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TOKYO – Dressed in a white pants suit, the new head of Japan's main opposition party stood out as she raised her hands on stage with three other dark-suited party leaders.
Renho Murata, who generally goes by only her first name, is one of three women who have assumed prominent political posts in recent weeks in a country more known for its male-dominated political and business hierarchy. Her election Thursday followed that of Tokyo's first female governor on July 31, and the appointment of a woman as defense minister later the same week.
It's too early to say whether they are a harbinger of greater change, notwithstanding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "womenomics" push to encourage women to pursue careers. Japanese women have served in high posts before — a pioneer was popular politician Takako Doi, who took the reins of the Socialist party in 1986 — but they have been more the exception than the rule.
The latest three took varied paths to leadership:
A NEW LOOK
At 48, newly elected Democratic Party leader Renho is relatively young to head a Japanese political party. She is also half Taiwanese, an issue that caused a hiccup in the closing days of the party contest, though in the end she won the three-way race by an overwhelming majority. Born Hsieh Lien-fang to a Japanese mother and Taiwanese father, Renho is the Japanese pronunciation of her given name. A former TV news personality and swimsuit model, she is a fast talker who earned a reputation for toughness while grilling bureaucrats over wasteful government projects. She held key party posts when the predecessor in the Democratic Party was in power, and was considered a possible future prime minister at the time. The Democrats, who have struggled since losing a parliamentary majority in 2012, are placing their hopes for a revival in Renho, with her trademark white jackets and articulate style.
BUCKING THE OLD BOYS
Like Renho, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike is a former television news personality who knows how to play to an audience. A member of Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, she ran for governor without the support of the party's Tokyo leadership, which backed another (male) candidate. She went straight to voters and trounced both the establishment candidate and other challengers. A widely reported comment by former Gov. Shintaro Ishihara that Tokyo shouldn't be run by someone with too much makeup may only have boosted her popularity. Since her election, she has launched a review of the city's spiraling costs for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and postponed the move of Tokyo's fish market because of soil contamination concerns at the new site. Her decisions have reportedly infuriated some Tokyo government staff, but are popular with the public. Koike is no stranger to leadership. The 64-year-old veteran lawmaker was Japan's environment minister from 2003 to 2006 and briefly served as defense minister in 2007, the only woman to hold the post previously.
PRIME MINISTER'S PROTEGE
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who holds her first meeting with U.S. counterpart Ash Carter on Thursday in Washington, D.C., leapfrogged over more senior lawmakers to the defense post in a Cabinet reshuffle on Aug. 3. The 57-year-old lawyer has attracted attention for questioning mainstream accounts of Japanese atrocities during World War II and the fairness of the postwar Tokyo war crimes trials. She has been mum on her views of history since becoming defense minister, telling the media to refer to official government positions. Inada has risen quickly since being elected to parliament in 2005, serving most recently as policy chief for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Some speculate that Abe is grooming her to succeed him — which would make her Japan's first female prime minister — since they share similar views on wartime history and she could carry on his legacy. That would require some even more serious leapfrogging, though, over some (male) political veterans long waiting in the wings.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this story.