Female 'ninjas' steal Koizumi's limelight

By J. Sean Curtin
Published September 23rd 2005 in Asia Times Online
A special session of the Japanese parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly reelected Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister following his Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) landslide victory in the September 11 general election. But while the premier was the official focus of the proceedings, media attention was firmly riveted on the record number of newly elected women lawmakers sitting in the lower chamber for the first time.

The newly convened 480-seat Lower House now has an all-time high of 43 female members, distinguishing it from its largely male-packed predecessors. Most of the fresh female faces were elected as part of Koizumi's drive to reform the traditionally male-dominated LDP and boot out its anti-reform old guard, a policy the media dubbed the "female ninja" strategy. To ensure the success of female candidates Koizumi gave them priority treatment. As a result, the LDP has almost trebled its number of female lawmakers in the lower chamber to 26 from just nine. This has markedly altered its, as well as the Lower House's, formerly rather dull, male-dominated image.

While Japanese women are still woefully underrepresented in Japanese politics, there is now real hope that the new session of parliament will finally set the country on the road to becoming a slightly more gender-equal democracy.

A jubilant-looking Koizumi proudly presented his new-look, more gender-balanced version of the LDP to the public. Standing in front of his 83 first-time-elected lawmakers, a third of whom were women, the prime minister told them, "I hope you will bring new life and new blood into the party."

Satsuki Katayama, a high-profile member of the new female intake, told the media, "The LDP has now been transformed forever." A majority of the newly elected lawmakers are diehard Koizumi loyalists and their arrival has greatly strengthened the prime minister's power within the LDP, making him the undisputed king of Japanese politics. Yukari Sato, a former economist and successful "ninja", summed up the newcomers' mood: "It is thanks to Koizumi that we got elected."

Most of the new army of female lawmakers owe strong allegiance to Koizumi because he personally selected them to run against rebel, anti-postal-privatization LDP lawmakers as so called "assassin" candidates. (A relaxed-looking Koizumi, still basking in the afterglow of his thumping poll triumph, reaffirmed his strong commitment to pushing forward postal privatization and other reforms.)

Since Koizumi ensured that they were all given preference on the LDP's proportional representation list, all the party's 26 female candidates were elected. Thus even "female ninja" who failed to liquidate their targets in the directly elected districts gained seats in the proportional block.

Koizumi said he would keep his current cabinet lineup for the duration of the 42-day session, which ends November 1, then reshuffle both the cabinet and the LDP leadership. He outlined his intention to promote talented lawmakers who have the potential to succeed him after his current term as prime minister ends in September 2006. Koizumi also hinted that he plans to promote some of the new intake, and there is speculation that several of the most prominent new women lawmakers will gain high office.

While the ranks of women lawmakers in the LDP increased, their numbers in the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was more than halved to just seven from a preelection strength of 15. Before the election the DPJ had almost twice as many women lawmakers as the LDP and was viewed as the more gender-friendly party.

Koizumi's landslide victory has completely rewritten the gender dynamics between the two main political parties, and it will now be far more difficult for the DPJ to attract crucial female voters, even with its new youthful-looking, 43-year-old leader Seiji Maehara. He took over as DPJ president from Katsuya Okada on Saturday, following the party's crushing election defeat, which saw its Lower House strength sharply reduced to 113 seats from its preelection standing of 175. The LDP, which has run Japan for nearly all the past 50 years, boosted its standing to 296.

In the other, smaller political parties the ratio of women stayed about the same. The LDP's junior coalition partner, New Komeito , retained its four female lawmakers, and the Japanese Communist Party's (JCP) two women also survived. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) lost its former leader and party matriarch, Takako Doi, ending up with two female lawmakers, one fewer than in the 2003 election.

The 2005 election marks an all-time high of 43 women elected to the powerful Lower House, an advance on the 34 elected in 2003. While female lawmakers still only represent about 9% of Lower House members, the new intake represents a massive increase compared with the dismal 1.4% representation in 1992 and a modest advance on the 7.1% before this election.

The previous record for Lower House female lawmakers was 39, achieved in 1946, when women were first allowed into parliament. However, after the euphoric 1946 surge, female numbers rapidly declined and quickly politics became an almost exclusively male preserve until the late 1990s.

Despite the dramatic increase, Japan still has one of the lowest representations of female politicians in the industrialized world. Even now its 9% female representation in the Lower House only ranks it 95th out of 132 parliaments worldwide.

Sweden boasts a massive 45.3% of female lower chamber lawmakers, while the UK has 19.7% and the US just 15.2%. Tokyo's regional neighbors China (20.2%) and South Korea (13%) also fare better, while India only has 8.3% female representation.

However, Tokyo is nearing the global average - 16% - for women's representation in the lower chamber. Still, Koizumi's ninjas are blazing a trail toward a more gender-equal Japan.

J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global Communications.