Seoul may have female leader but Tokyo’s is long way off: poll

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

South Korea recently elected its first female president, but it looks like it will still take some time before Japan follows suit and appoints a woman as prime minister, at least according to a recent survey by Tohoku University.

The findings of the small-scale online poll, conducted by the university at the end of December and released Monday, showed that 66.5 percent of respondents believe there are currently no female lawmakers suitable to take the helm of government.

Of the 310 respondents in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, Yuriko Koike of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was backed by just 8.7 percent of those polled to become the nation’s leader, followed by Renho of the Democratic Party of Japan at 3.9 percent and LDP lawmaker Yuko Obuchi, the daughter of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, at 3.5 percent.

And only 23 of those polled expected Japan to see a female prime minister in the near future.

“There is plenty of room for the nation to accept a female prime minister, but . . . no one with such talent and overwhelming support has emerged yet,” the survey, led by professor Hiroshi Yoshida of Tohoku University’s Graduate School of Economics, concluded.

Sachiko Fujii, executive director of the Global Engagement Well-being Excellence Leadership group, said the results reflect the fact that Japan lacks a system to develop female leaders, noting there are currently very few women politicians who enjoy as strong a presence among the public as the late lawmaker Fusae Ichikawa, a prominent women’s rights activist of the mid-20th century.

“We don’t see women like Ms. Ichikawa who are visible and sending out strong messages,” Fujii said. “If more women build their presence, the public may develop a better image of female leaders, but there is an unconscious bias among the Japanese people that men should become lawmakers — not women.”

Japan is notorious for lagging behind other countries in terms of gender equality in the workplace — beginning with the Diet. In the Dec. 16 Lower House election, only 38 of the 480 seats up for grabs were won by female candidates. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2012 ranked Japan a lowly 101st place, down three spots from the previous year.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his LDP pledged in December’s election campaign to raise the ratio of women occupying positions of leadership to more than 30 percent by 2020. In an attempt to show that he means business, he appointed women to two of the party’s key roles: Sanae Takaichi as LDP policy chief, and Seiko Noda as chair of the party’s General Council.

But of the 18 Cabinet ministers Abe unveiled Dec. 26, only two were women.

“If Abe is serious about increasing women’s roles, he should have tapped women for 20 to 30 percent of his Cabinet ministers. The public won’t believe him otherwise,” Fujii of the female leadership group said. “Instead of just limiting his initiative to the party executive, women should be placed in ministerial positions so they actually have the authority to implement policies.”

Noda, the new General Council chairwoman, has recently voiced the need to introduce a system based on a legally binding numerical target to support the social advancement of women, though Takaichi, the LDP’s new policy chief, on the other hand has expressed reluctance, pointing out the possibility of “reverse discrimination.”

Fujii is of the same opinion as Noda, noting that gender equality has not seen progress in Japan partly because of the male-dominated political world, in which lawmakers fiercely protect their vested interests in the status quo.