Tokyo elects first female governor: How thick is Japan's glass ceiling?

Yuriko Koike was elected governor of Tokyo on Sunday, marking an important moment for a country whose politics are still largely male-dominated. 

Kyodo/Reuters
Yuriko Koike celebrates her win in the Tokyo Governor election in Tokyo, Japan on Sunday in this photo taken by Kyodo.

Tokyo elected its first female governor on Sunday, marking a watershed moment for women in Japanese politics. 

Yuriko Koike, Japan's first female defense minister, beat out former bureaucrat Hiroya Masuda, who was backed by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, and liberal journalist Shuntaro Torigoe to earn the position, according to an exit poll by public broadcaster NHK.

"Taking this result very heavily, as the new governor I would like move forward firmly with the administration of the metropolis," Ms. Koike told supporters, as reported by Reuters. "I would like to move forward with a metropolitan administration such as has never happened, never been seen, together with all of you." 

While a main focus of the election was the potential of the 2020 Olympics to improve Japan's struggling economy, Koike said she also intended to push female-friendly policies "so that both men and women can shine in Tokyo," Channel NewsAsia reports. 

Since women were first elected to Japan's legislative body, the National Diet, in 1946, when a revised law permitted women to run in national elections, Japanese politics have remained largely male-dominated. Thirty-nine women were elected to the 466-member Diet in that first year, but that number did not rise until 2005, when 43 women were elected. 

"It is a shame. I didn't expect that growth would be so slow," said Tenkoko Sonoda, one of the original female members, in an interview with the Japan Times days before her death last January. "I was certain that the time would come when women would flourish." 

Japan is currently ranked 155th out of 193 countries for women's representation, with women accounting for only 9.5 percent of the makeup of the Lower House, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. 

While it is ultimately voters who determine whether women are elected, the political parties themselves are also responsible for the gender gap, says Reiko Oyama, a professor of politics at Komazawa University.

"If parties back more women as candidates, the number of female lawmakers would increase," Ms. Oyama tells the Japan Times. "It was something they could have done without revising any laws, but they made no such effort." 

Now, some women have begun to fight back against the imbalance. One woman, Ryoko Akamatsu, a labor ministry bureaucrat who later became education minister, founded a school in 2014 for women wishing to enter politics.

"Society will change if the number of women rises in places where important decisions are made," Ms. Akamatsu told the Times. "We are hoping to send to parliament as many women as possible."

This report contains material from Reuters. 

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