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Japan's first woman PM hopeful

world Updated: Sep 07, 2008 11:46 IST
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Japan for the first time has a chance of a female prime minister in Yuriko Koike, but feminists are sceptical on whether she would do the country's women any good.

Koike has hinted she may run in the September 22 race within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to replace unpopular Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who abruptly resigned on Monday.

The former TV anchorwoman would be the first woman to seek the premier's post in male-dominated Japan, which has some of the world's lowest rates of female representation in politics and business.

"I welcome a female candidate running in the election -- generally speaking," said Mitsuko Shimomura, a journalist and one of the founders of Win Win, a lobby for female politicians similar to the US Emily's List.

"But her bid to become the first woman prime minister would do nothing to increase the social standing of Japanese women," she said. "Many women around me feel sick to their back teeth."

"As a politician, Ms Koike has never been enthusiastic about improving women's social status as that agenda turns off men," she said.

Koike, 56, who speaks fluent English and Arabic, made her name as an environment minister and an expert on foreign policy, rarely stressing her gender.

In an oblique reference during her brief tenure as defence minister last year, Koike likened herself to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and told a US audience to call her "Madam Sushi" -- a joke that fell flat back home.

Koike entered politics in 1992 and has faced criticism that she cozies up to whoever is in power at the time.

She was initially a protegee of Ichiro Ozawa, then an LDP heavyweight and now chief of a resurgent opposition -- which hopes to defeat the long-dominant but now ailing ruling party in approaching general elections.

After a turbulent political decade, Koike entered the LDP in 2002.

Her latest political patron was reformist premier Junichiro Koizumi, who was popular during his 2001-2006 tenure. Koike now belongs to the largest faction in the LDP, along with Koizumi and many other party heavyweights.

Koike's shrewdness was illustrated in the 2005 general election when she volunteered to switch her constituency and ran as an "assassin" candidate against an LDP member opposed to Koizumi's free-market agenda.

Kanako Otsuji, an opposition member who made an unsuccessful bid last year to be Japan's first openly lesbian MP, welcomed Koike's bid as a move to break Japan's glass ceiling.

"What's important is that people physically see a woman stand as prime minister in parliament and answer questions from the opposition."

"But it's a different story on whether she would uphold policies that are good for women," she said.

Otsuji noted that women who rise to the top in politics are often tough-talking conservatives, such as Britain's first
female prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

"A politician who champions an agenda such as gender equality wouldn't survive in the LDP," she said.

Otsuji said it would be "disrespectful" to compare Koike to Hillary Clinton, who narrowly lost the US Democratic Party's nomination for president to Barack Obama.

"Hillary has advocated not only gender rights but also gay rights in her speeches," Otsuji said. "I'm sorry, but they're not even comparable."

Otsuji called for a quota system to secure a certain number of seats for women in Japan's parliament, where only 89, or 12 percent, of the 722 members are women.

But feminist writer Minori Kitahara said that Japanese politics was not yet mature enough to allow "ordinary" women to take part.

"Only a woman like Koike who enjoys the political power game can survive," she said. "Important decisions in Japanese politics are still made by men, often during drinking occasions."