Political troika: Japan's Democratic Party elects first female leader

Renho Murata was elected head of Japan's main opposition party on Thursday, marking the third woman to assume a top political position in recent weeks. 

Shigeyuki Inakuma/Kyodo News/AP
Newly elected Democratic Party leader Renho Murata (c.) smiles as she joins hands with her predecessor Katsuya Okada (r.), and her rival candidate for the leadership race Seiji Maehara (l.) upon her election in Tokyo Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016. Murata, who generally goes by only her first name, is one of three women who have assumed prominent political posts in recent weeks in a country more known for its male-dominated political and business hierarchy.

Japan's main opposition party elected Renho Murata as its head on Thursday, marking the third woman to assume a top political position there in recent weeks. 

The election of Ms. Murata follows the election of Yuriko Koike as governor of Tokyo on July 31 and the appointment of Defense Minister Tomomi Inada later that week. But while gender equality advocates have celebrated the changing face of Japanese leadership, men still largely dominate the country's political world. 

"As the first woman leader, I would like to break the glass ceiling and create a new generation of the Democratic Party by assembling everyone's power," wrote Murata on her website prior to being elected. 

While noting the shift at the top of the political ranks, Japan lags most nations when it comes to gender equity in politics.

Japan is currently ranked 155th out of 193 countries for women's representation in national legislatures, with women accounting for only 9.5 percent of the makeup of the Lower House, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Since 1946, when women were first permitted to run in national elections, the number of female representatives in Japan's National Diet has remained relatively stagnant. 

"It is a shame. I didn't expect that growth would be so slow," said Tenkoko Sonoda, one of the original female members of the National Diet, 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." 

The trifecta of appointments comes in the midst of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "womenomics" push to encourage more women to work. But progress in this field has been slow, as the Christian Science Monitor's Gavin Blair reported in December:

Mr. Abe’s so-called "womenomics" reform is a pillar of his economic plan, often dubbed "Abenomics." As recently as Sept. 27 in a speech to the United Nations on gender equality, the prime minister spoke of females taking 30 percent of the leadership roles in Japan by 2020, an official target. 

Yet Abe's shining path for greater female participation is dimming substantially. This month the government slashed its 30-percent target to just 7 percent, recognizing that it was nowhere near its original goal. 

The election of women like Murata into leadership positions is long overdue, Mayumi Taniguchi, a law professor and the founder and chairwoman of women's adovcacy group All Japan Obachan Party, told The New York Times. 

"Given that it's already 70 years since the Constitution was established, where gender equality is advocated, I have to say it is too late," Ms. Taniguchi said. "I'm tired of being happy about 'the first woman something' forever. But I still welcome it if it will bring momentum for a new women's era."

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