Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Desperate times, desperate measures?

February 27, 2009

With Prime Minister Taro Aso’s public support tanking ahead of a tough election this year, some lawmakers in Japan’s conservative ruling party — long dominated by dark-suited men — are pondering the once unthinkable — replacing a him with a her.

Opinion polls show voter support for Aso, Japan’s third prime minister in less than two years, near or even below 10 percent, and a hefty majority want him to resign within months.

Even more worrisome for the Liberal Democrats, surveys suggest that voters fed up with the party and worried it may have run out of ideas to fix the recession-hit economy are increasingly likely to give the opposition Democratic Party a turn in power in an election that must be held by October.

Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano, who holds two other key cabinet posts too, is a leading candidate to replace Aso, 68, if the ruling party pushes the premier out, but two women are also on the list floated by media and lawmakers of possible rivals.JAPAN-POLITICS/

Yuriko Koike, 56, a former TV announcer fluent in English and Arabic, has already made political history in Japan, first by serving briefly as defence minister in 2007 and then last year by running in the ruling party leadership race in a bid to become the country’s first prime minister. She came in a distant third to Aso and Yosano.

Koike, who started her political career in the opposition, makes no secret of her ambition although she acknowledges a lack of a traditional base in the ruling party.

“In American terms, I am not much of a Washington insider,” she told me in an interview after throwing her hat in the ring last year. “I can make decisions that need to be made,” she added. “The ‘Old Boys club’ can’t do that. That’s what has delayed change in Japan.”

Consumer Affairs Minister Seiko Noda, 48, who left the ruling party to run as an independent in 2005 because of a policy rift, but later returned to the fold, is more reticent.

JAPAN-POLITICS/

“Because things are tough, we need to support the prime minister we have chosen,” she told reporters recently. “I find it unpleasant that the term ‘post-Aso’ is even being mentioned now.”

Another female politician is also making news, though no one has suggested her as a possible premier, at least not yet. Yoko Obuchi, 35, the cabinet minister charged with finding ways to boost Japan’s rock-bottom birth rate, is due to have her second child in September – the first incumbent minister to become pregnant while in office. The daughter of a prime minister, Obuchi has confessed to worries about juggling work and family, but says she won’t be daunted by the challenge.

Japanese women lag their sisters in many advanced countries in terms of political and economic clout, with Japan ranking 54th out of 177 countries in a U.N. survey from 2007-2008.

Photo credit: Yuriko Koike (top); Seiko Noda (bottom) REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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