On a recent chilly November morning, aspiring politician Maiko Takahashi was undergoing a trial by fire as she stumped for just the second time in her life, addressing an ebb and flow of commuters near Oita Station.

The temperature had plummeted that day in Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, with gusty winds mercilessly blowing Takahashi’s hair and at times drowning out her voice despite a loudspeaker.

Few stopped to listen to what she had to say.

“I definitely need to do better,” the 31-year-old Takahashi said with a wry smile after finishing the test of her mettle that morning.

“On days like today, when the wind is strong and cold, people usually don’t pay attention to what I’m saying, so I think I need to figure out ways to make my speech more succinct and get my message across more effectively,” she said.

Takahashi, a Liberal Democratic Party candidate for a looming Lower House poll, is stepping up her fight to represent Oita Prefecture’s No. 1 electoral district. It’s an arduous task that will involve her trying to defend the ruling party’s hard-won seat in a constituency long considered a bastion of the left.

But Takahashi, by all accounts, is an unorthodox choice for the LDP.

Her youth aside, she is the first woman seeking to represent the district on an LDP ticket. If elected, Takahashi would become a rare female voice in the male-dominated Kyushu region, where women’s forays into politics have traditionally progressed at a glacial pace.

Indeed, none of the current LDP lawmakers from the region, both in the lower and upper chambers of the Diet, are female.

Takahashi’s candidacy also sheds renewed light on the obstacles stacked against aspiring politicians trying to initiate a viable campaign from scratch, standing in contrast with Japan’s ubiquitous hereditary politicians.

Longtime aspiration

For someone running for a conservative ruling party that prizes traditional family values, Takahashi has a background that is perhaps unusually international.

Formerly a Bloomberg politics and business reporter, she is married to a U.S. national who is also a former colleague. In addition to briefly spending her childhood in Singapore, she also received her education at Tokyo’s International Christian University High School, where she studied in the company of returnee students.

While that might raise eyebrows among conservative voters, her motivation to become a politician couldn’t have been rooted more deeply in her national pride.

This motivation was born of her childhood dismay at a televised debate she once stumbled upon, where a Japanese pundit was shown “deriving pleasure from pointing out Japan’s flaws,” she said.

“I remember wondering why he was all smiles talking about his own country’s weakness as if it were someone else’s problem,” she said. “Why, I thought, isn’t he actually trying to do something about it?”

That experience, Takahashi said, left her contemplating how best she could contribute to Japan, ultimately shaping the foundations of her political aspirations.

She got her first taste of politics upon enrolling at the prestigious Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, a private school aimed at nurturing aspiring politicians, at age 22. Her fascination with politics deepened when — a few years later — she entered journalism to closely cover key policymakers such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Finance Minister Taro Aso.

The Liberal Democratic Party's Maiko Takahashi waves to voters while campaigning in Oita in November. | CHISATO TANAKA
The Liberal Democratic Party’s Maiko Takahashi waves to voters while campaigning in Oita in November. | CHISATO TANAKA

But it wasn’t until Yoichi Anami, an LDP politician elected from the Oita No. 1 district, announced in May his intention to retire that she made her move.

Using her somewhat tenuous connection to Oita Prefecture, where her mother was born, Takahashi threw her hat into the ring for the race to choose Anami’s successor — winning the LDP’s backing in the next election. This, however, has meant she has opened herself up to criticism for being a carpetbagger, as Takahashi, a Tokyo native, seeks to stand for election in an area where she has never lived.

In a brand-new policy booklet, Takahashi pledges to boost child-rearing support, improve the social security system and increase diversity in society, while at the same time declaring the lofty goal of creating a future Japan that “shines at the center of the world.”

“I have grown up surrounded by bleak news about Japan, such as difficulty getting jobs and an economic downturn. But even so, I still believe in Japan and want to raise its international presence,” Takahashi said.

“While opposition parties tend to focus on domestic issues such as diversity and social security — all of which I wholeheartedly agree with — it’s the LDP alone that can push forward policies with foresight about where Japan stands globally.”

A male-dominated culture

Takahashi says the idea of potentially becoming the party’s sole female lawmaker in Kyushu is a motivating force for her.

According to the internal affairs ministry, all seven prefectures in Kyushu saw the percentage of female politicians in their prefectural assemblies fall below the nationwide average of 10.0 percent in 2018 — with Saga having the lowest at 2.8 percent. The LDP currently has no female members in Oita’s prefectural or city assemblies.

“If I lead the way and become a female voice for (Kyushu), I think it would be a symbolic event that could awaken an interest among more women and possibly encourage them to pursue politics themselves,” Takahashi said.

Takahashi takes time out of her campaigning duties to feed dinner to her 1-year-old son. | CHISATO TANAKA
Takahashi takes time out of her campaigning duties to feed dinner to her 1-year-old son. | CHISATO TANAKA

She knows firsthand the difficulty of juggling work and motherhood.

With her husband working in Tokyo, her mother-in-law, who has flown from Ohio to Oita, looks after her 1-year-old son as Takahashi hits the streets to give speeches, meet supporters and put up promotional posters.

So far, Takahashi’s efforts have yielded a mixed reaction.

Oita resident Megumi Watanabe, 34, said she has a favorable impression of the young candidate.

“I personally prefer a female candidate,” the company employee said. “I’m working while raising a 9-month-old child, too, so I’m hopeful that she will understand what I’m going through.”

Meanwhile, company employee Hidenori Watanabe, 54, said her gender alone isn’t a factor for him.

“It all comes down to how much (Takahashi) has studied about actual policy,” he said.

As much as she hopes to present herself as a paragon of female empowerment, Takahashi says she is also somewhat hesitant to tout her identity as a woman too much.

“The fact that I’m young and female might make some voters think I’m weak,” she said. “For example, I was once advised that I should try to act normal even if I catch a cold, because coming down with a cold would only reinforce the image that women are weak and prone to getting sick.”

For Yuka Ogata, a Kumamoto city assemblywoman who once stirred controversy by bringing her newborn child into the assembly hall, a tendency still persists in Kyushu to prize a hierarchical decision-making process, something she called a remnant of Japan’s feudal past. An element of patriarchy, she said, also remains palpable in society.

Her assessment may be no surprise: After all, the region is the land of the Kyushu danji (men of Kyushu), a brand of Japanese men lauded for their virility but sometimes seen as too domineering toward women.

“Even young women here sometimes say they should take a back seat to men,” Ogata said.

Ogata is currently preparing to co-launch a group seeking to draw more women into Kyushu’s political community.

While hailing the prospect of Takahashi making her political debut as a step forward, the assemblywoman took a dim view of the extent to which her foray into the Diet — if it is even realized — would be able to change the status quo.

“The fact that she is a rookie and would most likely have to toe the LDP’s official line makes me question how committed she can truly be to devoting herself to women and children,” Ogata said.

Neither the LDP nor the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Ogata said, strikes her as genuinely passionate about empowering women, given the dearth of female ministers in the Cabinet and its apparent lack of progress in achieving its heavily touted goal of raising women’s share of leadership roles in Japan to 30 percent by 2020.

Abe’s so-called womenomics drive was also further tarnished by this year’s World Economic Forum report on gender equality, which showed that Japan slid to 121st out of the 153 countries, performing by far the worst among the Group of Seven major industrialized nations.

“I don’t think anything will drastically change just because she alone is elected,” Ogata said.

Bastion of the opposition

But before she can do anything, Takahashi must first survive what is sure to be a pitched election battle.

Home to former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who in 1994 became Japan’s first socialist leader in nearly 50 years, the Oita No. 1 district has long been a stronghold of the opposition, relegating the LDP to defeat after defeat. When Anami finally emerged victorious in 2012 by riding a nationwide wave of pro-LDP momentum, it was the ruling party’s first win in that district in about 30 years, a feat last accomplished by late LDP politician Isamu Murakami in 1980.

Add to that the massive election machine mobilized by labor unions in Oita’s industrial zones, and votes under the sway of the opposition easily outnumber those on the LDP side, said Katsuyoshi Morishige, Anami’s chief secretary.

This means that appealing to voters outside the LDP’s existing support base, including to swing voters, is integral to the party’s bid to hold onto Anami’s seat in the next election. Here, the LDP has pinned its hopes on Takahashi, counting on her youth and “good image,” as Morishige put it, to strike a chord with those not aligned with one particular party.

“We particularly hope she can resonate with the younger generations,” Morishige said. “Mobilizing swing voters is becoming more important than ever.”

But recruiting someone with Takahashi’s background was also a risk in that she lacks the so-called three ban said to constitute a recipe for victory in Japanese elections: jiban (support base), kanban (fame) and kaban (money).

The Liberal Democratic Party's Maiko Takahashi wraps up a stump speech in the city of Oita on Nov. 19. | CHISATO TANAKA
The Liberal Democratic Party’s Maiko Takahashi wraps up a stump speech in Oita. | CHISATO TANAKA

Because Takahashi has none of these elements, Anami’s nine-member office in Oita is currently throwing its entire weight behind her, laying the groundwork for a swift inheritance of Anami’s support base and providing manpower for her election activities.

In other constituencies, “this kind of generosity would be off-limits to a rookie candidate. But we’re talking about the Oita No. 1 district, where you wouldn’t stand a chance of beating the opposition without this level of ample backup,” Morishige said.

Takahashi admits that her candidacy is a rare case.

“There are many examples of hereditary candidates being able to run for Diet seats, but I’m personally not aware of cases like mine where a person unrelated to any politician is given such an all-out effort to inherit the support base of their predecessor,” she said.

“That a person like me who literally had no support base, no name recognition and no financial support can run for a Diet seat is almost like a miracle, I think, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Reign of political dynasties

Takahashi may be among the lucky few. But for many other aspiring politicians who, like her, entered the political arena without the privilege of the three ban, elections can be a bridge too far.

The country’s campaigning system is fundamentally “individual-based” in that candidates are typically expected to amass funds by themselves to roll out a campaign — although parties such as the Japanese Communist Party and Buddhist-backed Komeito take it upon themselves to finance each candidate’s campaigning, said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Tokyo.

This tradition of individual-based campaigning has inevitably favored the scions of prestigious political families, who tend to be blessed with the three ban. In particular, he said, these blue bloods have made the LDP a bastion of hereditary politicians.

The ruling party has traditionally been governed by one elite political scion after another, from its 15th president, Kiichi Miyazawa, all the way to the current and 25th leader, Shinzo Abe, whose father, Shintaro, once served as foreign minister. The father of Yoshiro Mori, the 19th LDP president, was not a lawmaker but instead served as an influential mayor of Neagari, Ishikawa Prefecture.

“In Japan, support groups called kōenkai are owned by politicians themselves, not by the party,” Uchiyama said. “So as a hereditary politician, you can directly inherit your parent’s support base and fundraising organization, which gives you a significant advantage in elections.”

Such a filial handover, he added, would be almost “unthinkable” in the United Kingdom, where support groups are controlled by parties, not individual politicians.

“There are many great hereditary politicians, but at the moment, the advantage of hailing from political family is just so huge that ordinary citizens may be discouraged from entering politics,” said Takahashi, who applied for the LDP’s kōbo open-recruitment system in a bid to succeed Anami as the party’s candidate.

However, a recent turn of events has prompted some to question the validity of the kōbo system, which the LDP introduced in 2004 amid criticism that the reign of political dynasties was stymieing diversity.

Scandal after scandal sparked by ex-junior LDP lawmakers granted candidacy under kōbo — including Mayuko Toyota, who verbally and physically abused her secretary, and Kensuke Miyazaki, whose extramarital affairs shocked the public — have stoked concerns that the system often fails to properly vet applicants.

Even so, Takahashi says she still believes in kōbo.

“Without kōbo, only a limited cohort of people would have a shot at entering politics. … Politics, I think, is something that should be made open to as many people as possible,” she said.

To prevent a recurrence of lapses by kōbo-chosen lawmakers, Takahashi said candidates should be given more first-hand chances to interact with lawmakers beforehand to learn how the real-life world of politics operates.

“It is often said that rookie lawmakers with no authentic understanding of politics suddenly have this illusion that they are some big shot the moment they step into the Diet and see how luxurious the whole building is,” she said.

As a Matsushita Institute graduate and onetime journalist who covered the Diet, Takahashi believes she has a good idea of the difficult journey ahead.

“Had they known what being a politician is really like — which is at first all about apprenticeship — they wouldn’t be so arrogant just because they set foot on the red carpet inside the Diet.”

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