Glass ceilings and Tokyo’s new woman governor

Chris Game

Give an academic a metaphor and they’re – start as you mean to go on – like a pig in clover. They’ll squeeze it till its pips squeak. Take the glass ceiling – which, certainly when first launched, seemed an OK metaphor for the unacknowledged barrier(s) to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities.

But then we had glass cliffs and glass escalators, and not even glass, but solid, ledges – and I rather lost interest. So I’m back to glass ceilings, the big difficulty with which, it always seemed to me, comes when you start celebrating their shattering. Because – as any schoolboy cricket enthusiast learns early, if expensively – cracked or even smithereened glass is very easily replaceable, possibly even by something more resilient.

One woman’s pioneering breakthrough is rarely anywhere near enough to change a masculist systemic culture. Which is why, among several recent headlined cases of women gaining major political advancement, Theresa May’s becoming our second female Prime Minister stands on its own. It means Thatcher, at least in that sense, is no longer a one-off.

The others – Hillary Clinton as the first woman nominated for US President by a major party, Virginia Raggi and Chiara Appendino elected as first women mayors of Rome and Turin, and Yuriko Koike’s election as Tokyo’s first woman governor – are all outstanding historic breakthroughs. But in, say, 2036, will they still be one-offs – and, even if not, will the respective glass ceilings be beyond repair?

For several reasons this blog focuses on Koike, one being that, if you sense a certain male chauvinism in the upper reaches of British politics, then Italy and even more so Japan are in leagues of their own.

In post-war Japan, electorally anyway, things started promisingly. In 1946, the first time Japanese women were able to vote or stand for political office, they took 39 of the 466 seats (8.5 per cent) in the House of Representatives, the lower house of the national parliament. It may not sound great, but the previous year we’d elected just 24 MPs (3.8 per cent) to our 640-member House of Commons, and we took until 1992 to reach Japan’s 1946 proportion.

By then, though, Japanese ceiling glaziers had been hard at work repairing. In 1986 women MPs were down to seven, and, although partial proportional representation helped reverse this trend, the present 45 (9.5 per cent) puts Japan 155th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking of women in national parliaments – embarrassing even compared to the UK’s pretty paltry 48th place with 29.4 per cent women.

Moreover, in contrast to Britain, Japanese women’s representation is far worse in local than in national government. In last year’s elections women won only four of the 222 city, town and village mayoralties up for re-election, giving a national total of 24 or 1.3 per cent.

As for the governors of the 47 prefectures – the upper tier of Japan’s two-tier sub-central structure – the first woman was elected only in 2000, though she was quickly followed by three more, the 8.5 per cent total described by some Japanese Pollyanna as “a political miracle”.

It wasn’t – the glaziers were rehired, another glass ceiling largely restored, and until Yuriko Koike’s election there were just two women governors. True, one of the prefectures is Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost and easily largest island, so arguably nearly a quarter of the country by area was governed by women. A 20th of the population, though, would be more meaningful, which, with the addition of Tokyo’s 13.6 million, is now one-fifth. That itself is some measure of Koike’s achievement, but what does she bring to a job that’s a combination of American mayor and state governor?

Unlike Italy’s Raggi and Appendino, both in their 30s and until their mayoral election comparative political outsiders, Koike has been a national politician since the early 1990s with ministerial responsibilities including the environment and, very briefly, defence.

So she ticked the name recognition and experience boxes, but was nonetheless able to run almost an outsider’s anti-male establishment campaign – wearing green to emphasise her freshnesshaving announced her own nomination literally while her party, the conservative (and masculist) Liberal Democrats, were preparing to nominate another elderly male.

The election itself was a cakewalk. On a 60 per cent turnout, 14 per cent up on the previous election, she comfortably defeated her Social Democratic opponent, the official Liberal Democratic candidate, the Happiness Realisation Party hopeful, and 15 other independents.

So far Koike’s policies sound distinctly motherhood and apple pie-ish, especially from a career-long Conservative – “new policies that no one else has seen” and suchlike. Her campaign emphasised more day care centres, elderly care, work-life balance and ‘women’s issues’ generally, but was short on both specifics and funding.

Which brings us inevitably to Tokyo’s hosting of the 2020 Summer Olympics. Back in 2012/13, swiftly following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear reactor, the successful bid – against Istanbul and Madrid – was supported overwhelmingly by the Japanese nationally and strongly by Tokyo residents. Today’s support, with the proposed budget reportedly already having tripled or more, has surely dropped, if not plummeted, and part of Koike’s outsider appeal was that she was the best bet to keep costs from escalating further. As she makes her way to Rio this weekend as representative of the 2020 host city, she’ll surely be looking back on one of the shorter political honeymoons.

This blog was first published by the Political Studies Association (PSA) on 17th August 2016.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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