Tokyo’s First Female Governor and Japan’s Glass Ceiling

By Kumiko Nemoto

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Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese defense minister, became the first woman elected governor of Tokyo. The recent New York Times article “Breaking Japan’s Glass Ceiling, but Leaving Some Feminists Unconvinced” reported that voting for her, regardless of one’s political views, would be a revolutionary act because there are few women at the top in Japan. However, the article also noted that some Japanese feminists have expressed disagreement with Koike because of her conservatism.

In the election, some Japanese feminists opposed Koike for her conservatism and for being a right-wing militarist, and instead explicitly supported the male candidate, Shintaro Torigoe, who lacked an effective campaign and ironically struggled with an allegation of sexual assault by a female college student. Some also believe that Koike lacks enthusiasm about improving women’s social status. A subset of feminists in Japan also tend to be more concerned about issues confronting working-class women than those facing women in high positions.

Koike is known to be a core member of, or has had deep ties to, the nationalistic right-wing cult Nippon Kaigi (or Japan Conference), which has 38,000 members and is said to have, among its aims, the restoration of the status of the emperor; keeping women in the home; reducing Western notions of rights and equality; beefing up the military; removing the pacifist section from the Constitution; rewriting textbooks to follow a right-wing agenda; and rejecting Japan’s war crimes and sexual slavery comfort women. However, little is known about the group’s actual activities and degree of political influence.

If many Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians, including 80 percent of the current cabinet, are also members of the same group, how is Koike’s conservatism more alarming than that of others? Koike has said that she has distanced herself from the group, while agreeing with its basic ideas.

Koike might have been perceived by some female voters as a self-serving opportunist or performer rather than as a leader for their fellow women. She was a former defense minister who started her career as a TV anchorwoman. Koike has been seen by many as willing to change her party affiliation to take advantage of better opportunities, and she has had a reputation for being ambitious and having great diplomatic skills. The former prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, once called her “jiji goroshi,” or old-men killer, for her ability to tame powerful older men.

I would argue that Koike won the election because of her evocative performance of frustrated and subordinate femininity, which reflected the reality of Japan’s gender inequality. Tokyo voters were weary of the daily news about the former governor’s corruption and his denial of any misuse of tax money. After his resignation, LDP members, including the prime minister, were entirely preoccupied with their insider-based search for a nominee for governor with little interest in investigating the corruption or instituting reforms to make better use of taxpayers’ money. Koike turned the public negativity toward the LDP to her advantage, presenting herself as the opposite of the former governor, who had abused the public trust by spending taxpayer funds on everything from luxurious family vacations to his son’s haircuts. Koike promised to be trustworthy and honest, insisting that she would use tax revenues wisely and frugally. She emphasized her determination to make the 2020 Olympics successful and to reduce waiting lists for daycare in Tokyo. Many voters found her to be a dedicated and empathetic candidate. Her campaign evoked the postwar Japanese archetype of the housewife who manages the home wisely; this performance as a devoted “wife” was further intensified when LDP members rejected the party endorsement of Koike, and when both the prime minister, Abe, and the LDP secretary general explicitly ignored her in public (a moment that was caught by the media). They even threatened to remove Koike from the party for disobeying the senior men. This dismissive attitude toward Koike made the LDP look bad, while evoking the image of the alienated and lone Japanese woman (either a wife or a mother) who has been constrained by, and struggled with, the nation’s male-dominated institutions.

While Koike may have been good at impression management during critical moments in her own political career, some of her gendered self-presentation might be the result of her own struggles in a highly male-dominated workplace. Japan is known to be governed by the Iron Triangle, which is defined as the unique institutional ties among the LDP, bureaucrats, and large businesses. The Japanese workplace is centered on such values as conformity, age-based hierarchy, and consensus-based decision making, and also on the exclusion of women from the boy’s club. My recent book, Too Few Women at the Top: The Persistence of Inequality in Japan, argues that the absence of women leaders in Japan relates to the institutional barriers resulting from Japanese business management and the nation’s employment structure, which is characterized by little labor mobility in which one’s career ascension is still shaped more by one’s age and one’s loyalty to their employer than one’s skills. Women’s competence in many workplaces is often questioned and delegitimized because there are few females who have been able to break the glass ceiling.

Recently, Koike, now governor of Tokyo, expressed enthusiasm about pushing the idea of increasing the number of women leaders in Tokyo to boost the economy. Because of her own experiences as a female leader, Koike just might be effective in accelerating Japan’s slow move toward gender equality which might ultimately outweigh any harm caused by her conservatism.

Kumiko Nemoto is a professor in the Department of Global Affairs at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. She conducts research on gender, race, work, labor, organizations, and Japan. Her new book Few Women at the Top: The Persistence of Inequality in Japan was published by ILR/Cornell University Press in August 2016.

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