Japan's first female P.M.?

Former TV anchor Yuriko Koike is the first woman ever to run for head of state in Japan.

Published September 9, 2008 3:30PM (EDT)

When 56-year-old Yuriko Koike announced her intention to run for the newly vacated position of Japanese prime minister Monday, making her the first woman to attempt to become the leader of that country, the news lacked a little of the invigorating snap it may have had, say, a month ago. In the post-Palin era, one can almost -- almost! -- be forgiven for feeling a touch of "first woman ever" fatigue. We can't help sizing up the latest lady to burst onto the international political stage with a sidelong, skeptical eye.

In Koike's case, the scrutiny seems to be well rewarded. Like our wannabe V.P., Koike had an early stint as a television anchor. But instead of calling hockey shots, Koike, who covered current affairs and then business, followed battles in the Persian Gulf and on the trading floor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. In her 16 years in politics, Koike served as minister of the environment under Junichiro Koizumi, and last year, she earned became Japan's first female minister of defense. In addition to Japanese, she speaks fluent English and Arabic. As part of her bid for prime minister, Koike has pledged to focus on the economy and the environment.

So Koike's got the résumé, the public-speaking experience, the platforms and the connections (former Prime Minister Koizumi is rumored to be backing her candidacy). And as the only female in a field that will consist of at least four male candidates, she's also getting the lioness' share of the press. But how relevant is Koike's gender to the job? Has she said anything about helping, you know, women? Because they could use it: In terms of economic, political and educational equality, Japan ranks 91 out of 128 countries, according to the World Economic Forum's 2007 Global Gender Gap Report (The U.S. ranks 31.) Japanese women have become notorious for stubbornly refusing to reproduce, and their country has become almost as notorious for its masochistic workplace customs, which make child rearing unappealing to men as well as women.

Koike, who doesn't have any children, hasn't yet suggested any mom-friendly policies, but she appears to have been reaching out to professional women for years. According to her Web site, she has written books and articles (it's unclear which are which) with titles like "Network for Women," "Women in the Environmental Business," and the catchy-if-slightly-incongruous "Climbing the Pyramid in a Kimono." Since sidling into the spotlight, she's drawn on her gender advantage when talking to the press. "Change is not happening fast enough for women, either in Japanese society or our political world," she recently told London's Daily Telegraph. When asked by a male TV anchor if she would fight with strength rather than beauty, Koike replied: "Naturally. In the first place, I'm not beautiful." Weird question, smooth (if untrue) answer.

Koike, who has professed admiration for Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton, clearly understands that Japanese ladies sure could use a leg up on the political ladder. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which ranks 188 countries based on the number of women represented in Parliament, Japan slides in at a dismal 102 (tied with Gambia and Romania), as only 9.4 percent of the 480 lower House members in the Japanese Parliament are women. Another report shows that only 13 percent of Japan's ministerial positions are held by women. And guess how many female heads of government Japan has had in the past 50 years? Hint: The same number of female presidents the U.S. has had in the past 219 years.

Despite the favorable international media attention, Koike is an acknowledged long shot for the prime minister position. To vie for the top spot, Koike would first need to become head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but Secretary-General Taro Aso is the party fave. (Only one woman has ever led a major Japanese political party; a woman named Mizuho Fukushima currently heads the tiny Social Democratic Party.) But Koike, a legitimate politico, is no straw woman. Some have speculated that this is a warmup for a future run. As Koike's fellow Hillary admirers are reluctantly learning, change doesn't come all at once.

By Corrie Pikul

Corrie Pikul writes about women's issues and pop culture. She lives in Brooklyn.

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