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Leading Japan: Part 2

Oct. 26, 2016

On the Focus, we continue our two-day series looking into the political battle among lawmakers within the ruling and opposition parties vying for the top post, the Prime-Ministership. Last night, we started with the main governing Liberal Democratic Party. Tonight, we turn to the largest opposition party.

In mid-September, 48-year-old Renho was elected as the new leader of the Democratic Party.

She declares that her aim is to shatter the so-called "glass ceiling"-- the barrier that blocks the career advancement of women and minorities. But can she revitalize her party? And, can she break through the ceiling one day?

It's been about a month since Renho took the helm of the party. She agreed to our request for an interview.

"This month seems both long and short. In any case, I feel like I've been running nonstop the whole time," said Renho, the Democratic Party President.

Indeed, the month was full of challenges for her.

On September 2nd, the Democratic Party kicked off its 2-week presidential election campaign. It was a three-way race between Renho and 2 other candidates.

Given her popularity, Renho at first appeared to stand virtually unchallenged. But a problem surfaced, throwing a shadow over her front-runner status.

It was revealed that Renho was, at that time, holding both Japan and Taiwan citizenship. Dual citizenship is banned by Japanese law.

"When I was 17 years old, I decided on my own to be a Japanese with the name 'Renho'. Since then, I have always wanted to do something for Japan.
I have always been proud to be Japanese and I love my country," says Renho.
She went on to win the election, gaining 503 out of 849 points. As leader, Renho's biggest challenge now is to revive and rebuild her party.

"The glass ceiling has yet to be broken in the United States," said Renho. "I don't know whether that's easier or more difficult to do in Japan. However, it's a fact that the ceiling is thick in the world of politics. We are still a very small opposition party, so I think I have a long way to go to become Prime Minister. But, I wouldn't be taking on the job as the head of a political party if I wasn't prepared,"

What inspired Renho to become a politician comes down to the numerous hardships she faced as a woman.

In her 20's, Renho was working as an anchor for a TV news program. She recalls that one day, when she was covering the Diet, an elderly male politician shouted at her that politics is no place for ladies.

She later married and gave birth to twins. That experience raised her awareness of the country's need to do more to tackle the problem of the declining birthrate. And she says that she faced the reality that virtually all of the burdens of child-rearing fall on the shoulders of women.

After resuming her career, she heavily covered issues affecting children, such as poverty and abuse. This exposure led her to decide to become a lawmaker, and she was first elected to the Upper House in 2004. For her first task, she reviewed how the state budget was used to tackle the declining birthrate.

She then spent a year visiting various child welfare facilities across Japan. She concluded that they were underfunded, and she set about seeking an increase in public spending for the sake of women and children.

Last weekend, she shared her views with an audience of women.

"I thought how cold-hearted politicians are, on the one hand, they tell women to have more children, yet on the other hand, they ignore the problem of the lack of nurseries," said Renho. "So, I told myself that we will create a bigger budget for children. And to do that, we need to do away with wasteful spending. For me, that was the simple answer."
In 2009, the then Democratic Party of Japan won a huge victory in the Lower House and seized power from the Liberal Democratic Party.

Under that government, Renho begins an all-out effort to secure a larger budget for the benefit of children and women.

She launched a new mission targeting dispensable projects to cut wasteful spending. This initiative drew a lot of attention and made her name.

She doesn't hide her ambition.

"It's my fervent wish to take the top job someday," said Renho.

We asked her to identify what her top priority would be as Prime Minister.

Renho said, "I would like to re-organize the budget. I want to shift spending away from large-scale public works projects and change the way local governments receive public funds. I want to review the budget so that more money gets invested in the people."

"First, as an opposition party, we think it's important for us to serve as a check on the current administration. Then, we will advocate policies that make us a party attractive to voters. We are aiming for a viable two-party political system."

We asked her what she believes her strengths and weaknesses are.

Renho answered, "I am a good communicator but that could be to my advantage and disadvantage."

We concluded the interview by asking how important she thinks it is for a woman to become Prime Minister of Japan.

"I want to create a society where it's totally normal for anyone, whether a man or a woman, with the desire, the ability, and luck, to get the position.
I think the Liberal Democratic Party basically values the institution of the family and traditional Japanese culture more than equality of the sexes. So, our party is different there," said Renho.

"If our party is given another chance to govern the country, we will actively put forward policies that support women."


NHK World's political correspondent Yuko Aizawa, who interviewed Renho, joined us in the studio.

Aki Shibuya: Why is a woman becoming the leader of the largest opposition party drawing so much attention?

Aizawa: That's because it's now possible that Japan will have its first female Prime Minister if the Democratic Party comes to power.

In Asia, we've already seen female leaders in South Korea and Taiwan. In the United States, there's a chance they will have their first female president.

But in Japan, there aren't many women in politics. Female lawmakers make up only 9.5 percent of the Lower House. This places Japan 157th out of 193 countries, and puts Japan at the bottom among developed nations. But there are signs of change.

In Tokyo, Yuriko Koike became the first female governor this summer. And other female politicians like Renho are entering the spotlight.

Sho Beppu: Yes, but the approval rate for the Democratic Party hasn't gone up.

Aizawa: That's right. NHK polls show the party has about a 10 percent approval rate, while it's about 40 percent for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is struggling to regain public trust. It hasn't been able to shake off the image of failure that tarnished their last government.

Renho is well known and popular among the public. So, Democratic Party members expect her to play a key role in boosting voter support.

But the party suffered crushing defeats in recent by-elections in 2 districts. They were the first national elections since she became the party's leader.
I think there is still a bumpy road ahead before the Democratic Party will return to power.

Beppu: Renho is known for her clear and straightforward way to speak. But at the same time, sometimes her remarks cause controversy.

Aizawa: She's very good at getting her message across to the public. But this ability can cut both ways.

As we've seen, she led a program to screen budgets to cut wasteful spending. She challenged Japan's bureaucracy and was dubbed "the queen of budget screening."

But she provoked debate when she questioned the wisdom of spending money to develop Japan's next-generation supercomputer.

Renho said, "Why does it have to be No. 1 in the world? What's wrong with being No. 2?"

Beppu: Well Yuko, this is the remark that came out of her. Those who supported this remark were saying that yes, it is a waste to use public spending to promote projects to satisfy national pride. But, critics said that there should be no compromise to pursue to be a winner of the global competition. What other remarks did she make that caused controversy?

Aizawa: She also described the former Democratic Party leader Katsuya Okada as "a boring man" at a news conference ahead of the party's presidential election.

Renho also faced criticism for failing to give a clear explanation for holding dual Japan and Taiwan citizenship.

Beppu: Okay, so what now and what next? How do you think she will try to break the so-called "glass ceiling"?

Aizawa: As the new leader, Renho proposed a new party motto: "From criticism to proposal." She intends to put forward proposals, not just criticize the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. She hopes this will help the public recognize her party's readiness to take over from the LDP.

Renho said she has no choice but to succeed because she doesn't want people to think she failed "because she is a woman." Attention is now focused on whether the Democratic Party can deliver proposals that convince the public it's ready to take on the LDP. This is where her real challenge begins.