Even as a long shot candidate for prime minister, Yuriko Koike is making waves in Japan, where women in high places remain rare.
The 56-year-old former defense minister is the first woman to run for president of the ruling party. The president is all but assured of becoming prime minister because the ruling party controls the Diet’s powerful Lower House.
“We would like to find out if the glass ceiling for women is actually an iron plate or not. We will see,” she told reporters Friday.
Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, one of the four men in the race, is widely expected to win Monday’s internal party vote.
But Koike’s candidacy has taken on symbolic importance.
“Unless we put more women in decision-making positions, the potential of Japanese women can’t be fully realized,” she said when asked about the way she has been compared with former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, the first female vice presidential candidate in the U.S. chosen for the Republican ticket.
Women make up 9 percent of the Lower House and 18 percent of the Upper House. In a U.N. measure of gender empowerment, Japan ranks 54th, behind Norway at No. 1 and the United States at No. 15.
Some experts see Koike’s candidacy as a desperate ploy by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to woo voters enraged by corruption, pension and food-safety scandals, the successive resignations of two unpopular prime ministers, and public worries about the economy.
In male-dominated Japan, Koike stands out as a symbol of change, said Steven R. Reed, professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo.
“She is someone who doesn’t look like or act like everybody whom we had before,” he said.
Koike is the candidate the Democratic Party of Japan fears the most, said veteran journalist Soichiro Tahara, a TV news show host.
“She is the first woman candidate. Being the first — that has tremendous impact,” he said recently at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
The former TV anchorwoman, who is also fluent in Arabic, is a smooth talker familiar with the international stage.
She has spoken up against elite bureaucrats linked to allegations of corruption and advocated the elimination of wasteful spending. She promises to make Japan competitive by highlighting its technological strengths and human talent.
“I support Ms. Koike because she has the strength to shake things up,” said lawmaker Yoshimi Watanabe, one of her backers in the ruling party.
Koike does not have a strong track record on women’s issues, though she advocates increased child care support so mothers can go back to work, an area where Japan lags many Western nations.
“Just because she is a woman doesn’t mean she represents the voice of women,” said Kuniko Funabashi, a lecturer at Wako University in Tokyo.
Koike, who was also environment minister under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, also supported green campaigns, including Cool Biz, which encourages office workers to dress casually to cut air conditioning use and save energy.
Women have played key roles in Japanese politics, although no one has ever come this close to the top job.
In 1989, Socialist Party Chairwoman Takako Doi led what was dubbed the “Madonna Boom” when opposition candidates, many of them women, made major strides in an Upper House election.
More recently, Makiko Tanaka, the boisterous daughter of a former prime minister, was popular with the public as foreign minister in the early years of Koizumi’s five-year administration, which began in 2001.
Housewife Megumi Arai, 65, said she is rooting for Koike.
“I really want her to do well because she represents us women,” she said. “But I can’t say whether she’ll be allowed to reach her potential.”
Koike’s supporters compare her to Joan of Arc, the 15th-century French martyr.
“I don’t mind if I get burned at the stake,” she told a downtown crowd Friday. “I will be happy if I can do anything to lead change to create politics for the people.”