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As Japan Struggles With Gender Equality, Record Number of Women Appointed to Cabinet

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Five women feature in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s new cabinet lineup, up from the previous two and equaling a previous record, yet the influx may not point to a gender equality breakthrough in a country that struggles to appoint female leaders in most fields. 

Most prominent among the new appointments is Yoko Kamikawa, a veteran former Justice Minister who becomes the country’s first woman foreign minister in almost two decades. Kamikawa, 70, is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“This is a giant step forward,” for a country that lags on appointing women to corporate leadership positions, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said of the appointments in a phone interview. He welcomed Kamikawa’s selection as foreign minister, describing her as “very capable.”

Yet while Minister for Economic Security Sanae Takaichi retained her spot in the cabinet, the other three women were appointed to relatively low-profile positions in charge of policy for children, post-disaster reconstruction and regional revitalization. 

Kishida kept men in the main finance and trade roles, in line with a pattern of excluding women from the types of jobs that open the way to taking over as prime minister. Japan has never had a female finance minister and its last female chief cabinet secretary left the post more than 30 years ago.

The limited progress partly reflects an overall dearth of women in Kishida’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party — only 8% of its lawmakers in the legislature’s powerful lower house are female, even less than the 10% across all parties. 

Japan fell to 125th place out of 146 nations in the World Economic Forum’s report on gender equality this year, and 138th position in terms of political empowerment for women.

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“The number of women sometimes goes up and then goes down,” as the focus switches to other issues, said Mieko Nakabayashi, a former lawmaker turned political science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “In Japanese politics, particularly the lower house, the basic number of women is too low.” Japanese ministers are mostly selected from among lower house lawmakers.

While appointing women has helped successive Japanese governments clean up their image and bolster public support, the effect can sometimes be short-lived. 

In 2014, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed five women to his cabinet, spurring a surge in voter approval. About six weeks later, two of them resigned on the same day, one felled by an accusation that she’d broken regulations by handing out cheap paper fans to voters. In October 2018, Abe appointed a cabinet with only one woman among its 19 members.

Similarly, Rui Matsukawa, a former diplomat and vice defense minister, might have been a candidate for the cabinet this year had it not been for a storm of criticism over light-hearted photos she’d posted on social media during an LDP study trip to Paris in July.

While women in power tend to be held to a higher standard than men around the world, the effect is particularly pronounced in Japan, according to Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. 

“Women are over-scrutinized,” she said. “If women make a small mistake there’s a huge attack. If men do the same thing, of course they will be criticized, but I think the degree of criticism will be much stronger for women.”

To be sure, Yuko Obuchi, the other female former minister who resigned in 2014, was accused of much more serious breaches. Kishida appointed Obuchi to a party position in charge of election campaigns on Wednesday, saying he wanted her to uncover talent and help move the party toward its goal of having women take 30% of its parliamentary seats.

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The other female appointees to Kishida’s new cabinet included Hanako Jimi, a former medical doctor, who became Minister for Regional Revitalization. Ayuko Kato, a former management consultant and daughter of a renowned politician, took up the post in charge of policy for children.

Shinako Tsuchiya, a cooking and flower arrangement expert before she turned to politics, was appointed Minister for Reconstruction.

“There are many talented female lawmakers with a wealth of experience,” Kishida told reporters on Wednesday. He added he wanted the new ministers to “make the most of their sensitivity and empathy as women in their work.”

—With assistance from Takashi Hirokawa and Yuki Hagiwara.

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