She is poised, elegant and has both an easy smile and a degree of empathy that are rare in a Japanese politician of any hue. But even if Renho – half-Taiwanese and a former swimsuit model – wins the election to head the Democratic Party, all her attributes are unlikely to be sufficient to lift the nation’s largest opposition to power in the immediate future.
Such has been the damage inflicted on a political organisation that deposed the Liberal Democratic Party in 2009; the political capital was squandered in just three years and three months and left the party flailing around for coherent policies, ideas and – most importantly – a leader.
The party, which dropped the “of Japan” from its full name in March, was founded in September 1996 as an alliance of left-of-centre politicians and peaked in popularity with the 2009 election victory. In the July 2016 poll for the House of Councillors, the party took only 21 per cent of the vote and lost 11 seats to leave it with just 49 members in the house. In the most recent vote for the lower house, in December 2014, the Democratic Party won 73 of the 475 seats.
By turning to 48-year-old Renho, an outsider in many senses, the party may be taking its first steps on the path of rebuilding its reputation and support base.
The latest public opinion polls give Renho – whose full name is Renho Murata but who prefers to go by just one name – the support of 32 per cent of the public, significantly ahead of her closest rival, Seiji Maehara, a former foreign minister, on 19 per cent. Only 4 per cent expressed support for Yuichiro Tamaki, a member of the House of Representatives.
More importantly, among Democratic Party voters, 61 per cent want Renho to take over the reins from Katsuya Okada, who will step down once the winner of the September 15 election is announced.
“The message from the party is that they need fresh blood, a product relaunch, if you like, because the party was so deeply discredited in the brief time it was in power,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.
“With the public holding it in such low regard, they have realised they need to transform their image and Renho marks a huge contrast with current and former leaders,” he said.
“She is dynamic, she has charisma, being a woman in politics is never easy so she clearly has a thick skin, and she wants to test that ‘glass ceiling’ that is so limiting in Japan,” he added.
“But I would say the fact that she is of Taiwanese heritage is probably the game-changer in terms of Japanese politics.”
Born Hsieh Lien-fang in Tokyo to a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother, she did not become a Japanese citizen until 1985, when the Nationality Law was revised to allow Japanese mothers to pass their nationality to their children.
Renho studied law at Aoyama Gakuin University before becoming the face of Clarion, a maker of car audio products, for its annual promotional campaign and posed for a number of swimsuit photo shoots.
In one of her most famous shots, she appeared on a beach minus the top half of her bikini, but with her arms strategically crossed to protect her modesty.
She later began to appear as a guest commentator on current affairs programmes before becoming a news presenter for the Tokyo Broadcasting System and TV Asahi stations.
First elected to the Lower House of the Diet from a Tokyo constituency in July 2004, she served as minister of government revitalisation for a year from June 2010 in the cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and then as minister for consumer affairs and food safety.
She briefly took up the revitalisation portfolio again in late 2011, by which time the government was struggling to deal with the crisis caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The Democratic Party of Japan, as it was at the time, lost in a landslide in the December 2012 general election and has done nothing under two subsequent leaders to make itself relevant to voters once again.
It is up to Renho to arrest and reverse the party’s slide into irrelevance and to make it a genuine opposition force once again.
But will her biracial background work for or against her if she does win the leadership election?
“Haafu children are very much moving into the mainstream in Japanese society,” said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, using the Japanese term for children born to mixed marriages.
“And that is different from when I was growing up, when these children were looked at with curiosity and even disdain because of their assumed circumstances.
“But things have changed and I also believe that Taiwanese people have a special place in our hearts as they were the only ones who did not reject Japan for its years of colonial rule,” Okumura said.
The Haafu children of yesteryear are clearly gaining ground in Japanese society, however, with a half-Indian woman on September 5 being crowned Miss Japan, a year after a woman with an African-American father put on the winner’s tiara in the Japan round of the Miss Universe beauty pageant.
For her part, Renho has always expressed pride in her Taiwanese roots, even being critical of Japanese governments’ failure to recognise Taiwan as a state, claiming Tokyo is “too polite” in its dealings with China on the issue.
She may be breaking new ground in Japanese politics, but analysts here still fear she will not be able to rebuild a party so badly fractured and limping so far behind the behemoth that is the ruling LDP.
“She has energy, enthusiasm and she doesn’t look like just another one of the old suits, and that shows through, but just putting her smile on the party won’t be enough,” said Kingston.
“There are deep fissures in a party that covers a very broad political spectrum, from members who would be quite comfortable in the LDP to trade union types,” he said. “So leading all those factions in one direction will be very difficult.”
Julian Ryall is a journalist based in Tokyo