The first female mayor of a district in Tokyo has vowed to challenge Japan’s male-dominated politics, weeks after she became one of only two women leading municipalities in the Japanese capital.
Satoko Kishimoto was elected mayor of Suginami ward last month to become the district’s first female leader in its 90-year history. The progressive candidate beat the conservative incumbent – by just 187 votes – despite her having only just returned to Japan after a decade living in Belgium.
In one of her first public appearances since taking office, Kishimoto said she had decided to run for office to “promote democracy” in a country with low levels of female representation and to champion causes close to her heart, including labor rights and the environment.
“There is potential to bring about radical change,” said Kishimoto, who honed her campaigning skills as project coordinator for the Transnational Institute – a not-for-profit international organization based in Amsterdam.
“When I looked at Suginami and what local people faced there in terms of public services, childcare and urban planning, I thought something had to change and I believed I could do something with them and for them.”
Kishimoto, who left Japan at 25 to live in the Netherlands before settling in the Belgian city of Leuven with her husband and their two children, has also set her sights on chipping away at gender disparity across Tokyo’s politics, starting with Suginami, a district with a population of 570,000 that she described as Japan in microcosm.
“Japanese politics is dominated by old men,” Kishimoto said at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, citing data showing that the average age of the mayors of Tokyo’s 23 wards is 67, with 40% in their 70s. Nationwide, women comprise just 2% of the political leaders of more than 1,700 municipalities, she added.
In her own ward, none of the heads of the 10 biggest departments are women, and the most senior political posts below that of mayor are occupied by men. Citing the low number of Japanese women in senior management in the corporate world, she said: “Suginami basically represents a typical Japanese organization.”
Kishimoto was speaking soon after Japanese women registered a minor victory in their campaign to wrest control of politics from older men, winning a record proportion of seats in upper house elections earlier this month.
Women candidates won 35 of the 125 seats being contested, raising their overall representation in the chamber to 26%. About a third of the candidates in the 10 July election were women – the highest proportion since Japanese women won the right to vote and stand for parliament in 1946.
But the world’s third-biggest economy fares poorly when it comes to women in politics, ranking 163rd out of 190 countries, according to the international Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women comprise just 9.9% of MPs in the more powerful lower house, compared with almost 50% in New Zealand and 34.7% in Britain. In its 2021 gender gap index, the World Economic Forum placed Japan 147th in political empowerment out of 156 countries.
“The first thing I have to do is make the city’s working environment more comfortable for women,” said Kishimoto, who campaigned on opposition to wasteful public works projects and in support of better childcare services and conditions for low-paid contract workers, most of whom are women. “But the reality is that it will take time. I want to see more women in management positions, but there is a huge hierarchy and women are not yet in a position to be able to step up.”
Her “surprise” victory, she added, had been driven by “many women and sensitive men. Everything was a challenge – I wasn’t supported by any big organisations, including trade unions. But I had the support of individuals. To win an election under those circumstances was unheard of.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism