwar Cabinet member.

“Yes, I remember writing that in elementary school,” Noda, 42, said with a laugh. “But I wasn’t really serious about it. I was born into a political family and said I wanted to become a politician, just like a doctor’s son would say he wants to become a doctor.”

Noda’s late grandfather, Uichi, was an LDP lawmaker in the Lower House and a construction minister under Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida in the 1950s. Noda said she didn’t decide on her own to run for a seat in the Gifu assembly; it was her grandfather’s supporters who persuaded her to pick up his political standard.

But the assembly stint helped foster Noda’s quest for national politics and her political goal — creation of a “universal society” where men and women work together as equal partners.

Noda recalled her disgust that there were no female LDP lawmakers in the Lower House when she first ran for the chamber in 1990, albeit unsuccessfully. There were, however, women LDP members in the Upper House and female opposition members in both chambers at the time.

“I wanted to change the political notion back then that the only ally of women was the Socialist party,” Noda said in an interview. “The Lower House is the main chamber of debate in the Diet, and I thought, why are there no women from the ruling party in it?”

Throughout her Diet career, Noda has worked on amending the Civil Code to allow married couples to have separate surnames if they so wish. She has also promoted measures to curb the nation’s declining birthrate.

The birthrate, currently at a record low 1.33, is not simply a women’s issue but instead reflects Japan’s shrinking economic power, workforce and purchasing power, she said.

Fewer kids also means an increase in the social security cost burden to support the ever-increasing elderly population, she said.

Women are postponing or hesitating to have children because of various factors, including the high cost of education and housing, concerns over retaining careers after having children, insufficient support for child-care and unpredictable social security guarantees in the future.

Noda said women are also not spending money now because of worries over the future. “When you talk about an economic slump, politicians talk about banks’ bad loans or deflation, but it’s really about a decline in consumption — by women.”

A key step toward raising the birthrate, Noda said, would be a sharp increase in the number of day-care centers — enough to house all the children whose parents work. A system must also be established for both men and women to retain their salaries and promotion chances while taking child-care leave and afterward, she said.

Government financial support for couples receiving fertility treatment is also a step in the right direction, Noda said. Such help may come by next year, because the ruling coalition recently agreed to call for public subsidies of 100,000 yen a year for each couple going through such treatment.

As another step, Noda advocates amending the Civil Code to allow married couples to retain their separate surnames and scrap discriminatory rules affecting children born out of wedlock.

Currently, couples must choose either the husband’s or the wife’s surname to legally marry. Most unregistered, or common-law, marriages are the result of the wives wanting to retain their surnames for work or family reasons.

Children born to common-law couples are listed as illegitimate in family registrations and are entitled to only a limited inheritance.

“Many (common-law) couples say they want to have children, but they hesitate to do so because their children will be discriminated against,” Noda said. “There is a social norm in Japan that you should be legally married before having children. Why not legalize (common-law) marriages and keep the names separate?”

Noda’s argument, however, has not been accepted by many in the LDP.

She led a group of LDP lawmakers who backed her idea in pushing for a bill to amend the Civil Code. But despite a series of compromises — from allowing separate names “by choice” to “by exception” and finally to “by family court approval” — the bill has yet to be submitted to the Diet.

“Those who oppose the bill say family ties would break down, but the amendment is simply an adjustment for an advanced country, one whose society allows choices,” Noda said.

In fact, Noda herself did not register her marriage in summer 2001 with Yosuke Tsuruho, a House of Councilor lawmaker from the New Conservative Party.

“People in the political world know me as Seiko Noda. If I become Seiko Tsuruho, voters would think I came from Wakayama (Tsuruho’s constituency), and that would disadvantage me in elections,” she said. “As long as I am a politician, I want to go by the name Seiko Noda.”

Her 36-year-old husband meanwhile has qualms about their having different names.

“I support the bill because different values should be respected. But when it comes to my private life, I just do not feel right about having different surnames,” said Tsuruho, who is now parliamentary secretary for land, infrastructure and transport.

The two met in early 2001 while on a ruling coalition mission to study the posts and telecommunications administration in the United States, with Noda being the leader of the group.

After returning, the two went out for a drink after a followup meeting. Three days later, they were engaged.

“He asked me to go out, but I said I was only looking for someone to marry, because I didn’t want to get in a scandal at age 40,” Noda said. “Then he asked me to marry him.”

Tsuruho said he was looking for someone independent who would understand his job as a politician.

“She was just the right person,” he said. “But I clearly told her then that I could go along (with an unregistered) marriage only until a new legal system is established or we have a child.”

Even if keeping separate names is legalized, Tsuruho would still want Noda to bear his name. The couple often quarrel over the issue, to no resolve.

“I’ve set aside my private life,” Noda said. “I want to change Japan into a nation that meets the wishes of other women.”

Noda is also focused on information technology and postal service issues.

Having served as a parliamentary secretary, and then posts and telecommunications minister, Noda opposes Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s plan to privatize the postal services.

“If I had to do it, I would privatize postal insurance and savings, but leave mail delivery in the hands of the government,” she said, noting depopulated areas will be severely affected if a private company simply walks out of unprofitable mail routes.

“Even in such a market-oriented country as the United States, mail delivery is the government’s job,” she said.

To make Japan a more IT-advanced country, Noda said the first step is to boost the government’s electronic infrastructure so that administrative services, including issuing passports and driver’s licenses, eventually go online.

Because of her action-oriented political style and LDP credentials, Noda is often regarded as a candidate to be the first female prime minister.

Tsuruho jokingly said he would flee Japan if his wife became prime minister.

But he added: “I would support her effort to develop a bigger picture of where to lead this nation. She is a very practical politician, but the top leader would also need a grand vision.”