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Japan’s new cabinet looks a lot like its old (male-dominated) cabinet

Japan’s new leader, Yoshihide Suga, center, bows as he is welcomed following the departure of Shinzo Abe as prime minister at a cabinet meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO — Same old, same old (men). And only two women.

While parts of the developed world grapple with issues of systemic discrimination and gender imbalances in the workplace, Japan’s government is, by and large, keeping calm and carrying on.

Yoshihide Suga was formally voted in by parliament and sworn in as Japan’s new prime minister on Wednesday to replace Shinzo Abe, who announced his resignation last month for health reasons.

When he announced his first cabinet on Wednesday evening, it contained just two women in the 20-strong lineup, one fewer than his predecessor’s last leadership team.

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Japan's longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and his cabinet resigned on Sept. 16 ahead of Yoshihide Suga's election in parliament to succeed him. (Video: Reuters)

Suga, 71, had been Abe’s right-hand man during his long administration and had campaigned on a promise of continuity. Powerful faction leaders within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who had backed Suga for the top job also needed to be appeased.

So it was perhaps no great surprise to see so many familiar faces in Suga’s first team.
Taro Aso, the 79-year-old head of a powerful faction, kept his job as deputy prime minister and finance minister, despite a long history of sexist, nationalist and generally insensitive remarks.

Last year, Aso blamed Japan’s graying population on “those who decide not to give birth to children.” In 2018, he appeared to turn the blame around onto a female journalist who had accused a senior bureaucrat of sexual harassment, suggesting that she “could have left the scene” if she really hated his attention, and recommending that news outlets “only assign male reporters to the Finance Ministry.”

Aso, who once said Adolf Hitler had “the right motives,” most recently suggested that Japan’s performance in reducing coronavirus deaths was down to cultural superiority, using a term that was widely used during World War II.

On social media, it was swiftly dubbed it the “ojiichan,” or grandpa cabinet.

Abe had come into office vowing to make women “shine.” He enacted a law to promote women’s participation and advancement in the workplace, and expanded parental leave and child-care services, helping the level of women in the workforce to rise from 63 percent to 71 percent, a higher level than in the United States.

But many of the new jobs for women were lower paying, contract or part-time positions, and women have suffered disproportionately from layoffs during the coronavirus pandemic. Abe’s vow, for women to fill 30 percent of leadership positions nationwide by 2020, clearly has not been met.

More women are in corporate boardrooms than when Abe took power in 2012, but they are still rare, as indeed they are in politics.

For all its perceived modernity in the West, Japan ranks in 121st place in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index — and even lower, 144th place, in the political empowerment subindex, sandwiched between Qatar and Iran.

Just 10 percent of the members of parliament’s lower house are women, with the ratio even lower among LDP members. Two women had considered running to succeed Abe within the LDP, but were unable to collect the 20 signatures needed to get on the ballot, Bloomberg News reported, leaving just three men to compete for the top job.

In Suga’s cabinet, a familiar lineup of political heavyweights kept key roles.

Toshimitsu Motegi, 64, remained in the post of foreign minister, while Taro Kono, 57, moved from defense to take charge of administrative reform. Katsunobu Kato, 64, has moved from the Health Ministry to take over Suga’s old job of chief cabinet secretary and government spokesman, despite not winning public confidence in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The youngest cabinet minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, the 39-year-old son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, kept his role as environment minister, while Abe’s younger brother Nobuo Kishi, 61, was promoted to take over at the Defense Ministry.

Suga had been voted in as party leader on Monday, and soon confirmed a quartet of elderly men in key roles beneath him in the LDP hierarchy: the top five jobs occupied by men with an average age older than 71. But Suga did appoint a woman, Seiko Noda, 60, as party deputy secretary general.

In his cabinet, there were two posts for women: Seiko Hashimoto, 55, retains her role as minister in charge of the Olympics, while Yoko Kamikawa, 67, a respected Harvard graduate, takes on a second stint as justice minister.

But Sanae Takaichi, 59, a conservative who was considered as close to Abe, lost her role in charge of internal affairs, and Masako Mori, 56, left the Justice Ministry after less than a year amid the controversy over the arrest and escape of businessman Carlos Ghosn.

At a Wednesday evening news conference, and for the second time this week, Suga fielded a handful of questions exclusively from male reporters. None asked anything about the status of women in Japan or in his government.

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

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