Could This Be the Year of Japan’s First Female Prime Minister?

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa, right, attends the Japan-China-ROK foreign ministers’ meeting in Busan, South Korea, in November 2023.

While it is unclear whether the Koishikawa Alliance will work together again, female candidates for LDP president are suddenly attracting attention. As approval ratings for Kishida’s Cabinet continue to slump, some believe that the LDP will try to turn the tide by electing its first female party president.

The person currently attracting the most attention is Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa. In January, Aso suddenly mentioned Kamikawa in a speech, saying, “A new star is on the rise.”

So far, Aso has supported Kishida with his faction, together with the Motegi faction and Kishida’s own faction, since the Kishida faction was relatively weak within the party. A total of about 150 members from these three factions had formed a “triumvirate” against the Abe faction — the party’s largest — but this framework collapsed when most of the factions dissolved.

Given the praise for Kamikawa in the midst of this, there is speculation in political circles that Aso will support her in the presidential election.

Kamikawa is not given to flashy performances, but her solid work has been praised enough for her to be appointed justice minister three times. She is known for signing orders for the executions of 13 people on death row, including former Aum Shinrikyo founder Chizuo Matsumoto, who went by the name of Shoko Asahara. Some politicians admit they would have hesitated to carry out that death penalty for fear of retaliation against themselves and their families by Aum affiliates. Many people have praised her, and even some in other parties have said that she has done a job that men could not easily do. Kamikawa herself has not stated whether she aspires to become prime minister, but there is no doubt that she is one of the most notable female candidates.

In addition, there are other female candidates who are also rumored to run. Two who ran in 2021 and who have made no secret of their desire to run again are former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda, who ran as a non-factional candidate last time, and Economic Security Minister Sanae Takaichi.

And rumors are going around about another potential candidate in the Nagatacho political district: It’s Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who would be the biggest surprise if she runs. Koike has not yet made her stance clear regarding the Tokyo gubernatorial election to be held in July this year, and there has been talk of her possibly moving to national politics.

Koike has been fully demonstrating her potential as the governor of Tokyo, and also as a key player for several local elections since last October, since she’s serving as a special advisor for the party called Tokyo Citizens First Association.

Some within the Liberal Democratic Party point out that Koike became the first female defense minister and the first female governor of Tokyo, and firmly believe that she is aiming to become the first female prime minister. If Koike returns to national politics and runs for LDP president, there is fear in Nagatacho that all the current LDP candidates aiming to succeed Kishida will be blown away.

Kamikawa and Koike are polar opposites in terms of their political methods. In 2005, as environment minister, Koike gained popularity with the Cool Biz campaign, which encouraged office workers to wear lighter and more casual outfits during summertime to reduce air conditioner use. In the 2016 gubernatorial election, she faced off against the Liberal Democratic Party Tokyo Federation, announced that she would run as an independent to “stand against the old LDP structure,’’ and won the election. She is good at disseminating information and has been praised for her performance. If she were to return to national politics, there is no doubt she would immediately steal the spotlight.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the first female leader of a Group of Seven nation, took office in 1979. Forty-five years later, it is good news that Japan is finally coming close to having its own female prime minister.

The Thatcher government, which was expected to be short-lived, lasted more than 11 years. Even before she entered politics, Thatcher had written an article for a newspaper called the Sunday Graphic in 1952, the year Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne. Headlined “Wake up, Women,” it advocated for the advancement of women’s status. While Thatcher cannot be given exclusive credit, the participation of women in British politics increased to a remarkable degree in the 40 years after she became prime minister. Only 19 women won House of Commons seats in the 1979 general election that brought her government into power. But in the 2019 general election, that number reached an all-time high of 220.

Britain now ranks 15th in the Global Gender Gap Index. Will Japan ever catch up?

In Japan, a country with a conspicuous gender gap, a political breakthrough could happen this year.

In the 2023 edition of the “Global Gender Gap Report” released by the World Economic Forum in June last year, Japan’s rank on the Global Gender Gap Index was 125th out of 146 countries, falling nine places from the previous year to its lowest level ever. Japan scored even worse on the Political Empowerment subindex, ranking a dismal 138th. With women holding only 10% of seats in the House of Representatives and just 8.3% of ministerial posts, it was made clear once again that the gender gap has not been closed.

However, this situation may change because several women are being talked about as candidates for the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election to be held this fall, when the term of the current party president, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, expires.

Since the beginning of the year, trust in politics among the Japanese people has been shaken due to revelations about the shady role of money in politics. With no broadly supported candidate to succeed Kishida having emerged, the situation is more chaotic than ever.

There are several reasons for the turmoil. One reason is that Kishida called for the dissolution of party factions in response to some of them allegedly violating the Political Funds Control Law. Up until now, factions have played a dominant role in selecting presidential candidates. The candidate with the most factional support has won the post of LDP president, which under the current circumstances is tantamount to being named prime minister of Japan.

But with the dissolution of the factions, this system has almost collapsed. Although the Aso faction and the Motegi faction continue to operate by calling themselves political groups, the public harshly views them as essentially still being factions, so they are not openly promoting their activities. It would be impossible for them to carry out factional maneuvers as before. Until now, the faction that produced the party president enjoyed preferential treatment in terms of personnel affairs as the “presidential faction,’’ but now that there are no more factions except those of Aso and Motegi, this function will no longer exist.

Secondly, the dissolution of factions has made it difficult to predict the movements of factionally unaffiliated members. Previously, members who wanted to run for president were highly likely to hold back in deference to the opinions of their faction elders. But now that their factional shackles have been broken, they may decide to run on their own. In that regard, lawmakers who have the power to appeal to the public by themselves or have influential allies may be potential candidates. The presidential election will become more complicated because it will no longer be possible to calculate how many members from a faction will support the candidate.

Under these circumstances, with just over half a year left until the presidential election, an increasing number of members are planning to run for office. Former Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and digital minister Taro Kono are attracting attention, since these three came together as the “Koishikawa Alliance” — an acronym using kanji from each of their names — to support Kono in the last presidential election in 2021. Koizumi and Ishiba were independent of factions even before the latest money and politics issues emerged. Although Kono belongs to what is still considered the Aso faction, his fealty to it is not so strong.

Another complication is that Taro Aso, the leader of the Aso faction, supports Kishida’s bid for reelection, and is said to be cautious about Kono running for office. Kono is aiming for an alliance with Ishiba and Koizumi just as in the previous presidential election. But this time Ishiba, who has been a party presidential candidate in the past, also has a desire to run himself, so it is unclear whether the same cooperation will be possible. Koizumi, who has strongly advocated for the dissolution of factions within the LDP, is highly popular with the public, so his moves regarding the presidential election are attracting attention.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Yukiko Ishikawa

Yukiko Ishikawa is a staff writer in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.