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Internal affairs minister Seiko Noda's long road to becoming Japan's 1st female PM

Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda (right) is pictured with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Ise Shrine in Ise, Mie Prefecture, on Jan. 4, 2018. (Mainichi)

After watching the first sunrise of the year with her husband and son from their apartment in Tokyo, Seiko Noda, who ushered in the New Year as minister for internal affairs and communications in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet, headed to Nihonbashi Post Office in Tokyo's Chuo Ward for a ceremony before postal workers set off to deliver bundles of New Year's cards.

In a Jan. 2 blog post, she wrote about her severely disabled son, who was just days away from turning 7 years old: "The challenges he faces just to live chases away the petty troubles and sadness his Iron Mother feels. I will continue to stay positive this year."

Noda aspired to contest the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election in 2015, but was forced to give up when she failed to gather the minimum 20 endorsements required to run. However, she will have another chance, when Abe reaches the end of his term in September this year. During taping of a television program on Jan. 3 that aired the following day, Noda said she had about 150 percent more confidence in obtaining the necessary endorsements compared to the previous election.

It is said that Noda at one point had secured 24 endorsements in the last party presidential race, but she has refrained from releasing the names of those lawmakers, "so as not to cause them any trouble." Her endorsements were retracted through pressure from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who wanted to prevent any election-related tumult within the LDP amid heightened tensions in the Diet with the House of Councillors nearing a vote on controversial security-related legislation.

Since then, Noda has, on multiple occasions, dined with lawmakers who had agreed to endorse her in 2015. Noda herself is relatively unfettered by intraparty politics because she does not belong to a faction. But she has asked legislators who are open to endorsing her in the next leadership race to secure permission to do so from their respective factions. Additionally, Noda is almost finished drawing up a collection of her policies, so that it can be released after this year's ordinary Diet session.

However, some Noda supporters are concerned with her single-minded efforts to just throw herself in the party presidential race regardless of her chances of winning.

A dinner was held at a restaurant in Tokyo's Akasaka district in Dec. 12 last year to celebrate Noda's appointment as internal affairs minister. There, a young male lawmaker warned her, "If your goal is to become the prime minister, winning on the first try is difficult. It's better to go into it with a comprehensive strategy."

Noda's response -- "I want to model myself after Junichiro Koizumi, who became prime minister on his third run, or Taro Aso, for whom it took four tries" -- demonstrates her attitude that it's par for the course to lose on the first attempt. However, for lawmakers who are going against the policies of their respective factions to endorse her, with each attempt comes a risk of being passed over for appointments to important positions.

"Those of us who support you are doing so with a certain level of resolve, and we want you to approach the leadership race with the intent to win," another male legislator at the dinner said, to which Noda replied, "I accept everyone's views."

Why, in the first place, does Noda try to run in LDP presidential elections in which she has no chance of winning? She says it has to do with what former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone told her when she was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1993: "Diet members must try to reach for the top, or they become lazy."

Among Noda's comrades who aspired to become the first female prime minister was Yuriko Koike, who ran in the LDP leadership race in 2008. Koike had promised Noda her vote in the 2015 LDP presidential race, but left national politics to become the governor of Tokyo. Koike, who focused only on winning and rushed to do so, founded the Party of Hope to fight in the general election last year but suffered a crushing defeat.

Noda, meanwhile, has elected to take a gradualist approach to effect reform from within the administration. For her, running in the party leadership election is part of the process required to shatter the glass ceiling. And that process can often find itself at the mercy of prevailing political conditions.

The August 2017 Cabinet reshuffle proved to be a turning point for Noda. The prime minister chose Noda, who had been critical of Abe's unchallenged power, to serve as minister for internal affairs and communications, stating, "She is frank with me about things I'd rather not hear." Noda, whose wish to double as state minister in charge of women's empowerment was granted, announced her intention to run in the next party presidential race right after she assumed office.

This time, however, her declaration elicited a response from the prime minister's office that differed greatly from that for her attempted 2015 run. Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga told a press conference that she was "free to do what she wanted," indicating that the prime minister's office accepted her planned candidacy.

In the 2015 party leadership election, Prime Minister Abe lost to LDP bigwig Shigeru Ishiba by a landslide among regular party members. And while Abe won more votes than Ishiba among LDP Diet members, he is hoping for a resounding 2018 victory with more votes from both groups than his major rival. The prime minister's office believes that if Noda runs in the next election, anti-Abe votes will be split between Ishiba and Noda, allowing Abe to win. Noda understands this and has told those close to her, "I'm glad they think that. That way, they won't get in my way."

On the night of Dec. 7 last year, nine politicians who had been elected to the Diet for the first time in 1993 got together at an Italian restaurant in Tokyo's Ginza district. "Next year, we'll be recognized for our 25 years in public office," Noda said. "We've come a long way." Abe, who sat across from Noda, was likely looking at LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, who was seated to Noda's right, as one of his possible successors.

The LDP presidential election did not come up in conversation that night. But when talk turned to the raising of the retirement age for civil servants from the current 60 to 65, 63-year-old Abe confessed, "I feel hesitant to call such people elderly." Noda, who from that comment detected Abe's determination to continue his already long tenure as prime minister, steeled herself for a long battle ahead.

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