How Japanese Women Are Shaking Up The World Of Political Leadership On A Number Of Levels

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We know many of us have political fatigue, especially in the wake of the recent US Presidential election which left many of us shocked and angry with the results. With the news of Donald Trump becoming the next leader of the free world, and America yet to crack its 200+ year political glass ceiling comes the news that other right-wing and populist leaders around the world are also rising to power.

It is a scary and uncertain time, but reminds us of the importance of the political process and activism. It’s also one of the reasons we believe in seeing more women and minorities run for office, in order to represent as diverse a group of people. It’s not all bad news, and amid the big political roles being won by people who ride to power on the back of fear, hate and exclusionary policies, keep you eye on the smaller gains and wins happening elsewhere.

We saw a record number of progressive women of color being elected in the US Senate, Congress and across state legislatures on November 8, and that is no small feat. Elsewhere in the world we are seeing more and more women run for office and claim leadership roles, especially in countries where this kind of public role for women is not necessarily common.

In Japan, a country where women’s political participation is one of the lowest in the world at 9.5%, a few key women have been rising to levels of power on both sides of the aisle. The most notable is Renho Murata, who in September made history by being elected the first female, and first mixed-race leader of Japan’s Democratic Party, the opposition party and second-largest in Japan only to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Being mixed-race might be a non-issue to many of us, but in Japan it is a big deal to have a half-Japanese, half-Taiwanese leader.

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Renho has a huge task on her hands, as she is now the leading voice in opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition, and her strategy is not so much to just oppose what he does, but build her party’s popularity by proposing counter-measures that can be of greater benefit to the the Japanese people.

Renho has quite a varied career background, starting off as a swimsuit model then becoming a TV anchor where she gained a reputation of criticizing government waste. Her next move was being elected to the House of Councillors in 2004 where she served a 6 year term, before becoming the Administrative Reform Minister in 2010, then eventually the Deputy Leader of the Democratic Party.

The mother of two is also a great supporter of equality and women’s rights, as outlined by The Mary Sue.

“Women need to fight lots of invisible pressure in order to get a leg up in this society. I may look strong, but I’m actually weak and shy. But by breaking the glass ceiling myself, I hope women, and the men who support them, will be encouraged to work harder and make Japan a less suffocating place to be,” Renho stated in an early campaign debate.

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Greater participation from women is an issue that PM Shinzo Abe has spoken about at length, instituting his “Abenomics” to encourage more women to enter and remain in the workforce. He previously appointed 5 women to key positions in his cabinet, two of which ended up resigning over political scandals. Another conservative woman who is being politically groomed by the PM is the new defense minister Inada Tomomi.

She was previously a member of the House of Representatives since 2005 and like her party leader, is a member of Japan’s powerful nationalist lobby group, Japan Conference, which has drawn major criticism for its denial of the legitimacy to compensation claims from “comfort women”.

South China Morning Post goes further to point out parallels between Inada, and US Conservative firebrand Sarah Palin. Aside from the physical similarities, Inada is said to have ventured into more moderate waters in recent years, away from her hard right-wing stance where she said Japan should have nuclear weapons, accused the sex slaves the Japanese army used during the war of being prostitutes, and notably playing down the 1937 Nanjing massacre, an episode of mass murder and mass rape committed by Japanese troops against the residents of Nanjing.

Since then, she has come out in support of LGBTQ rights as well as immigration reform. Her appointment as Defense Minister was seen as a strategic move on behalf of the Prime Minister, who wanted to appease the fears of the majority of Japanese women who are said to be vehemently anti-war. She could very well become Shinzo Abe’s successor.

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Another woman breaking a political barrier in Japan is Yuriko Koike, who was elected at Tokyo’s first governor back in July. Although she was a member of Shinzo Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party, they did not endorse her and she ended up running as an Independent.

In a narrative that sounds eerily similar to what Hillary Clinton was caught up in during the US election, Yuriko was subjected to sexist criticism and accusations of being too “hawkish”. Yuriko is the former Defense Minister and also previously held a seat in the national legislative assembly.

She is a big supporter of engaging more female participation in the labor force so as to grow the economy. The Conversation.com reported that she is not a supporter of women’s rights for the sake of just being pro-women, but supports women’s causes through policy, such as addressing issues surrounding daycare for children.

It should be noted that most proponents of women’s rights are never advocating them just in an arbitrary way, but for important causes that can further the progress of gender equality. Many women’s rights advocates today also seek to challenge and change policy in order to help women. Nevertheless, Yuriko ran on a platform promising to promote better conditions for women, and she is said to have been the most right-leaning candidate out of all three who were running for the Governor position.

It’s important to see women stepping up to claim a seat at public leadership tables around the world and being involved in critical decision-making. Here in the US, we fare a little better in terms of percentage of women’s participation, but it is still nowhere near equal. While we are yet to see that “highest, hardest, glass ceiling” being broken by a female president, we can still celebrate the women around the country who are breaking important barriers.

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Women like former Labor Secretary Lisa Blunt Rochester who became the first African-American and first woman to represent Delaware in Congress, beating out her Republican opponent 55-41%. Oh, and it was the very first time she had run for office!

Democrat Crisanta Duran was elected Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, making her the youngest ever Latina elected to the Colorado Legislature.

In the US House Democratic leadership race held after the Presidential election which saw Nancy Pelosi retain her position, California representative Linda Sanchez made history by becoming the first Latina to ever serve in House leadership when she was elected the next vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus.

The Los Angeles Board of County Supervisors is now a female supermajority, where for the first time 4 out of the 5 positions will be held by women, and the 5th held by a black man. In other words, there are no white men in power governing the nation’s most populous county. The board members are five of the most powerful politicians in the United States, and will control a nearly $30 billion annual budget, and are responsible for representing and overseeing services for roughly 10 million people.

If you have ever considered running for office, now is the time. The percentage of women in vital leadership and political roles will only change one we become willing participants of disrupting the status quo.

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