Women in Japanese Politics: Part Four -
Female Governors Advance
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
The April 2003 gubernatorial election for the vast northern island of Hokkaido produced a surprise victory for Harumi Takahashi, who became Hokkaido's first and Japan's fourth female governor. She joins the ranks of the other three women governors Fusae Ota (Osaka), Yoshiko Shiotani (Kumamoto) and Akiko Domoto (Chiba). Takahashi's victory was overshadowed in the media by the high profile re-election of the controversial Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. However, in the long-term Takahashi's victory may be seen as the more significant event. It is proof that there is still strong momentum in the recent trend for electing women to high office. Furthermore, it clearly demonstrates that after decades of being sidelined, women are making significant inroads into the previously male dominated world of Japanese politics. This trend is particularly striking amongst the governors, who are increasingly becoming an influential political force. In just three short years, Japan has gone from having no female governors to a position where women now make up a modest 8.5% of all governors.
It is hard to believe that Japan never had a female governor until Fusae Ota's groundbreaking victory in February 2000. Measured by the usual snail's pace level of Japanese political change, the fact that by April 2003 there were four women governors out of a total forty-seven is almost the equivalent of a Japanese political miracle. These women governors have injected a new dynamic into the office of governor and are already having a substantial impact on national politics. Together with progressive male governors, they are enabling the long neglected voices of ordinary women to influence the political discourse that had until recently been almost the sole prerogative of men.
Before Takahashi's win in Hokkaido, the three existing female governors had already formed themselves into a new kind of political force representing women. In November 2002, they jointly submitted a package of detailed policy measures to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. These policy initiatives focused on the needs of ordinary citizens, covering five key areas. These were (i) food safety; (ii) better emergency medical care for children; (iii) an improved environment for raising children; (iv) reducing domestic violence and child abuse; and (v) women's health issues. They also emphasized the necessity for more women to play key roles in society. The women governors also expressed the belief that one of the main reasons why Japan has been mired in economic decline for more than a decade is because the ordinary person's perspective is absence from the national decision making process. Additionally, they hoped that one day half of the nation's governors will be women. To promote this philosophy, they jointly organized a forum in their respective prefectures to broaden understanding of their fundamental core objectives.
For well over a decade, the office of governor has been establishing itself as a potential source of alternative ideas to stagnant government policies. Indeed, in 1993 it was a former governor of Kumamoto, Morihiro Hosokawa, who briefly snatched national power from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Many genuinely reform-minded governors are seen as the true standard-bearers of political change and the nation's only real hope of reviving the moribund system of national politics. It is as part of this overall movement that the new women governors are making their greatest contribution to political change.
In recent years several controversial and fiercely independently-minded figures have been elected to the post of governor. Their victories have sometimes caused major political shockwaves, occasionally changing the course of national politics. For example, the current governor of Nagano, Yasuo Tanaka, has inflicted serious damage on the deeply ingrained culture of pork barrel politics* and the March 2001 upset victory of Akiko Domoto was an instrumental factor in propelling the reform-minded Koizumi into the premiership.
Although there are currently only four women governors, their numbers are certain to increase as they represent the pent up grassroots frustration of millions of ordinary citizens who feel ignored by the current discredited political order. This feeling is particularly strong amongst female voters who are for the first time discovering that they have a political voice in the growing number of women at all levels of government. The new breed of female governor is in the forefront of a people power style movement that offers a way out of the current cul-de-sac of Japanese national politics.
Other Articles in the Women in Japanese Politics Series
Women in Japanese Politics: Part Three - Women Candidates Make Gains in the 2003 Unified Local Elections
Social Trends: Series #33, GLOCOM Platform, 21 April 2003
Women in Japanese Politics: Part Two - More Women Candidates Fight April 2003 Local Elections
Social Trends: Series #32, GLOCOM Platform, 20 April 2003
Women in Japanese Politics: Part One - Too Few Women in Japanese Politics
Social Trends: Series #31, GLOCOM Platform, 4 April 2003
* The Battle of Nagano – A Greek Legend in the Making