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Two women in Japan party leadership race get mixed reactions

The inclusion of two women in Japan’s leadership race — the first time in 13 years there hasn’t only been men — surprised many, prompting some hope of progress for a ruling party long seen as sexist and out of touch.

But their sound defeat? That was no surprise.

For some women, it also underscores that the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled the nation almost without interruption since World War II, still operates in thrall of older, deeply conservative male heavyweights, and that women are a long way from being equal in politics.

“Seems to me the LDP used these two women to impress the public with its effort to change and to whitewash its negative image in order to stay in power,” said Yukiko Takei, a lawyer who lives near Tokyo.

The winner on Wednesday, as expected, was a man firmly entrenched in the ruling establishment. Fumio Kishida, a former moderate foreign minister, has shifted to the right in an apparent bid to win backing by influential party leaders, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr. Kishida will almost certainly become prime minister in a broader election on Monday because the LDP controls parliament.

The runner-up in the party vote, vaccinations minister Taro Kono, was something of a maverick and, though popular with voters and rank-and-file party members, was apparently a worrisome choice for the old guard. The two women, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda, were third and fourth.

Women are a tiny minority in Japanese politics, especially within the Liberal Democratic Party. Only about 10% of Japan’s parliament is female, and analysts say many tend to try to advance by showing party loyalty rather than pursuing gender equality.

For the ruling LDP, the gender divide is especially stark: only 9.8% of its 380-plus parliamentarians are women, compared to other parties whose female representation ranges from 15-32%.

Even if the results of Wednesday’s vote were predictable, Ms. Takaichi and Ms. Noda’s participation in the leadership race marked an improvement for the party and signals that senior members seem aware of a disconnect with the public on the gender issues.

The women themselves seem polar opposites in their policies.

The ultra-conservative Ms. Takaichi advocates a kind of paternalistic nationalism and a stronger military, while the liberal-leaning, pacifist Ms. Noda called for measures to address the nation’s declining population and to support women’s advancement and sexual diversity.

Ms. Takaichi, 60, rose to third in the leadership race largely because she got crucial backing from Mr. Abe, whose arch-conservative vision she supports. She has been criticised for advocating traditional gender roles and policies favoured by male decision-makers, rather than fighting for equality for other women.

She supports the imperial family’s male-only succession, and opposes same-sex marriage and a revision to the 19th-century civil law that could allow women to keep their maiden name.

Ms. Takei, the lawyer, said she doesn’t agree with Takaichi’s hawkish stance and gender policies, but “what bothered me most was that it seemed she was used as a pawn to contain Mr. Kono (by diverting LDP votes that would have gone to him) … to maintain the old regime.”

The lawyer said the female candidates didn’t represent the voices of ordinary women who often face sexism and are marginalised in society. “I think women who survive in a male-dominated society and who have established even a small place should open a path for their peers.”

Japan ranked 120th in a 156-nation gender gap ranking survey of the World Economic Forum in 2021.

With a crucial lower house election coming up within two months, the LDP desperately needs to rally support and improve an image hurt by current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who was criticised for his virus handling and insistence on holding the Olympics amid surging infections.

For Ms. Noda, who had no factional backing, it was her first challenge, and she said she was happy that she could participate. Ms. Noda, 61, supports same-sex marriage and campaigned for a quota system to increase the number of female lawmakers.

The only other earlier female candidate was Yuriko Koike, currently serving as Tokyo governor, who made a run in 2008.

In Japanese politics where women are almost invisible, the two women’s presence in the LDP race was a glimmer of hope, said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a senior lawmaker of the liberal-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition.

Mr. Abe, who was prime minister for eight years before abruptly resigning, paving the way for Mr. Suga, promoted women’s advancement as part of his economic policy to help increase the workforce. His party made little progress and failed to meet a goal to have women represent 30% of decision-making positions by 2020, postponing it by as long as a decade.

Ms. Tsujimoto criticised the way Mr. Abe used Ms. Takaichi “as a tool to maintain his power and pressure Mr. Kishida to succeed his policy line.”

Still, “it was good they ran. … Their presence changed the scenery,” she said. “It is extremely difficult for us women to survive for many years in a male-dominated workplace, and I believe their presence gave hope to many.”

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