Women in Japanese Politics: Part Five -
Japan's Women Mayors
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
The results in the second phase of the April 2003 unified local elections produced a small increase in the number of female mayors in Japan. There are now six women mayors in the nation's 677 cities, but just three women mayors representing Japan's 2,562 towns and villages. In 2003, only a small fraction of mayoralties were up for election, determining the mayors for 14 of Tokyo's 23 wards, 109 of its cities, and 268 of its towns and villages. As in the first half of the unified local elections, overall results for female candidates in the various races for municipal office were exceptionally good. Out of the 10,246 seats up for grabs in 387 local assemblies, a record-high 1,236 women won seats. This surpassed the record set in the previous 1999 unified local election in which 1,084 women were elected.
In the 2003 poll, female mayoral candidates did particularly well in urban areas. Two women were elected mayor in the western Tokyo suburbs of Kunitachi and Mitaka while another female candidate won in Hiratsuka, located in nearby Kanagawa Prefecture. Kunitachi Mayor Hiroko Uehara was re-elected for a second term, having become the first female mayor in Tokyo in the April 1999. In the Hiratsuka mayoral race, Ritsuko Okura was elected the municipality's first ever woman mayor, defeating the incumbent, Itsuo Yoshino. Part of her election success was based around her strong opposition to a merger plan with neighbouring towns.
Even though rural areas have fewer women mayors, one of these races caught the nation's interest during the April 2003 campaign. In the small town of Yuki-cho in Hiroshima Prefecture, the incumbent mayor, Masako Nakashima, found herself pitted against her own daughter, Kazuko Minoura, in a political battle that fascinated some elements of the Japanese media. The daughter, a 39-year-old pharmacist, decided to stand against her mother due to her strong disagreement with the mother's proposal to build a disposal plant for non-flammable waste in the town. As one might perhaps expect from a country in which some still greatly value filial piety, the mother easily won re-election, beating her daughter by a wide margin and seeing off two other rivals.
Like the recent emergence of women governors, female mayors are a relatively new addition to the Japanese political landscape. Harue Kitamura was elected Japan's first ever female mayor in 1991 for the city of Ashiya in Hyogo Prefecture. She stepped down in April 2003 at the age of 74, having successfully served for 12 years. Just before leaving office she gave a frank interview in which she spoke freely about the challenges she faced in a male-dominated political world. She observed, "There is no advantage to being a woman in politics." As Japan's first ever female mayor, Mayor Kimura must have felt extremely isolated. However, with an increase across the spectrum in the number of women holding elected office, the political landscape has gradually shifted since her historic 1991 victory.
Unlike the dramatic increase in the number of women governors since February 2000, the rise in numbers of female mayors has been relatively slow. In April 1991, Harue Kitamura was elected Japan's first woman mayor, but by June 1998 there were only four women holding the post. This figure comprised two women mayors of cities and another two for smaller municipalities. In December 2002, the number reached six, when the youngest Japanese woman ever elected mayor, Aya Shirai, took up her post at Amagasaki city hall in Osaka Prefecture. She was just 42-years old and represented the new breed of relatively young women entering politics. However, even thought the April 2003 local elections have again increased the number of women mayors, the numbers are still less than one percent of the total.
Women currently represent a mere 0.9% of city mayors and an abysmal 0.1% of mayors in towns and villages. This clearly shows that although the number of female mayors has been rising since 1991, the rate of increase is far too slow. There remains an absolutely enormous chasm to bridge before the number of female mayors reaches anything like an acceptable level. Until this happens, Japanese women will lack a proper voice in local government, arguably the area of politics they should be most closely involved in.
Other Articles in the Women in Japanese Politics Series
Women in Japanese Politics: Part Four - Female Governors Advance
Social Trends: Series #34, GLOCOM Platform, 28 April 2003
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, 10 April 2003
Women in Japanese Politics: Part One - Too Few Women in Japanese Politics
Social Trends: Series #31, GLOCOM Platform, 4 April 2003