Japan's new foreign minister wastes no time in championing women's causes

Talk about a baptism of fire. Less than a week after becoming Japan's first female foreign minister in almost two decades, Kamikawa Yoko travelled to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. A stern diplomatic test, but she's clearly hit the ground running — especially in the push for improved women's representation on the global stage.

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio reshuffled his Cabinet on September 13. He appointed five women to ministerial positions, including Kamikawa as the nation's top diplomat.

The change came as a surprise given that Japan holds this year's G7 presidency. Her predecessor Hayashi Yoshimasa has been extremely active in recent months, and continuity was seen by many as a priority.

With the UN general assembly just days away, the foreign ministry scrambled to bring Kamikawa up to speed on what would be a packed agenda. The work clearly paid off.

"Over the course of five days, I met with 16 leaders and foreign ministers, as well as the heads of four international organizations. I was able to build personal relationships," she said on September 22, after the Stateside flurry of diplomacy had come to an end.

Japanese Foreign Minister Kamikawa Yoko speaks to reporters in New York on September 22

Kamikawa, 70, is a familiar face in the top levels of government. She once served as Japan's state minister for tackling gender equality and the declining birthrate, and has also been justice minister three times.

Hopes for a 'Japanese Madeleine Albright'

Before entering politics, she studied at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy Graduate School of Government and worked as a fellow on the policy staff of then US Senator Max Baucus. She says the experience allowed her to "view Japan from the outside."

Kamikawa is known within the Liberal Democratic Party as a courageous politician, and there are high hopes about what she can do as foreign minister. One official said she could become Japan's Madeleine Albright — the first female US secretary of state.

Immediately after landing in New York on September 18, Kamikawa met her counterparts from the United States, Britain and Brazil, as well as International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi.

The mood was especially relaxed in her talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The pair were even heard to call each other by their first names.

Kamikawa meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in New York on September 18

Kamikawa chaired her first G7 foreign ministers' meeting that evening, with the main business conducted in English.

Kamikawa chaired a G7 Foreign Ministers' meeting on September 18.

A statement issued afterwards strongly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and urged the leadership in Moscow to immediately withdraw their troops.

"It was my first time, and I had to take on the important role of chair," says Kamikawa. "But it was an extremely worthwhile opportunity for frank exchanges."

Building rapport with female counterparts

The fact that the foreign ministers of G7 members France, Germany and Canada are also women is not lost on Kamikawa. "I want to make the most of female perspectives in foreign policy," she said shortly after stepping into her new role.

Kamikawa and her French counterpart Catherine Colonna discussed gender equality in talks on the second day of the assembly. "Japan has passed laws, but reality is yet to catch up. I look forward to working with you to promote women's participation," said Kamikawa.

Kamikawa meets French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna on September 19.

Kamikawa is particularly interested in a UN symposium that calls for the meaningful participation of women in the push to maintain global peace.

She first delved into the matter as Japan's state minister for gender equality back in 2007. And last year, she participated in the symposium — titled Women, Peace and Security — as a panelist.

Returning this year as foreign minister, Kamikawa was greeted by a round of applause.

Kamikawa pictured at the Women, Peace, and Leadership Symposium on September 20.

She used her time at the podium to stress the importance of women's perspectives not only in resolving conflicts, but also disaster response.

And her words went down a storm. Other attendees remarked that Japan has finally entered the arena of WPS.

Kamikawa is now eager to have the work of the WPS reflected at a summit between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in December.

Diplomatic debut draws high praise

Japan last had a female foreign minister 19 years ago. Kawaguchi Yoriko served in the government of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro between 2002 and 2004.

"Twenty years ago, no female foreign ministers had emerged from neighboring countries like China and South Korea," she says. "So, when I visited those countries, people were interested, and I think that was an advantage."

But times have changed, and Kawaguchi lauds Kamikawa for seizing the moment. "I was struck by the fact that half of the foreign ministers she met were women…I think it was an excellent debut."

Former Japanese Foreign Minister Kawaguchi Yoriko speaks to NHK.

Still, Japan has plenty of catching up to do on women's equality. The World Economic Forum's latest Global Gender Gap Index ranks the country 138th out of 146 in terms of political participation.

"I think the appointment of five female cabinet members is a big step forward," says Kawaguchi. "It's important that these appointments serve as an opportunity for more women to break into politics."

A US government official was equally effusive about Kamikawa's arrival on the global stage. "Despite just having assumed office, she thoroughly prepared in advance and handled everything flawlessly."

Still, other figures in Washington say they are still getting to know her.

"Former Minister Hayashi and Secretary of State Blinken had quite a good relationship and developed a personal bond through music. It remains to be seen how one might build a relationship of trust with Minister Kamikawa."

Japan's new foreign minister shares similar sentiments. At her inaugural press conference on September 14, Kamikawa referred to a Chinese idiom about the "long road ahead."

Kamikawa emphasizes "lofty ambitions and the long road ahead" in her first press conference as foreign minister on September 14.