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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida banks on women to revive his fortunes | Political news

Tokyo, Japan – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has appointed five women to his cabinet, the highest number since 2014, in a cabinet reshuffle he hopes will improve his low approval rating.

One notable addition to the cabinet is Yoko Kamikawa, who became Japan’s first female foreign minister in nearly two decades.

“We would like to demonstrate Japan’s presence and build trust with our counterparts around the world,” she said Thursday in her first news conference since taking office. She also said Japan would seek “responsible actions from China” and maintain conversations with its neighbor in a bid to improve their strained ties.

The 70-year-old was previously Japan’s justice minister and oversaw the execution of key figures from the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday sect, responsible for the deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

Wednesday’s reshuffle comes as support for Kishida’s party continues to decline. According to a Kyodo News poll from August, only 33.6% of Japanese citizens currently support the prime minister. Approval rates have been declining since July 2022 and reached a low of 33.1% last December.

Kishida hopes nominating more women will boost his support among more progressive and younger voters.

Before Wednesday’s announcement, only two out of 19 cabinet members were women. Women’s representation in politics in Japan is particularly low in comparison with other countries, ranking 138th out of 146 countries for gender equality in politics, according to the World Economic Forum.

“(It’s) a small step in the right direction from a political party with a very poor record on female representation,” Jeffrey Hall, special lecturer in Japanese studies at the Kanda University of International Studies.

Among the women named, Hanako Jimi, a former doctor, is now minister of regional revitalization. Ayuko Kato, the youngest member of the cabinet at 44, will be in charge of children’s policy. She was previously a management consultant and is the daughter of a renowned politician. The minister of reconstruction is now Shinako Tsuchiya, who was previously a culinary researcher and floral artist.

Yuko Obuchi, who was appointed chair of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) electoral strategy committee, also comes from a political dynasty. She is the daughter of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, himself the son of an MP.

A former industry minister, Obuchi was forced to resign in 2014 following a political funds scandal, but regained Kishida’s trust.

The new minister for children’s policy, Ayuko Kato, takes the oath of office at the Imperial Palace. She is one of the record number of women in Kishida’s cabinet (Imperial Household Agency of Japan/AFP)

He says he wants her to discover her talent and help the party achieve its goal of seeing 30 percent women in its parliamentary seats within 10 years.

Hall noted that while the appointment of five women to senior government positions was significant, it would not solve the LDP’s broader problem of nominating and supporting male candidates over women.

For now, the ruling party does not set quotas for female candidates, unlike rival parties such as the Japanese Communist Party. As a result, the LDP grants preferential treatment to incumbents, a majority of whom are men.

“Until institutional changes to increase the overall number of women in the party are implemented, the question of style trumps substance,” Hall said.

Economic woes

More immediately, analysts doubt that female representation alone will be enough to bolster support for Kishida’s government in the long term. Significant new policy changes are needed, they say.

“Ongoing problems such as inflation, rising costs of living and the release of Fukushima sewage have exacerbated the decline in Kishida’s popularity,” Hajime Kidera, professor of politics at the Meiji University.

Although Kishida’s popularity rose slightly in May after the G7 summit – held in Hiroshima, the prime minister’s hometown – it has fallen further since then, Kidera noted.

Much of this recent decline is due to Kishida’s mismanagement of Japan’s My Number Identification system.

First introduced in 2015 as a way to create a single national identification number for all citizens, Japan has struggled to convince the entire Japanese population to support it. The system also faced technical glitches and significant data privacy issues as around 130,000 cards were linked to other people’s bank accounts.

But Kishida is also grappling with the lingering aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Investigations into the assassination have revealed deep ties between some ruling LDP politicians and the Unification Church, a fringe religious group that some have called a cult. The Church is known for soliciting funds through coercion, threats or by linking donations to spiritual salvation, and Abe’s murder was reportedly motivated by the former prime minister’s alleged close association with the Church.

In the wake of Abe’s death, three cabinet members – Economic Revitalization Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa, Justice Minister Yasuhiro Hanashi and Interior Minister Minoru Terada – tendered their resignations between October and November 2022.

But Kishida’s handling of their departure drew widespread criticism, with voters saying he took too long to act. Soon after, his support hit rock bottom.

After this week’s reshuffle, Kishida announced that his government would focus on efforts to combat inflation and the rising cost of living.

The country’s inflation rate reached its highest level in 41 years in January, while wages continued to fall. According to Cabinet Office data, Japan’s economy grew 4.8 percent in the second quarter, lower than the initial estimate of 6 percent.

Whether the new policies – expected by next month – or the reshuffle help lift Kishida’s persistent ratings ultimately doesn’t matter much.

Neither right-wing like his predecessor Abe, nor liberal like Taro Kono, a former rival in the 2021 party leadership elections, Kishida represents a compromise within his party.

“There’s really no one else in the party who can actually step up and challenge him and get the support of enough conservatives and enough moderates,” Hall said.


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