The new Cabinet breaks with tradition in several ways — it has a record number of women, including the first female foreign minister, and a woman is third in line to take over the prime minister’s job in an emergency.

Are the appointments a sign that women are being given a stronger voice in politics — maybe even a step that boosts the possibility that the country will have a female leader one day?

While female lawmakers are divided over whether that is so, many agree on one thing — it could be a step in that direction if the women in the Cabinet do their jobs right.

“Traditionally, only one or two women were given posts in the Cabinet as a symbolic gesture. This Cabinet has women in heavyweight posts, and that’s important,” said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a House of Representatives member of the Social Democratic Party.

“But that means the individuals’ abilities will be tested, regardless of gender. Whether this will give momentum to the realization of a female leader in the future depends on how the women in the Cabinet do their jobs,” she said.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who swept to power last week with promises of reform, selected a record five women in his 17-member Cabinet as part of his promise to change Japanese politics.

One of the five is Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, 57, the hugely popular daughter of the late Liberal Democratic Party kingmaker Kakuei Tanaka. Her portfolio usually only goes to LDP elders.

Many pundits see the appointment of Tanaka, who often tops opinion polls on whom the public wants to see as prime minister, as an attempt by the LDP to boost public support ahead of the House of Councilors election in July.

Hiroko Mizushima, a Lower House member of the Democratic Party of Japan, said that while that may be so, it could still contribute to the advancement of women in what she said was still very much a male-dominated field.

“Even if it is only an image-boosting effort, it’s better to have women in the Cabinet than not having them in it at all,” she said. “If they carry out their responsibilities, it could pave the way for women to take up more important posts.

“Besides, it would help the public get used to female ministers,” she said.

Among the women who took up posts in the new Cabinet is Mayumi Moriyama, 73, who was appointed justice minister. She is ranked third in the list of ministers who would become acting prime minister in the event Koizumi is incapacitated.

But some said that the appointment of more women in Koizumi’s Cabinet — and the naming of Tanaka as foreign minister in particular — has nothing to do with giving momentum to the possibility of realizing a female leader.

“When you talk about the possibility of a female prime minister, you’re talking only about certain people, usually Ms. Tanaka,” said LDP Lower House member Midori Matsushima.

Matsushima said that given the little support Tanaka has among LDP lawmakers, the only way for her to become prime minister is for a popular vote to be introduced.

“If the LDP decides to support her for the prime ministership, that would mean that the LDP is in an extremely deep crisis” and needs her popularity to pull itself out of trouble, she said.

Others said that while they want to see a female prime minister soon, they hope that would mean that Japan has become a truly gender-equal society.

“I would of course like to see a female prime minister soon, but that does not mean I want a woman to become a leader because of her gender,” said Yoko Komiyama, a DPJ Upper House member.

“That means I hope a woman with ability is rewarded with what she deserves.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.