In a Sept. 5 Twitter post, university instructor Akiko Orita pointed out that four of the five women appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to his new Cabinet do not use their legal names. Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi, state minister in charge of abduction issues Eriko Yamatani, state minister in charge of female empowerment Haruko Arimura and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima all go by the names they were born with rather than their husbands’.
According to the Civil Code, married couples must use the same name, and while a man can take his wife’s name, that happens only 2 percent of the time, and usually because the wife’s family doesn’t have a male heir to carry on the name. The husband of the fifth new female Cabinet member, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi, took her surname because she belongs to a political dynasty and is, thus, expected to take over the family business.
In its interview with Matsushima, Tokyo Shimbun asked if she would do anything in her capacity as law minister to allow married couples to have separate names, a common situation in other developed countries but one the Liberal Democratic Party opposes because it thinks it undermines family unity. Without mentioning her own situation, she said the matter “is related to the core being of a family,” and thus “it is difficult to make a decision right away.” Actually, politicians have been discussing separate names since the early 1990s and legislation was once drafted to change the Civil Code and make it legal, but nothing was done. “Right away” in this case seems to mean “forever.”
Is Matsushima a hypocrite? Maybe, but she is adhering to the party line, which is more important. When Abe announced the Cabinet on Sept. 3 at a news conference, he said that all the new members possessed “abilities adequate” to their respective posts, and that he wants the female ministers to create a “new wind” of change that will force society to look at the world from a woman’s perspective. But in media interviews these women have offered no original opinions or policy proposals that differ in any way from Abe’s stated positions, unless you count Arimura’s statement that she would like to ban abortion, which some will interpret as not looking at society from a woman’s perspective.
This particular Cabinet reshuffle is no more cynically motivated than any other in the LDP’s history. Ministers are almost never chosen for their expertise in a given field but rather because of their political affiliations and time in office. All are eventually beholden to the bureaucrats who make those ministries their life’s work, regardless of whether or not that work aligns with the aims of the ruling party. However, choosing these particular women does seem cynical.
As the weekly Aera points out, there are about 60 lawmakers in the LDP who are “waiting their turn” for ministry positions and who were disappointed they didn’t get one this time. Since Abe wanted to keep certain people in the Cabinet for strategic reasons — for instance, Shigeru Ishiba is considered a threat to Abe’s premiership so he had to be kept close — there was a limited number of openings, and he needed to match if not surpass the previous record for female ministers in order to lend credibility to his pledge to make Japanese women “shine.”
So the media was expecting a female posse, just not necessarily this posse. The biggest surprise was the absence of Seiko Noda, one of the most experienced female lawmakers in the LDP, though Noda and Abe have reportedly been on cool terms ever since she opposed the LDP’s bill to privatize the post office when Abe was chief Cabinet secretary.
In an interview with Aera, Noda toed the party line and did not betray disappointment with being passed over. She praised the choices as “courageous” and said she thought they showed a “good mixture of viewpoints.” But her most revealing comment had to do with her pal Obuchi, the youngest of the female ministers. Saying that Obuchi was nervous about her new job, Noda asked the press “to admire her, because she knows her limitations.”
Aera paraphrases an unnamed trade ministry official as saying that Obuchi, who reportedly refused a Cabinet post when Abe became prime minister in 2012, was selected because having a young, relatively inexperienced woman — and not just a woman, but a mother — as trade minister makes it more difficult for people to criticize the ministry when it approves the resumption of nuclear power plants.
Matsushima was even more of a surprise, having been elected only four times. A former Asahi Shimbun reporter who covered Yoshiro Mori when he was prime minister, she went into politics at Mori’s encouragement. The buzz is that Abe wanted former Olympic speed skater Seiko Hashimoto to take the justice portfolio but Hashimoto was recently involved in a tabloid scandal and so Matsushima was “pushed up.”
The remaining three women, as well as new LDP policy chief Tomomi Inada, have been criticized for their rightist leanings, and there seems to be concern within the party that they could, as one critic told Aera, “step on a mine” by saying something stupid about China or South Korea. The embarrassing photos of Inada and Takaichi with that Japanese Nazi are already old news and mean little to the domestic press.
More potentially problematic in light of their PR value to the Abe administration is their pronouncements on nominally female issues. Takaichi is against quotas for women in management and politics, while Yamatani opposes sex education in schools. Arimura pegs her “patriotism” to “everyday values,” which include wives “supporting” breadwinner husbands.
None of this is surprising given Abe’s record, but it’s discouraging when the executive director of U.N. Women praises the selections and surveys show female support rates for the administration rose after the new Cabinet announcement. You’d think everybody would be wise to the game by now.