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MAY 11, 2001 VOL.27 NO.18

Step Aside
Premier Junichiro Koizumi's appointment of five female cabinet ministers is good for women — and better for Japan

She calls the prime minister a "weirdo." She said his chief rival in the recent leadership race should be rocketed into orbit and left there. She denounced her male colleagues in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as herdlike followers without personal convictions. She is definitely not your father's Japanese cabinet minister. She is Makiko Tanaka, Tokyo's first-ever female foreign minister. She is determined to smarten up Japan's stodgy government. And she's not alone.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appointed an unprecedented five women to his cabinet. That's two more than ever before, and accounts for nearly a third of his 17-man, uh, person team. "This is an epoch-making cabinet," Tanaka declared. In a nation where women still struggle for respect, let alone equal opportunities, Tanaka and her fellow female ministers are raising eyebrows — and expectations. "I'm just happy to see five women in the cabinet, no matter who they are," says Hiroko Mizushima, a parliamentarian of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. "I hope they will do their jobs effectively so that they open more doors for other women."

It's not just about opening doors for women. It's about opening doors for Japan. The men in suits still hold the power. But having watched men preside over economic stagnation and political rot over the past decade, there's a growing sense that women may hold many of the answers. "It is not a biological difference but a gender difference cultivated by society," says Mizushima. "For example, women are often more faithful to their own beliefs, unlike men who have to be faithful to the organizations they belong to. It's partly because organizations have not valued women. So women can play a greater role than men in creating a new Japan."

That is already showing up in elections. In March, independent Akiko Domoto beat male rivals from the ruling and opposition parties to become governor of Chiba prefecture, an office held by the LDP for 20 years. The trend is harder to see in business, but it's there. Around 40% of full-time workers at Internet companies are women, compared with 20% at major corporations. That's partly because women get a better deal at start-ups than at blue chips, and partly because women, having been marginalized, are more willing to take risks. And they don't have to be stars to make a difference. "Society will change with the entry of greater numbers of trustworthy and competent females at workplaces," says Kaori Sasaki, founder of the website eWoman.

Which is where the five female cabinet members come in. Besides Tanaka, Koizumi named Mayumi Moriyama justice minister and Atsuko Toyama education minister. He also kept Land and Infrastructure Minister Chikage Ogi and Environment Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi. They aren't bra-burning radicals or rebels in platform boots. Tanaka is 57; the rest are in their 60s and 70s. Two have spent more than two decades in parliament. "Tanaka and Ogi are characters. [Ogi was a musical revue star and retains a touch of flamboyance.] The other three are ex-bureaucrats, like male ministers often are," says Ryoko Ozawa, a prominent feminist. On the other hand, they are heavy hitters in charge of sectors where radical reforms are critical, particularly infrastructure and education. "I like the fact that they're not just window dressing," says Ozawa. "I'm counting on them to stir up a lot of debate."

Tanaka faces the highest expectations. She is the daughter of the late prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, who resigned over a bribery scandal in 1974 but still created a political machine that dominated the LDP until today. The mother-of-three perennially tops opinion polls as Japan's favorite politician, primarily because of her clear and witty speech — often directed in withering blasts at her own party. Some fear her bluntness makes her a dangerous choice as Japan's top diplomat, but the public is counting on her to keep Koizumi on his toes. "I think Tanaka-san is the closest to ordinary citizens, in the way we feel and think," says Kiyomi Kihara, a Tokyo housewife of the same age as Tanaka. "We hope she will speak out on behalf of us."

Change is slow. Only 10% of Japanese legislators are women; the same proportion prevails in corporate management. A government white paper issued last year reckoned Japan ranks 38th in the world in promoting women to high positions. But pioneers like Tanaka are creating more opportunities for women — and for Japan.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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