Northeast Asia | Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike – Japan’s real female role model
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike speaks at an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan May 29, 2017.  Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The Real Deal

Few politicians in recent decades have made patriarchal Japan queasier than Tokyo's first female governor

June 15, 2017 12:40 PM (UTC+8)

In August 2016, Tokyo’s first female governor elbowed her way to power past the man (of course!) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party had backed.

That put Abe in an awkward position: Annoyed that the most important gender milestone of his tenure was achieved by a woman he tried to defeat.

Koike wasted no time shaking up the establishment. She asked to see the books for a 2020 Olympics whose budget has risen tenfold. She delayed moving the famed Tsukiji fish market amid a toxic-soil scandal.

Then she did something Tokyo never saw coming: asked why, oh why, it’s costing $6 billion to move a fish market? Why not, say, $600 million? Uh-oh!

Japan needs that kind of gumption in more of its leaders. Imagine, for a moment, if Abe asked for his own audit of Olympic construction funds disappearing down the graft rabbit hole.

Or if he shined some serious daylight a Tokyo bureaucracy dragging its feet on deregulation. Or if Abe, as part of his stated goal of empowering women, punished ministries and companies ignoring this economic imperative at the expense of growth.

The fact it’s a woman doing all this, and more, reminds us of a key element missing from Abe’s gender push: Role models.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike makes a speech for candidates from her Tokyo Citizens First party ahead of a metropolitan assembly election in Tokyo, Japan May 28, 2017. Picture taken on May 28, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike makes a speech for her Tokyo Citizens First party ahead of assembly elections in Tokyo, Japan, May 28, 2017. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

When Goldman Sachs strategist Kathy Matsui wrote her inaugural womenomics report in 1999, the need for glass-ceiling-smashing exemplars was a key plank.

Read: By paying women less is Japan deepening its own deflation?

One such moment came in 2001, when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi named Makiko Tanaka Japan’s first female foreign minister.

She lasted just nine months and Tokyo has entrusted no truly globally visible cabinet positions to women since. Certainly not Abe, who has refused to name a female foreign minister, finance minister or chief cabinet secretary.

Today, not one Nikkei 225 company is run by

a Japanese woman

Granted, there has been progress. Even so, the percentage of Nikkei companies with female board members is 4.5% (5.8% for TOPIX 100 companies), well below the more than 20% average in the West, according to executive-search firm Spencer Stuart.

Japanese does have other role models in national politics. Take Renho Murata, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party. Here again, though, is a gender milestone that occurred not thanks to Abe’s policies, but despite them.

Abe can start by leading by example, adding more female cabinet members and entrusting important portfolios to them. While Abe does have a female defense secretary, it’s not a terribly visible role given post-war restraints on Japan’s military footprint abroad.

Consider this: Abe’s minister of gender affairs is a guy. Not great optics.

Koike is quite the wildcard. A charismatic politician fluent in English and Arabic, her international bona fides are solid.

She boasts sound conservative credentials that should, in theory, endear her to Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party as future prime minister material.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike speaks at an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan May 29, 2017. Picture taken on May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Governor Yuriko Koike has shook up preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Japan May 29, 2017. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Koike’s independent streak, though, makes it unlikely the LDP would allow her to rise to the highest job in the land. Of course, she’d have to dislodge Abe from the job, and he’s hoping to stick around until 2020 and beyond.

In an August 2016 Foreign Policy feature, headlined “Japan’s Reluctant Feminist,” Koike argued that demanding gender equality is less a calling than an economic necessity.

That means Japan’s male-dominated business culture needs to do more, in the Sheryl Sandberg sense.

In April 2013, when the Facebook executive was in Tokyo to promote her best-selling “Lean In,” she appeared with Goldman’s Matsui.

Sandberg said Japan Inc. should “get rid of the stereotype that women should be this way or that” and to “get rid of the idea that men lead organizations and it is appropriate for women to support the men’s jobs.”

If the societal fairness argument lacks teeth in Japan, Abe’s team should make the economic one.

All available research from Goldman to the International Monetary Fund to the World Economic Forum proves companies with diverse boards and management structures are nimbler, more innovative and productive and, yes, more profitable.

The same goes for governments, as Tokyo’s top female role model proves day after day.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist, former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.” Twitter: @williampesek

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