Washington – Germany has always been an inspiration to Japan since the country opened its borders to foreign powers in 1868. Its impact ranges from statecraft to medicine on to philosophy.
And since the end of World War II, Tokyo has felt particular affinity to Germany’s endeavors to recover from defeat. The Japanese have continued to be inspired by its success to reemerge as Europe’s strongest economy.
In the current time period, it may well be Angela Merkel and her brand of leadership that inspires Japan the most.
Certainly, for Japanese female legislators, Merkel is a unique role model that could offer hints of the path they might forge for themselves in the male-dominated world of politics.
According to the World Economic Forum, Japan ranks in at 121st place in the global gender gap index, compared to Germany in 10th place.
When it comes to political representation, Japan does even worse as it ranks at 165th place in terms of female representation in elected offices. Germany, meanwhile, comes in at 47th place.
The fact that Germany still struggles with gender equity despite having a female leader for 15 years, with the number of women in the Bundestag actually falling after the 2017 elections, makes it all the easier for Japanese politicians to empathize with the conundrum in addressing gender equality.
The chancellor herself has made clear that she is not a feminist insofar as she has not actively advocated for women’s rights while in office. In that regard, she is not unlike British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Merkel has stated that she is a woman that has sought to forge her own way to power without pressing for any sisterhood solidarity. She has also refrained from focusing on issues that are specific to women.
It is only in recent years, after she made clear that she would not seek reelection and is thus no longer as vulnerable to public opinion, that Merkel has opened up slightly more to address issues related to female empowerment.
That approach makes Merkel a role model for Japanese politicians. Yuriko Koike, currently the governor of Tokyo with an eye on the highest public office, can certainly take a leaf or two from Merkel’s playbook in moving up the political ladder.
Having started her career as a journalist fluent in English (as well as Arabic, due to her having graduated from Cairo University, in the earlier years of her political career), Koike attracted a great deal of attention for her looks as much as for her abilities from the get-go.
Since then, the now 67-year-old Koike has evolved to become a formidable political force in Japan. She has been widely viewed to have handled the pandemic far better than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
In fact, she has been repeatedly compared to New York’s firebrand Gov. Andrew Cuomo, while Abe is seen as more akin to U.S. President Donald Trump since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, Koike continues to be bombarded with comments about her looks. Comments range from her makeup to her choice of outfit to the different facial masks she wears in the Age of Corona, as much as about her policies.
Never mind too that in 2007, before resigning amid internal feuding, Koike served briefly as Japan’s first female defense minister. She later spent three years as environment minister.
She counts former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa as her political mentors.
In the United Kingdom’s 20th century political history, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood out for shifting his party allegiances in line with his personal career advancement needs.
However, compared to Koike, Churchill was quite restrained. She has switched party allegiance six times during her political career. As a result, she is seen as either the ultimate pragmatist or opportunist.
Koike’s rise and her ambitions to lead without any family support also stand out in a country where 30 percent of all elected members of the Diet are second-generation members, and where politics is seen as a family business.
That is particularly true for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with over 40 percent of members being offspring of parliamentarians.
Abe himself is a political “blue-blood.” His own father was a foreign minister and his grandfather a former prime minister.
Female members of the Diet too are often from prominent political families, Yuko Obuchi, who is the daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, briefly served as trade minister in 2014 before being forced to resign as a result of a bribery scandal.
Despite their own political standing and experience, both Koike and Obuchi have faced far greater scrutiny about their physical appearance and abilities than their male counterparts, simply because of gender bias.
The fact remains that no major female politician in any part of the world has been spared the scrutiny of a steady stream of comments on outer appearance and their “femininity.”
Germany is no exception. And yet, Merkel has been able to rise above it.
For Japan’s ambitious female politicians, Merkel’s approach to climbing up the political ladder by not focusing on gender issues is instructive, not least because it is the most pragmatic way to reach the top.
Of course, the goal has to be that prejudices prevailing inside a given political system should change. But the surefire way to get that accomplished is to have role models as a precedent — and strive for system change along the way later.
Especially in that regard, Merkel is a big inspiration not just to women in Japan.
Shihoko Goto is deputy director for geoeconomics and senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program. www.theglobalist.com
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