Of all the myths surrounding Shinzo Abe’s revival scheme, my personal favorite is that he’s a fearless champion of Japanese women.

Figments of investors’ imagination surround Abenomics, including the canard about the prime minister unleashing a shareholder activism renaissance (Toshiba, Takata, Mitsubishi, anyone?). Another holds he’s bringing the powerful farm lobby to heel (now about those 778 percent rice tariffs Abe wouldn’t touch with a 3-meter arrow). Or that Abe is a fiscal conservative as Japan’s debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio rises apace.

The real whopper is that women are suddenly thriving in a system that’s long preferred them to serve tea and act cute. Abe artfully takes credit for a rise in female labor participation that predated the December 2012 start date of his premiership, a trend borne out of demographic necessity, not enlightened leadership. And he rarely misses a chance to say he favors “a society in which all women shine.”

Why, then, is Abe so dim on Yuriko Koike, the brightest female star in his orbit? The former defense minister is smart, charismatic, fluent in English and Arabic and boasts solid conservative credentials that should make her a fixture in Abe’s inner circle.

Oddly, Abe isn’t tapping her for a Cabinet post. Odder still given his supposed zeal for gender equality, Abe won’t even back Koike’s bid to become Tokyo’s first female governor in a July 31 election. Instead, he’s favoring a typical 60-something male from central Tokyo casting.

Talk about a missed opportunity for Abe to show his “womenomics” is more than a photo op. As Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs predicts, GDP would increase by 15 percentage points simply by tapping Japan’s “most underutilized resource.”

Better employing Japan’s other half is becoming more and more of a no-brainer as the population shrinks. And granted, Abe talks a great deal about promoting and hiring women.

Early on, he even resurrected former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s 2003 goal of women in 30 percent of leadership positions. But Abe’s policies have fallen spectacularly short of his rhetoric. He’s since scaled that goal back to 7 percent. Other than asking companies to provide diversity data, building some day care centers and setting loads of targets, Abe has punted on obvious policies like quotas or incentivizing companies to make more women “regular” workers with higher pay and benefits.

In top-down Japan, lip service won’t ensure that a single Nikkei 225 company has a female Japanese chief executive anytime soon. That requires bold moves by Abe’s team and the business lobbies over which it has great sway.

Abe also needs to lead by example, a chance he’s now squandering. Abe’s hiring patterns smack of tokenism — naming a few women to lesser Cabinet posts that garner little attention.

Why not replace hapless Finance Minister Taro Aso, uninspiring economy minister Nobuteru Ishihara or milquetoast Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida with a woman? In 2001, Koizumi named Japan’s first female foreign minister. Time for another? Not only might women in top posts “shine,” but they would give Abe some feminist street cred. Yet Koike can’t even get Abe’s endorsement for governor.

Blame Tokyo’s rabidly factional politics, insiders say. Koike doesn’t have a strong power base within the Liberal Democratic Party (she’s a woman, after all). Back in 2008, when she mulled a prime ministerial run, critics dismissed her as “Madame Kaiten Sushi,” a reference to a fast-food variety served on conveyer belts. The idea being that Koike goes around and around until one political sponsor or another picks her.

An added problem: she’s no friend of Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister, head of 2020 Tokyo Olympic planning and source of many a sexist diatribe over the years.

But here is Abe, a leader who wants to be remembered as Japan’s gender equalizer. And the most globally prominent woman — a Davos mainstay — in his orbit steps forward to run the nation’s biggest city. Tokyo is, by some measures, the world’s largest metropolis, home to the second-highest number of Fortune 500 companies and generates annual output greater than Italy’s. Does Abe support trailblazer Koike? Nope. Instead, he put forward Hiroya Masuda, 64, leaving many to Google the name. Could it be that Mr. Womenomics fears being outshone by a strong woman?

Look, I don’t exactly love Koike, also 64. She’s a hawk and nationalist who’s sometimes called “Japan’s Condi Rice.” Koike has deep ties to the ultraconservative Japan Conference, or Nippon Kaigi, which advocates whitewashing history textbooks, downplaying the Nanking Massacre and Tokyo’s role in wartime sexual slavery and promoting patriotic education. Jake Adelstein of the Daily Beast calls it a “religious cult secretly running Japan.” Abe, it’s worth noting, belongs to a Diet members group that supports the organization.

At the same time, I like Koike’s pledge to make municipal decision-making transparent, promote eco-friendly development and curb the spiraling costs of the Tokyo Olympics.

Koike agrees with Abe on core principles more often than not, which would make her an ideal fit for Tokyo. The historical significance of her victory would change the narrative from Yoichi Masuzoe’s downfall as governor last month over misusing public funds. Masuzoe, also a reliable fountain of sexist jabs (all female lawmakers are “middle-aged hags”), replaced another Tokyo leader who quit over a funds-related scandal.

Headlines heralding the first female governor might be just the antidote to a Tokyo boys club that serves itself, not the people. The same is true of Abe’s LDP, which has long been party first, people second. Not surprisingly, the party is aghast that Koike isn’t bowing to its whims. “It’s my commitment,” Koike says, “to serve the interests of the people of Tokyo, not a specific organization.” Ouch!

As Abe pushes his man (of course!) on Tokyoites, voters don’t seem to be biting. Polls show Koike running ahead of Abe’s preferred candidate. The irony is that Tokyo may soon enjoy a gender milestone that self-described feminist Abe wants to avoid. A champion of women, you say?

Based in Tokyo, William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.