Japan's voters see more female officials as good sign

Thursday's appointment of five women to the cabinet is eyed warily as an initial step.

Japan has never had more women (five) in its ruling cabinet, and certainly not a female foreign minister.

The composition of newly elected Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's cabinet has been widely applauded since Thursday's announcement. His choices garnered an 87 percent public approval rating, according to a poll by the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper. But women in business and politics here are taking the optimism with a grain of salt.

"I hope this will be an important step to getting more women in politics, because many people say that this is only a performance by Mr. Koizumi," says Hiroko Mizushima, a young first-term legislator with the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the largest opposition party.

Foremost among the voters that the long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party has been losing to parties like the DPJ are women, young people, and urban dwellers who see the LDP as the patron of wasteful, pork-barrel politics.

Ms. Mizushima, like others interviewed for this article, says she is disappointed that most of the women Koizumi chose still represent the older generation of the LDP. Makiko Tanaka, in her late 50s, is the daughter of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka; the four others are in their 60s and 70s. "I think gender is still a very big issue, "adds Mizushima. "We have so few female politicians in the Diet, and ever fewer in local assemblies, so it's still a very big task to increase their numbers. We shouldn't give up our [battle] just because of a few appointments."

That battle, many argue, is being waged far more slowly in corporate Japan than it is in politics and even government bureaucracies.

Take, for example, Yoshiko Arima. She worked for several years in Japan's foreign ministry, including an important embassy posting in Washington. But upon returning to Japan in the early '90s, she found that male-dominated firms wanted to view her primarily as a translator. "Sometimes, I used to hide my language capability from the businessmen, because while it was easy for me to translate, I also wanted to make decisions," says Ms. Arima. "There weren't many women in business doing that."

Arima is now the director of Studybox, Inc., a new company that specializes in distance learning. The IT sector in general, she says, is more open to women, since Japan's slow start in Internet usage has required an influx of know-how from the United States, and women like Arima - who also worked in Silicon Valley - are in demand. Arima, who has just had a baby, says that Web-based communication has made it possible for her to keep up with her work, temporarily, from home, an almost impossible feat a decade ago.

Still, for many women, the choice between work and family is one of the greatest barriers to getting ahead in the corporate world. Daycare is not widespread enough to facilitate a mother's return to work, and many still quit after marrying or having a child. That worries hiring companies, who often ask female applicants' marital status or whether they will work after having children.

Mizushima, the legislator, wants to make that less of a question by expanding the availability of licensed nursery facilities. She's also working on legislation that would allow both parents to work shorter days when their children are very young, and is contemplating a "papa quota" system, which would increase the numbers of days off a couple is allowed to have if some of them are taken by the father rather than the mother.

In 1986, Japan passed an equal opportunity law that prohibits discrimination in hiring practices on the basis of gender. But former Education Minister Ryoko Akamatsu says that the law sometimes lacks teeth because few women want to challenge employers.

"We're trying to encourage an atmosphere for better enforcement of the law," Ms. Akamatsu says. "Japanese companies were initially against it, but we can see how the employers have changed their ideas about equality. Women have also changed, because many want to be in harder jobs."

Foreign Minister Tanaka is just one of them. Long a critic of her own party, she will now be challenged with representing its interests and Japan's abroad. On the one hand, she's been dubbed as Japan's most popular politician. Her support for Koizumi helped pave the way to his election. But others claim that her appointment resembles the political payback she and Koizumi have long criticized.

She seems to have worn the new mantle well so far, allaying fears in Asia that Koizumi will seek to revise Japan's Constitution, raising the specter of this country's militaristic past. She also suggested that she was not about to camouflage her well-liked independent streak and kowtow to Foreign Ministry officials.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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