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Two women are in contention to become prime minister of Japan for the first time in its history — a potential turning point for a country that ranks below Saudi Arabia in terms of female political representation.

Victory for either Seiko Noda and Sanae Takaichi, both former internal affairs ministers in their 60s, in a Sept. 29 vote for leader of the ruling party would mean Japan sees its first female prime minister. Even having women make up half the ballot of four candidates is a step forward for diversity in the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, whose president is virtually assured of becoming prime minister due to its dominance in parliament.

“It probably won’t work out this time,” said Lully Miura, a political scientist at the Yamaneko Research Institute, of the chances of either female candidate making it to the top job. “But this makes it seem absolutely a matter of course that women should run, and people will get used to that.”

Noda announced Thursday she plans to run in the vote to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as LDP leader, joining Takaichi, as well as two men — vaccine czar Taro Kono and Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister.

“If I become Japan’s first female prime minister, I want to bring about a paradigm shift,” Noda said in a policy speech Friday. “I will aim to have half my cabinet made up of women.”

Until this election, only one woman had formally run for the LDP’s presidency in its nearly 66-year history — current Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. Asked about the race earlier this week, Koike said she was puzzled by the continuing dearth of women in politics.

“Japan doesn’t have the Taliban,” she told reporters. “Why is women’s participation falling so far behind? It’s a mystery to me. There’s been no female candidate for 13 years.” She added that she wanted to pay close attention to the candidates’ policies on women.

While women struggle to reach leadership positions in many sectors in Japan, the problem is particularly acute in politics. Just 10% of members of Japan’s powerful Lower House are female, placing the country 166th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global ranking of female representation, while Saudi Arabia comes in at 151 with almost 20%. Attempts to introduce enforceable quotas for women have so far failed and there are only two women in the 20-strong Cabinet.

Even though both candidates say they were inspired by former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, their own politics fall at opposite ends of the LDP’s spectrum.

Seiko Noda | REUTERS
Seiko Noda | REUTERS

Noda has devoted much of her career to issues affecting women, children and families — she also blogs about life with her disabled son. She set up a training school in her constituency for female would-be politicians, saying women in leadership are needed to stem the falling birthrate.

Takaichi, who is backed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is a regular visitor to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism. She is against married couples being allowed to keep separate surnames, or the idea that a woman should be allowed to take the imperial throne and pass it on to her children — all touchstone issues for Japanese conservatives.

“To protect Japan, as my top priority I will invest to minimize risks from natural disasters, infectious diseases, illness, food security, terrorism and crime and cyberattacks,” she said in her policy speech, in which she also referred to the need to vet foreign researchers.

Their appearance with the two male candidates marked a contrast to the start of the last party election about a year ago when the candidates were all men and the few women seen on stage were serving water to the older male politicians who flanked the contenders.

Takaichi, who is polling ahead of Noda, may have a chance of making it as prime minister in a few years, according to Miura.

“If you’re a woman in the LDP, I think you have to be conservative-leaning,” she said. “There are no women faction leaders, and if you don’t have your own group, you have to provide another reason for people to pick you. The LDP is a conservative party.”

Public opinion polls show Kono, who has also served as foreign minister and defense minister, is the most popular option. While the public doesn’t get a say in the leadership vote, broad-based approval will be key, as the new prime minister must face a general election just weeks after being appointed.

If no candidate gets a majority of votes in the first round of the election, a runoff will be held between the top two candidates, in which only lawmakers may vote. A survey of LDP lawmakers published by the Yomiuri newspaper on Friday found Kishida and Kono even on 20% support, with Takaichi following on 15% and Noda at about 10%. About 40% said they were undecided, or didn’t respond, the paper said.

Upper House LDP lawmaker Rui Matsukawa said on her blog that she would support Takaichi because of her policies on national security, adding: “As a female lawmaker it’s exciting to think we could have a female prime minister.”

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