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Two women have entered the race for the leadership of Japan’s ruling party for the first time in its 66-year history, putting in the spotlight both the strides taken and the hurdles that still face female politicians in a country that lags far behind other nations on gender equality.

But despite the unprecedented female presence — making up half the four-person field — some experts say gender inequality will likely remain unaddressed as the Liberal Democratic Party is still heavily influenced by conservative male heavyweights.

Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, 60, and Seiko Noda, 61, executive acting secretary-general of the LDP, are vying to become Japan’s first female prime minister.

The two other candidates running in the Sept. 29 election to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are vaccination minister Taro Kono, 58, and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, 64. The winner of the race will become prime minister as the LDP-led coalition controls both chambers of the Diet.

In the long history of the LDP, Yuriko Koike, now the governor of Tokyo, became the first female lawmaker to run for party leader in 2008 but she lost to Taro Aso, now deputy prime minister and finance minister, in a landslide.

This time, the party has multiple female candidates for the first time, but Koike struck a sarcastic note when commenting earlier this month on the first female entry into the LDP leadership race in 13 years. “I wonder why Japan, without the presence of the Taliban, has been lagging far behind other countries on female empowerment,” she said, referring to the Islamic militant group that has suppressed women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Under the party rules, a lawmaker needs to gather at least 20 nominations from LDP Diet members to stand in the presidential race, a rule seen as putting women at a disadvantage as it puts importance on winning support from the party’s faction bosses and other heavyweights, who are all men. Neither Takaichi nor Noda belongs to a faction.

Former internal affairs and communications minister Sanae Takaichi speaks during a debate ahead of the Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on Saturday. | AP / VIA BLOOMBERG
Former internal affairs and communications minister Sanae Takaichi speaks during a debate ahead of the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on Saturday. | AP / VIA BLOOMBERG

Takaichi, known to be a staunch conservative, successfully garnered backing from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who, although not a faction boss, has significant influence within the party.

“Even if she wins, it’s almost like decorating the same old party with just the mask of a woman,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a political science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

“Some people may simply welcome the fact that women have finally made it into the LDP leadership race, but it does not mean the party will prioritize a policy agenda on gender equality,” she added.

At a news conference on Sept. 8 to announce her bid in the race, Takaichi said she was asked when she began to pursue her political career around 30 years ago what “a young woman like you can do” at the Diet.

Takaichi then stressed the party has since changed, with veteran male politicians seeking more female representation, and that she expects there will be even more women in positions of power in the future.

As of Sept. 1, women accounted for just 9.9% of lawmakers in Japan’s House of Representatives, and 23.0% in the House of Councillors, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.

The figures came as Japan was listed in the bottom 10 in terms of political empowerment in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for 2021.

Part of the LDP’s conservative wing, Takaichi has long argued in favor of keeping a legal requirement in Japan that married couples should share the same surname, even though she used her maiden name rather than her legal name as a politician when she was married to a fellow lawmaker between 2004 and 2017.

The practice has been widely criticized by women’s rights advocates as violating the constitutional right to gender equality, with 96% of Japanese couples who registered their marriage in the country in 2019 choosing the husband’s surname.

Noda, on the other hand, has been vocal in promoting female empowerment and inclusion of people with disabilities. The former communications minister gave birth to a boy at the age of 50 in 2011 through in vitro fertilization using a donated egg in the United States, and her son has disabilities.

Noda had repeatedly tried to run in the LDP leadership election in the past but failed to garner 20 nominations.

“I want to build a country based on conservative politics that would enable women, children, the elderly and the disabled, who until now have not been able to play a leading role, to live well in society,” Noda told reporters in launching her campaign.

Noda said she would pick women for half of her Cabinet posts if she is elected prime minister. She also stressed the importance of a more inclusive society for minorities.

Seiko Noda, a candidate in the Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election, speaks during a debate at party headquarters in Tokyo on Monday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Seiko Noda, a candidate in the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election, speaks during a debate at party headquarters in Tokyo on Monday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Last year, former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, another veteran female lawmaker who sought to run in the LDP presidential race following Abe’s abrupt resignation due to health issues, said factional politics are “hurdles” for women that prevent them from even standing in the presidential election.

Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University, said, “It seems male lawmakers who have power over the party are using female lawmakers in their power game.”

“The party gives a better impression by endorsing as a candidate Ms. Noda, who has been working toward closing the gender gap, but that does not guarantee the male-dominated party led by powerful conservative lawmakers will reflect such views into its policy,” Miura said.

Some major opposition parties in Japan have had female leaders in the past. The late Takako Doi became head of the then Japan Socialist Party in 1986, while Renho was chosen as leader of the then Democratic Party in 2016.

Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima is the only current female leader on the national level, although her party holds just two seats at the Diet.

The LDP will likely face a general election in November under a new leader after the Lower House members’ terms expire on Oct. 21.

Waseda University’s Nakabayashi said it is important to closely watch whether the LDP will end up using female lawmakers as “a tool” or actually work out a strategy to tackle gender inequality.

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