Japan PM contender sees "iron" barrier for women

TOKYO (Reuters) - Women may face a glass ceiling in their quest to get to the top in the United States but in Japan, an iron plate bars the way.

That was the assessment on Sunday by former Japanese defense minister Yuriko Koike as she prepared to formally launch her bid to become the nation’s first female prime minister.

Koike, a former TV anchor who has also held the environment portfolio, is one of six contenders aiming to challenge the frontrunner, former foreign minister Taro Aso, in a race to become premier after Yasuo Fukuda abruptly quit last Monday.

“Hillary used the word ‘glass ceiling’ ... but in Japan, it isn’t glass, it’s an iron plate,” Koike, 56, told private broadcaster Asahi TV.

“I’m not Mrs Thatcher, but what is needed is a strategy that advances a cause with conviction, clear policies and sympathy with the people,” she said, referring to Britain’s only woman prime minister, known as the “Iron Lady”.

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.”

Koike, who said she would shift policy gears and carry out “real reforms”, later told reporters she had lined up the 20 ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers needed to sponsor her candidacy in a September 22 party leadership race.

The winner of the party poll is expected to become prime minister because of the LDP’s lower house majority, and will likely lead the ruling bloc into a snap election which must be held by September 2009 but will likely come sooner.

Hillary Clinton, the early favorite for the U.S. Democratic nomination before losing a bitter race to Barack Obama, ran the most successful national campaign of any woman in U.S. politics, saying her primary contest vote put “18 million cracks” in a “glass ceiling” that has kept women out of the White House.

Republican candidate John McCain surprised the country with his choice of relatively obscure Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, as his vice presidential running mate. Palin would become the first female U.S. vice president if McCain wins.

Japanese women lag women in many other advanced countries in the corridors of power, but Koike faces other obstacles as well, including a history of switching parties.

Her career began in the opposition and she was once a protege of opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa.

Reporting by Linda Sieg