Abe Seeks a Few Good Women to Boost Longest Postwar Cabinet

Aug 31, 2014 10:23 pm ET

(Updates with analyst comment in fourth paragraph)

Sept. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces a struggle to find enough female politicians to meet his own target on promoting women in a cabinet shakeup this week that will also expand the defense and security portfolio.

Abe, 59, has made promoting women a centerpiece of his economic policy and plans to raise their presence in the cabinet in the Sept. 3 shuffle, a week before he hosts International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde at a gathering of global female leaders. Facing a possible leadership challenge next year, Abe is also seeking to avoid alienating Shigeru Ishiba, a former party rival, while satisfying rank-and-file lawmakers who have been locked out of the longest-serving cabinet since World War II.

Japan’s aging and shrinking labor force has spurred Abe to promote policies to lure more women into work since he took office in December 2012. Abe would have to boost the number of female ministers to six from the current two to bring the cabinet in line with his goal of having women in 30 percent of supervisory positions by 2020. While a tall order -- women account for less than 10 percent of lawmakers in his ruling party -- missing the mark may see him lose a chance to revive his popularity and show investors he’s serious about reform.

“If he can’t increase the number of women in his cabinet, it looks like his policy has no substance to it,” said Yuki Tatsumi, senior associate in the East Asia program at the Stimson Center research center in Washington. “He is not walking his talk. Part of his strategy was to tap into these women, who are perfectly qualified.”

Prominent Positions

Most prominent positions are allocated to men, and unlikely to change in the reshuffle. Finance Minister Taro Aso and Economy Minister Akira Amari are expected to stay in their posts, according to Jiji news, indicating the shake-up is unlikely to affect economic policy.

With Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida likely to stay on, according to the Nikkei newspaper, the focus will be on who takes a new position of minister in charge of passing a batch of new security laws that are loosening the pacifist constraints enshrined in the country’s post World War II constitution.

The government, which has a majority in both houses, plans to submit bills starting in the autumn to expand the role of the Self-Defense Forces. While the U.S. backs Japan assuming a more robust role in Asian security, Abe’s push is unpopular with the public and has been condemned by China and South Korea, which fear a revival of Japanese militarism.

Abe may offer the role to Akinori Eto, with the former vice defense minister doubling as defense minister, the Sankei newspaper reported August 26.

Leadership Conference

Ishiba, currently Secretary-General of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said on Aug. 29 he would comply with any decision by Abe. The comments came after media reports that he would turn down the new position of security minister. He may be offered a new post of minister in charge of reviving regional economies, according to the Nikkei.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party holds its leadership conference next year to endorse its candidate for national elections, with Ishiba a potential rival to Abe.

Yuko Obuchi, daughter of late former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, may replace Ishiba as the party’s secretary general, the Yomiuri newspaper reported yesterday.

Premier in Waiting?

Obuchi was dubbed the next prime minister-but-one by monthly magazine Sapio in August. “Women have not taken the finance, economy and industry roles so far,” Obuchi, 40, said in an interview at her office in Tokyo last week. “If women were placed in those positions, it would send a message.”

Mother of two boys, aged six and four, Obuchi became the youngest cabinet minister since the war in 2008, when she was handed the gender equality role. She later became the first minister to give birth while in office. Obuchi said she had not yet received an offer from Abe and declined to say whether she would accept a ministerial position.

“Creating an environment in which women find it comfortable to work and enhancing opportunities for women to work and to be active in society is no longer a matter of choice for Japan,” Abe said in a speech at the United Nations a year ago. “It is instead a matter of the greatest urgency.”

Yuriko Koike, a former defense and environment minister who serves as head of public affairs for the LDP, said she would rate Abe with a five out of 10 for his policies on promoting women. Nonetheless, she expects a better gender balance in the cabinet, she said in an interview last week.

‘Angry Men’

“I think the prime minister will do it as a symbolic move,” said Koike. “We may get to six women this time, but what will happen next time around? There may be some extremely angry men.”

Appointing women to the cabinet could bolster Abe’s approval rating, which has slipped below 50 percent. A poll carried out by the Mainichi newspaper on Aug. 23-24 found 59 percent of respondents said the number of women in the cabinet should be raised. The poll put support for Abe’s cabinet at 47 percent.

Yoko Kamikawa, vice-minister for internal affairs, also tipped for a post by the Nikkei last week, said in an interview she would “of course” accept if chosen as a minister.

“A minor change won’t be good,” Kamikawa said of the reshuffle. “I want it to be daring.”

Even so, Abe has to ensure the move is sustainable, Kamikawa said. “Making this a one off and letting it fall back later” would be negative for the government, she said.

Abductee Minister

Other female candidates for the cabinet include Sanae Takaichi, who heads the LDP’s policy research council, and may be appointed Trade Minister, the Yomiuri newspaper said today. Eriko Yamatani, former parliamentary secretary to the Cabinet Office, may be appointed minister in charge of dealing with citizens abducted by North Korea, the Yomiuri said last week.

“The prime minister is promoting this so hard that things are starting to change,” said Obuchi. “Japan having a female prime minister is not far in the future.”

--With assistance from Takashi Hirokawa in Tokyo.