TOKYO - One of the three women to snag a senior position under Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is already planning to challenge him for the ruling party leadership next year.
Veteran Seiko Noda, who last week was appointed executive acting secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, said that while it was time for a woman to lead Japan, that would require changing a lot of minds in the male-dominated society.
"Unfortunately, the people of this country still don't believe women are qualified to be prime minister," Noda said in an interview at party headquarters in Tokyo on Wednesday. "I want to convey to them that if women don't do it, we won't be able to stop the population falling," she added, referring to the demographic crisis that's threatening the economy.
Noda, one of the most prominent women in the ruling party, was named to a post where she will act as a conduit between the premier and the political group that's been in power almost continuously for the past 65 years. Due to the LDP's dominant position in parliament, its leader is almost assured of becoming prime minister.
Only two women were included in Suga's 20-strong Cabinet lineup, well short of the government's own target of having women in 30% of management positions in all fields by 2020. That came as a disappointment to some after his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, had touted female empowerment as a key policy for almost eight years.
The gender imbalance in Japan's Cabinet is largely in line with the country's politics as a whole. Only 10% of the members of parliament's powerful lower house are women, and Japan ranks 166th among the 193 countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in terms of female representation - below Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
"Japanese politics is democracy without women," Noda's predecessor in the party post, Tomomi Inada, said at a news conference Wednesday, adding that this leads to blind spots on urgent issues like helping single mothers weather the virus crisis.
Barriers to women's advancement in politics are higher than in other fields, and can even include their own families, according to Inada. Her father cried and threatened to disown her when she decided to run for political office as the mother of two teenage children, she told the news conference.
Even before the pandemic, it was debatable how far women across society were actually empowered during the Abe administration. While the female employment rate hit a record high, women continue to hold roughly 68% of nonregular jobs, according to Japan's internal affairs ministry. Nonregular work is typically less secure and usually offers lower pay.
When COVID-19 hit, women suffered the brunt of job losses as companies cut part-timers, contractors and seasonal workers. They continue to be paid about 26% less than men, according to the ministry.