With new cabinet post, Yuko Obuchi's political star keeps rising in Japan

Woman who's Japan's new minister of economy, trade and industry is widely seen as on course to become its first woman prime minister

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 September, 2014, 5:18am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 September, 2014, 5:18am

When Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his new 18-strong cabinet in Tokyo last week, there were few surprises. Perhaps the least surprising appointment was that of Yuko Obuchi to one of the most powerful posts in government - minister of economy, trade and industry.

Already the youngest minister since the end of the second world war when she was named to the cabinet in 2008, Obuchi is still just 40 years old, making her a stripling in Japan's political world. Even more significantly, she is a woman in the old boys' club that still rules the roost in the Diet.

Her ministerial role will thrust Obuchi into the spotlight, as she will oversee the government's unpopular plan to restart nuclear reactors shut down after the 2011 tsunami triggered a meltdown at an atomic power plant at Fukushima, a policy that polls indicate is opposed by a majority of the nation's women.

Obuchi's meteoric rise has fuelled a growing sense that she is on course to become the first woman leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and thereby the first woman prime minister in Japan's history.

There have in the past been other women tipped to break the men-only barrier at the top of Japanese politics. Makiko Tanaka, the daughter of former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, served as minister of education and then became Japan's first woman defence minister in the government of Junichiro Koizumi in 2001 , but she cut an abrasive figure and made more enemies than friends before losing her seat in the Diet in the 2012 general election.

Obuchi, however, is cut from very different cloth. The second daughter of Keizo Obuchi, who was voted in as prime minister in July 1998, Yuko studied at Seijo University in Tokyo before joining the Tokyo Broadcasting System TV company in 1996. Two years later, she became her father's secretary.

On April 1, 2000, her father suffered a major stroke and slipped into a coma. Four days later, when doctors indicated that he would never recover, Yoshiro Mori was sworn in as his replacement.

Obuchi lingered until May 14 and was granted a state funeral after his death.

The following month, Yuko Obuchi stood in the general election in her father's safe seat in the Gunma 5th District and - unsurprisingly - won with a substantial majority.

She undoubtedly benefited from votes of sympathy, and political analysts could easily have written her off as a perennial backbencher, but it swiftly became clear that assumption would be wide of the mark.

Obuchi has given birth to two sons since being in office and was appropriately appointed in 2008 by then-prime minister Taro Aso as minister in charge of tackling Japan's declining birth rate.

As well as her duties as a politician and minister, Obuchi has completed a master's degree in public policy and was most recently serving as deputy finance minister.

Her rise through the party and the experience she has gained at a number of ministries has not gone unnoticed, with Sapio magazine last month identifying Obuchi as "the next prime minister-but-one".

Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, believes she could even go one better than that.

"Assuming that Abe sees out his full six-year term then there would be three names on my list to replace him," Okumura said. "I would put Obuchi as third on that list as the long shot, but that's purely because of her age.

"If the party was desperate for some reason then they might go for her as the popular choice, but even if that does not materialise then she is certainly one for the future.

"And when it happens," he added, "it will be little short of revolutionary".

Still a society in which men overwhelmingly hold the titles and influence - by law, an empress can never sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne and female corporate leaders are as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth - a woman prime minister any time in the next decade or so would be a major breakthrough for Japanese women.

It certainly appears that Obuchi is being groomed for the top post, Okumura believes.

"Head of the trade and industry ministry is a relatively comfortable place to be," he pointed out. "Apart from the debate over nuclear power, it's a ministry where most of the opposition parties - except for the communists - broadly accept the policy initiatives.

"It's a safe post, it's in the public eye, and there are a lot of opportunities for the minister to strut her stuff, both at home and overseas," he added.

And if she continues to impress, there is no reason why she should not "move up" to even more influential ministerial portfolios such as finance or foreign affairs, Okumura said. With that sort of track record under her belt, then it is considered very likely that she would sooner or later reside at the prime minister's official residence.

Obuchi's father was known for his efforts to promote reconciliation in Asia. In October 1998, he signed a joint declaration with then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung , which included a strongly worded apology for the "tremendous damage and suffering" Japan had inflicted on its neighbour. By contrast, Abe has been unable to hold a summit with either China or South Korea since he took office in December 2012 as territorial disputes and disagreements over Japan's past aggression in the region have frayed ties.

Obuchi has visited both countries as part of lawmakers' delegations in the past year and said meetings in person help to dispel misunderstandings.

"My father's influence has made me work hard on issues to do with South Korea and China," she said. "If you don't meet face to face and talk, both countries start to get a bad impression of the other."

Obuchi was one of five women appointed to the new cabinet, with Abe making good on his promise to provide new opportunities for advancement for women in 21st century Japan and to encourage women to play more senior roles in the corporate world.

Abe's previous administration included a mere two women.

Even before the new line-up was announced, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had given a hint of what was to come, by saying during a press conference: "We believe a positive environment for women is a pillar of our government, and we do what we promise to do. I believe that is the policy behind the prime minister's new cabinet."

Abe appointed Sanae Takaichi as Japan's first woman minister of internal affairs, named Haruko Arimura as minister for promoting women's issues, placed Eriko Yamatani in charge of dealing with the problem of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea and named Midori Matsushima as justice minister.

Of the five woman ministers, Obuchi truly stands out, Okamura believes.

"Abe was very seriously considering appointing her as secretary general of the party, and that is not a position you give to a figurehead," he said. "So it is clear to me that he believes she has the appropriate political skills but also other attributes."

Come election day, as well as the LDP's traditional supporters, Obuchi will be able to rely on the votes of millions of Japanese women who believe it is about time they had a bigger say in the future of the nation.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg