Yuko Obuchi, the 40-year-old daughter of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, was Wednesday appointed as the first female trade and industry minister, one of five women Prime Minister Shinzo Abe named to his new Cabinet.
As minister of economy, trade and industry, Obuchi may face strong opposition from other women as she oversees the government’s unpopular policy of restarting nuclear reactors shuttered after the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima disaster. She won her father’s seat at the age of 26 when he died in office after less than two years as prime minister.
Obuchi said in an interview with Bloomberg last week at her Tokyo office that she felt she must carry on the work to which he had devoted his life.
“I was a real daddy’s girl,” she said. “I was the youngest child and he doted on me from when I was small. I watched my father as I grew up, I admired him and I wanted to be useful to him some day.”
Her appointment comes as Abe seeks to lure more women into the workplace to tackle Japan’s shrinking labor force, having pledged to put women in 30 percent of supervisory positions in all fields by 2020. His new Cabinet matches the previous record for the number of female ministers set by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, up from just two in Abe’s first 19-member Cabinet.
She became her father’s secretary after working at a television company, and took over his Gunma Prefecture seat on his death. She gained a master’s degree in public policy while serving as a lawmaker, became the youngest postwar Cabinet minister in 2008, and was the first to give birth in office. She was dubbed the “next prime minister-but-one” by Sapio magazine last month.
“If Japan gets a female prime minister, probably Obuchi will be the first,” said Aiji Tanaka, professor of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo. “Her mentors have been fostering her as the young heroine of the LDP.”
Obuchi has previously served as minister for gender equality and reversing the falling birthrate. More recently she served as vice finance minister.
In her new role, she will come under pressure from women, with a poll published by the Nikkei newspaper on Aug. 24 finding 65 percent of female respondents were against proceeding with reactor restarts, compared with 56 percent overall. The government is seeking to restore atomic energy to rein in the ballooning costs of importing fossil fuels, which have contributed to record trade deficits.
“We must make safety the top priority,” Obuchi told reporters Wednesday after her appointment. “There are various voices expressing unease or opposition. When it comes to restarting, it is extremely important to get the understanding of local governments and those affected.”
The other women in the Cabinet are Sanae Takaichi, who becomes the first female internal affairs minister; Haruko Arimura, who will be minister for promoting women; Eriko Yamatani, who becomes minister in charge of citizens abducted by North Korea; and Midori Matsushima, who will be justice minister. Tomomi Inada switches from administrative reform minister to policy chief of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The Diet ranks 134th out of 188 countries in terms of representation of women, well behind Saudi Arabia, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Only 10 percent of lawmakers in the LDP are female.
“To be honest, it’s been difficult to combine my work with taking care of the family,” said Obuchi, mother of two boys aged 6 and 4. “There are so many male members of Parliament, and the system is set up for men.”
Abe is adding women to his government as he prepares to host International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and other global female leaders at the first World Assembly for Women to be held in Tokyo, starting Sept. 12.
Obuchi’s father was known for his efforts to promote reconciliation in Asia. In October 1998, he signed a joint declaration with then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, which included a strongly worded apology for the “tremendous damage and suffering” Japan had inflicted on its neighbor.
By contrast, Abe has been unable to hold a summit with either China or South Korea since he took office in December 2012 as territorial disputes and disagreements over Japan’s past aggression in the region frayed ties.
Yuko Obuchi has visited both countries as part of lawmakers’ delegations in the past year and said meetings in person help to dispel misunderstandings.
“My father’s influence has made me work hard on issues to do with South Korea and China,” she said. “If you don’t meet face to face and talk, both countries start to get a bad impression of the other,” she added.
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