THE scandal surrounding Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Uno has brought an ex-geisha into the spotlight. And it has made Manae Kubota, a Socialist parliamentarian, an unlikely household name. Last month the soft-spoken politician broke the taboos of Japan's male-dominated political world when she stood up in the parliament and demanded that the prime minister explain a magazine report that he paid for a months-long liaison. Uno refused to comment, insisting it was a private matter.
``People regard me as mild-mannered,'' says Ms. Kubota. ``But, I think inside of me is a very strong-minded character. That character hardly appears. But, when I really must do something, I tend to become a little bit radical.''
These days Kubota is not the only woman who feels she ``must do something.'' Spurred in part by the Uno scandal, Japanese women have started to take up a vigorous role in the political scene. Women have won office in recent elections in record numbers. And the women's vote has emerged as the key factor in defeats of the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), including an expected loss in the upcoming parliamentary election on July 23.
Women voters have been particularly angered by a number of issues which, to them, symbolize the arrogance of the ruling party. As housewives, they have been incensed by the 3 percent national sales tax imposed since April. As keepers of the family budget, women are disgusted by the images of politicians fattened by money from corporations that have been unveiled in the massive Recruit Company corruption scandal. Recruit, a publishing and telecommunications company, gave large amounts of money and unlisted shares to leading politicians, officials, and businessmen.
The revelations of the prime minister's alleged liaison has proved to be a catalyst for these complaints. Such affairs by Japanese politicians are hardly unknown but in the current atmosphere, such behavior is clearly less acceptable. Kubota told reporters in a recent speech that she had received some criticism for her remarks in the Diet (parliament).
``But I had to raise such a low-level question because a man in the highest public office was suspected of the lowest-level deed,'' she said. Kubota says Uno's actions will become ``a good yardstick'' to judge the acceptability of politicians. She says she hopes it will lead to a change in the male-dominated character of politics, in which only 4 percent of the members of the parliament are female.
There are some signs of change already. The Japan Socialist Party, the only major party led by a woman, Ms. Takako Doi, has been the most effective in running women candidates and mobilizing the women's vote.
In the upper house by-election in Niigata Prefecture on June 25, Kinuko Ofuchi, a housewife backed by the Japan Socialist Party, surprised observers by beating the ruling party candidate in an area considered a ``conservative kingdom.'' In the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on July 2, a record high of 17 seats out of 128 were also won by women, 12 of them Socialists.
On July 23, Ms. Kubota joins 145 other women, the largest number ever, who are vying for the 126 seats in the Upper House of parliament that are up for election.
But the idea that the age of women has finally come to this country is far from the reality. Though women work in large numbers in Japan, when it comes to the positions of power in business and government, women still have a distinctly inferior status. And, the recent victories for women candidates may not reflect a real change in attitudes toward their role in politics, some observers suggest.
``I think those women were chosen not positively but negatively,'' says Yoshiko Sakurai, an experienced women television news reporter. The vote was a people's protest against the LDP, rather than an endorsement of the policies of the candidates, she says.
``Sex roles are much more fixed in Japan than in most other countries,'' she said during her speech at the Foreign Correspondent's Club. ``Not only men but the majority of women believe in the idea that men work outside and women keep homes.''
The woman's expected obligation to keep the home is especially hard for working women with families. The idea of a Japanese husband pitching in around the home is still an anomaly. Kubota, who is single, admits that with marriage and children, ``I might have abandoned my career. I don't know if I could have done so many things at the same time like the Goddess of Mercy,'' she says.
It is common for women to work until they are married or have children, sometimes returning to the work place only after their children finish school. The demands of the typical Japanese company often mean that their husbands work long hours, often even on holidays.
``Japan has become an economic power but a small country in terms of living standards,'' argues Kubota. ``It's not bad to be called an economic power, but when we are asked if we have human dignity and spend a healthy and cultural life to live up to that reputation, I don't think we do.''
Ms. Kubota believes that ordinary women can change that situation by using their power as consumers. Women, especially housewives, can take ``quick-acting'' measures, such as boycotting goods of companies that discriminate against women, destroy the environment or manufacture military products.
``Since production policy is dominated by men,'' she says, ``I think it important to strike back from the consuming side.''