Women in Japanese Politics - Part Eleven: Female Governors Become a Permanent Fixture
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
The February 2004 re-election of Governor Fusae Ota followed by the March 2005 victory of Governor Akiko Domoto have demonstrated that the emergence of female governors is not just a temporary phenomenon. Ota made political history in February 2000 when she was elected Japan's first female governor after sweeping to power in Osaka, the country's second most populous prefecture. By April 2003, out of a total of 47 governors, four were women, Ota in Osaka, Domoto in Chiba, Yoshiko Shiotani in Kumamoto, and Harumi Takahashi in Hokkaido. From zero in 2000 to almost 10 percent of governorships by 2003 was an impressive achievement.
I believe the new trend indicates that women are finally making real in-roads into Japan's long male-dominated political system. Some other commentators are less optimistic, describing the emergence of female governors as a temporary development that will eventually fade. However, the two re-election results in Osaka and Chiba suggest that the first view is probably the correct one and that female governors are now a permanent fixture on the Japanese political landscape.
Number of female governors likely to increase
This is a significant development as the role of governor is becoming an increasingly important one. The devolution of political power towards the regions has markedly increased the authority of the nation's 47 governors. With further decentralization planned, their position is certain to strengthen.
While Ota's comfortable re-lection victory in Osaka was considered a foregone conclusion, Domoto faced an extremely tough battle from the formidable political machine of the governing Liberal Democratic Party. Her victory proves that women incumbents are just as difficult to dislodge as their male counterparts.
In future years when governors stand down, the growing band of high profile women politicians will be better positioned to gain governorships and the Ota-Domoto victories demonstrate that they stand a good chance of winning re-election. This indicates that the number of female governors is likely to grow over the coming decade.
Domoto wins tough re-election battle
Domoto won the Chiba gubernatorial election despite an extremely strong challenge form LDP-backed Kensaku Morita, who stood as an independent. Morita enjoys a high national profile because of his roles in coming-of-age dramas and as a former Lower House member. He also received crucial support form influential Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara as well as the governors of Kanagawa and Saitama. The trio said their close relationship would help Morita to realize his election pledges of lowering the toll on the Trans-Tokyo Bay Motorway to 800 yen and the promotion of an association among prefectures in metropolitan areas. Both ideas were popular with many voters.
Additionally, Morita skillful exploited easy to understand issues to woo voters. These included an emphasis on public safety and order, and the need for younger and more dynamic leadership. Domoto is 72 and the oldest governor in the country, a fact the 55-year-old Morita continually highlighted. His carefully crafted message was disseminated by well-developed local LDP support networks. Chiba has a strong LDP presence as most of the seats in the prefectural assembly are held by LDP members.
To counter Morita's multi-fronted attack, Domoto deployed more than 100 volunteer groups, and enlisted the aid of prominent political figures, like former Democratic Party of Japan leader Naoto Kan and New Komeito's acting leader Toshiko Hamayotsu. Like Morita Domoto also ran as an independent, but was backed by the local chapters of the DPJ, the New Komeito party and the Social Democratic Party.
By the time campaigning ended, the result seemed to hang on a knife-edge and election night was a rollercoaster cliff-hanger. In the initial stage of the vote count a jubilant Morita led a downcast Domoto, but by the halfway point she had closed the gap. As count up updates were announced during the night, Domoto maintained her slim advantage.
When all the ballots were counted, Domoto received 960,125 votes, or 46.23 percent of all valid votes cast, while Morita got 954,039, or 45.94 percent. The third candidate Yasutaro Yamada of the Japanese Communist Party received 162,684, or 7.83 percent. The final tally showed Domoto beating Morita by just 6,086 votes, or 0.29 percentage point. The tight race sharply increased voter turnout to 43.28 percent, up 6.40 points from the previous gubernatorial poll four years before.
Profile – Akiko Domoto
Akiko Domoto worked as a television reporter and director for 30 years before winning an upper house seat in 1989. She served in the upper chamber until 2001, first as a member of the Japan Socialist Party, now renamed the Social Democratic Party, and later as a member of the now-defunct New Party Sakigake. In March 2001, she won an upset victory in the Chiba gubernatorial election, becoming Japan's second female governor.
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.