Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Troika of female politicians under scrutiny

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

The media has been abuzz about the emergence of three prominent Japanese female politicians: Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada and Renho, the head of the Democratic Party. However, the significance of this development is limited. Overall, politics in Japan remains a man’s world — less than 15 percent of Diet members are women.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long been grandstanding on “womenomics,” but he has not delivered. His scolding of the Self-Defense Forces for having a sexist culture is a recent example of his empty posturing. He attracts headlines, but what are his plans for doing something concrete to reform institutionalized sexism that makes the workplace inhospitable to women? Only 3 of his 20 Cabinet members are women, a ratio that is on a par with women’s overall representation in the Diet. He is perpetuating women’s marginalization in the political world rather than setting an inspiring example.

Abe’s defenders like to point out that there has been a surge in women’s employment during his tenure, but gloss over the fact that most of this increase has been in nonregular jobs with lower salaries, fewer benefits and little job security. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to be said for using the bully pulpit as a way to goad others to do more to remove obstacles to women’s empowerment. Surely it would be helpful if Abe weighed in against sexism wherever it raises its ugly head, but he refrains from taking on powerful transgressors in the political and business world. Recall the female Tokyo assembly member who was subject to sexist heckling by Liberal Democratic Party assemblymen back in 2014.

In a subsequent poll, more than 50 percent of assemblywomen nationwide reported being sexually harassed while on the job. Abe missed a chance to condemn such puerile actions by party colleagues and demand their resignation. He should ask the LDP to develop a code of conduct that would enable the party to expel members guilty of sexual harassment. That might empty the benches, but not doing so suggests he is part of the problem.

Following Emperor Akihito’s recent indication that he wishes to abdicate, Team Abe has moved to stifle calls for allowing female succession, despite public support for such a reform. The LDP doesn’t want to open the Pandora’s box of revising the Imperial Household Law precisely because it wants to dodge calls for female succession. It is hoping to tidy away the issue by passing a law that only applies to Emperor Akihito’s case and thus avoid pressures for other measures that would help modernize the monarchy. Surely this is one of the current Emperor’s important legacies, as he has redefined and expanded the role of Emperor in ways that brought the institution closer to the people and he has personally worked hard to serve them.

At home, he has been Japan’s chief consoler for those affected by natural disasters, while he has also been the nation’s preeminent emissary for reconciliation by trying to heal the wounds of the wartime past. It is an inspiring legacy that his eldest son Naruhito seems inclined to honor, but it doesn’t look like the Crown Prince’s daughter will have a chance to carry on this fine tradition.

Unlike the conservative old guard, the public is open to the possibility of an empress, as polls affirmed when this was discussed during Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s tenure (2001-06). Moreover, a September 2016 Jiji poll showed that 71.9 percent of respondents favor having the government panel charged with considering abdication options discuss the possibility of allowing a woman or heir from the maternal Imperial bloodline to become empress or emperor. Given the current scarcity of heirs in the Imperial family, there is a good case for doing so.

So what about the glass ceiling in politics? Renho is not the first woman to head a party, but she is the first in the Democratic Party (DP). Reviving her party’s fortunes looks like mission impossible because the DP suffers an enduring credibility problem due to its failure to deliver on promises made when it came to power in 2009, and for its inability to overcome the political and bureaucratic impasse in 2011 that hampered efforts to cope with the consequences of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Stonewalling by the LDP in the Diet and foot-dragging by the bureaucracy helped sabotage recovery efforts, but blame has stuck to the DP.

Renho alienated the bureaucracy at that time in televised hearings in which she and colleagues took turns embarrassing senior officials over white-elephant projects, wasteful spending and incompetence. This public shaming was great public theater but earned the bureaucrats’ ire and helps explain why they welcomed the LDP’s return to power.

She also has to overcome her recent mishandling of questions regarding her Taiwanese nationality. The old law discriminated against children whose mother was Japanese, as the father’s nationality prevailed even for those born in Japan. In 1985 that law was amended so that citizenship could be claimed on the basis of a mother’s nationality. Thus Renho is a victim of discrimination because the law placed a burden on her that should never have been there in the first place.

Given her prominence, she should have anticipated being scrutinized and made sure she had everything squared away, but now this poor judgment — she did nothing illegal — is being blown out of proportion.

In order to preempt a similar witch-hunt against Defense Minister Inada, an independent panel should look into speculative allegations of insider trading and conflicts of interest that implicate her. The media recently reported on her husband’s portfolio of stocks in defense-related firms, and the timing of such purchases not long before the government lifted the ban on arms exports that boosted share values. This should be far more newsworthy than extensive media scrutiny of her wardrobe on a recent trip to Japan’s military base in Djibouti.

Finally, kudos to Koike for exposing the chicanery in the Tsukiji relocation, including excessively high construction costs and flawed decontamination efforts, but she is taking on a powerful and vengeful old-boy network that is accustomed to flimflamming taxpayers with impunity.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.