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The Tokyo gubernatorial election, held July 31 amid significant public attention, ended in a landslide victory for Yuriko Koike, making her the first female governor of Japan’s capital. The result clearly demonstrated a desire for someone clean and fresh to lead the capital of 13.6 million people with an annual budget of ¥13 trillion, bigger than those of medium-size countries. Koike’s two immediate predecessors had resigned in disgrace over money-related scandals.

Reflecting the strong public interest in the election, voter turnout was 59.7 percent, the second-highest among all gubernatorial elections held in the Heisei Era (since 1989).

The result was also a crushing defeat for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which refused to endorse Koike, a member of the LDP since 2002, and instead backed Hiroya Masuda, a former internal affairs minister and governor of Iwate Prefecture. Koike had no choice but to run as an independent, and with the 2.9 million votes she received handsomely defeated the LDP’s candidate as well as another leading contender Shuntaro Torigoe, who was backed by a coalition of opposition parties.

The Japanese media reported that LDP’s refusal to endorse Koike came, ostensibly at least, after she announced her candidacy without consulting the leaders of the party’s Tokyo branch. Yet it also appeared that the chauvinism prevalent in Japan’s male-dominated politics was a reason behind the LDP’s refusal. Former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, the father of the local LDP federation chairman, was quoted as saying during the campaign that they could not leave Tokyo in the hands of “a woman with too much makeup.”

Japan lags behind its neighbors and other advanced democracies in pushing gender mainstreaming, a globally accepted strategy for promoting gender equality. According to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), female lawmakers account for only 9.5 percent of Japan’s 475-strong Lower House and 15.7 percent of the 242-member Upper House. This is far below the global average of 22.7 percent and leaves Japan, along with Botswana, at 155th among the 193 member countries of the United Nations. East Timor and Nepal lead among Asian countries with 38.5 percent and 29.6 percent, respectively, while many European countries have 25 percent or more of their parliamentary seats held by women.

A series of U.N. documents, including the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, the 2005 World Summit Declaration and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal adopted at the 70th commemorative General Assembly session in 2015, all feature the importance of gender mainstreaming, which, among others things, call for “women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in politics, economic and public life.” World leaders, including those of Japan, have pledged to actively promote gender mainstreaming with the goal of achieving gender equality in all spheres. Clearly much needs to be done in Japan.

At her inaugural news conference as governor, Koike, a veteran lawmaker who has served in such key posts as environment minister, defense minister and chairman of the LDP’s General Council, pledged to carry out a sweeping change in the administration of the metropolitan government. High on her agenda are improvement of transparency in the way in which official business is conducted in Tokyo, elimination of the shortage of child care facilities that is preventing many women from pursuing their careers, restoration of Tokyo’s position as a global financial center and more efficient preparations for the 2020 Olympics.

None of these issues are easy, to put it mildly, as she has to deal with the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, where the LDP, together with its coalition partner Komeito, controls the majority. Koike’s leadership and negotiating skills will be tested when the assembly begins its fall session in September.

At the same time, however, one should not forget that the problems facing Koike are indeed the challenges facing Japan itself and what she does will inevitably impact the future of the nation. Whether Japan can emerge as a mature democracy where both men and women are treated equally and given equal opportunities for success depends a lot on Koike’s performance as governor.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said that one of his administration’s objectives is to create a society where all women can truly shine. It’s high time for his administration to promote in earnest gender mainstreaming, which in turn will also help create an environment that allows the new Tokyo governor to do her job without interference from the local LDP leadership.

A former U.N. official, Hitoki Den is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many other articles on U.N. and Asian issues.

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