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Tokyo governor urged to take lead in raising women's representation in politics

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike speaks during a press conference in Tokyo on July 6, 2020, a day after she won a second term in the gubernatorial election. Koike announced a plan to create the Japanese version of the United States' federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Now that Yuriko Koike, the first female governor of Tokyo, has won re-election in a landslide, gender experts hope she will take the lead in better reflecting women's views in government and increasing female representation in Japan's male-dominated politics.

Given that coronavirus and the postponed Olympics and Paralympics were the prime agenda for Sunday's Tokyo gubernatorial election, voters heard little about women's empowerment from Koike and other candidates, except the governor's call for "Tokyo, where children and women can shine."

Koike did speak out about women issues during the last election in July 2016 following the emergence that year of foreign female political leaders such as Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

In a show of promoting women empowerment, Koike appointed Junko Inokuma as one of her vice governors in 2017, making her the first woman to have taken up that position in 22 years. But Inokuma retired in June last year and the four currently occupying the post are all men.

As of May, the percentage of women in managerial positions in the Tokyo metropolitan government was 16.8 percent, about six points higher than the national average and ranking Tokyo second out of the nation's 47 prefectures behind Tottori, according to Japanese government data.

However, the number of women in senior-level positions at the metropolitan government has been limited to areas such as welfare and gender equality.

"The governor can demonstrate her skills through managing personnel affairs," said Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University. "I would like to see more women in core areas such as finance and policy planning."

Miura and other scholars are also watching whether Koike -- as special adviser to Tomin First no Kai, or Tokyoites First Party -- will recruit more women candidates for a Tokyo metropolitan assembly election slated for summer 2021.

As leader of the regional party she founded in the lead-up to a metropolitan assembly election in July 2017, Koike fielded many women candidates and crushed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, lifting the ratio of women among the Tokyo assembly members to about 30 percent, compared with an average 10 percent for prefectural assemblies.

"She emerged to be the first female governor of Tokyo by her own popularity and electoral competence, even confronting the male dominant LDP leadership of Nagatacho, the political epicenter of Japan, as well as the Tokyo metropolitan assembly," said Ki-young Shin, a professor of gender studies at Ochanomizu University.

Calling Koike -- a former LDP lawmaker who served as defense and environment ministers -- "openly ambitious and a maverick but competent in elections," Shin said, "We have to see the next Tokyo metropolitan election. Depending on her policies to recruit more women, her governorship will have some impact on women aspirants who want to enter politics."

Shin and Miura co-lead the Academy for Gender Parity, a Tokyo-based organization dedicated to increasing women's representation in politics at national and local levels in Japan.

The academy trains women aspiring to enter politics as part of efforts to raise the percentage of female members in Japan's House of Representatives from a mere 10.2 percent as of June, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, for example.

Similarly, the Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum showed last December that Japan ranked 121st among 153 countries, down from 110th the previous year, and the country was listed in the bottom 10 in terms of political empowerment, citing low female representation in the Cabinet and parliament.

Japan has tried to address the gap by enforcing a law for the promotion of gender equality in politics, 2018 legislation that calls for parity in the number of male and female candidates in national and local elections.

Opposition parties such as the Japanese Communist Party have achieved the parity. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's LDP has failed to set a women's quota because the party sees little incentive to recruit more women to replace male incumbents with a firm electoral base.

"In the current political context which is very conservative and opposition parties are so weak, it is hard for women politicians to emerge," Shin said.

"I think Ms. Koike is the first conservative female politician who proved that a woman politician can rise to top political leadership without a party's full support. That is why she is really special."

The scholar said that unless Koike returns to national politics and aims for the premiership, her impact "will falter in the end." Japan has yet to have a female prime minister.

Koike has dismissed the view that she wants to return to national politics, but few people take her word at face value.

Some political analysts speculate she may do so after hosting the postponed Tokyo Games in summer 2021, while others suspect she may opt to do so before next summer's metropolitan assembly election if coronavirus forces cancellation of the sports event.

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