First would-be female PM marks shift in Japan

TOKYO (Reuters) - She’s less likely to hog the headlines than Sarah Palin, but former defence minister Yuriko Koike made an equally bold bid for power on Monday, as she launched an attempt to become Japan’s first woman prime minister.

Former Japanese defence minister Yuriko Koike smiles during a news conference in Tokyo September 8, 2008. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

A telegenic former newscaster fluent in English and Arabic, Koike, 56, emphasized her plans to tackle women’s issues and the environment as well as administrative reform at a news conference in Tokyo.

“Women often want to work while still looking after their families, but it’s hard for them to get the chance,” Koike, who is single and childless, told reporters.

“I want to deal with women’s issues on a cross-party basis. That will unleash the potential energy of women and make Japan an energetic country,” she said.

Koike lags far behind the favorite, former foreign minister Taro Aso, in opinion polls and cannot hope to command the kind of media attention surrounding Palin, Republican John McCain’s surprise pick for running mate in the November U.S. presidential elections.

Standing for leadership of the tradition-bound ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and thus the premiership, is a daring move for a female, but Koike said she believed she had the necessary backing of 20 lawmakers to stand.

“It is a sign of change in Japanese society, and also of her own qualities,” Kuniko Inoguchi, a fellow female LDP lawmaker and supporter, told reporters after listening to Koike speak.

Japan ranked 54th out of 177 countries in terms of women’s economic and political power in a United Nations survey for 2007-2008 -- way behind most major industrialized countries.

Japanese women were granted the right to vote only after Japan’s World War Two defeat and only one woman has ever led a major Japanese political party, the Socialists. A woman currently heads the tiny Social Democratic Party.

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Nevertheless, some voters said they would welcome the fresh outlook a woman might bring.

“I think it would be welcome internationally,” said Takuyuki Nemoto, 58. “It is the first time a female politician is running for prime minister. That in itself is significant,” he added, saying he expected a woman could do better than the current and previous premiers, each of whom stepped down after a year.

Some analysts noted that winning the backing of the male-dominated LDP membership might be harder than gaining acceptance from the general public.

“She needs to be accepted by the LDP first,” said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “She is a recent arrival. Being a woman and a recent arrival doesn’t play well in a conservative party. The party needs to be more desperate.”

One other major party has turned to a woman to try to restore its fortunes in Japanese political history.

Takako Doi led the Socialist Party from 1986, and helped the opposition win a historic upper house election victory in 1989, but she stepped down in 1991. In 1993, she was appointed the first female speaker of the lower house.

A second stint as party leader was less successful, and the remnant of her party is now only a minor player.

But even feminists who welcome the advent of a woman candidate for prime minister express doubt about whether Koike, a former environment minister who has served as a national security adviser and briefly as defence minister, is the right choice.

“She is the first woman to stand for the party leadership and I would like to congratulate her on that,” said Mitsuko Yamaguchi, chief executive of the Fusae Ichikawa Memorial Centre, which promotes women’s involvement in politics.

“The problem is what kind of policies she can come up with,” Yamaguchi said. “She didn’t come up through economic policy.

“There are many problems in this election, from huge public debt to the slowing economy and the ageing population. What to do about the economy is an extremely important issue. Other candidates are specialists in the economy.”

Additional reporting by Naoto Okamura and Linda Sieg; Editing by Chris Gallagher