TOKYO — With her glasses and her updo, and her sharp conservative views, Tomomi Inada has sometimes been called “Japan’s Sarah Palin.”
This week, she will have a chance to present herself as a statesman in Washington. And official Washington will have a chance, in turn, to get a good look at the woman who could become Japan’s next prime minister.
A hard-liner who has defended many of Japan’s actions during World War II, she will make her first visit to the United States since being appointed defense minister last month, meeting Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at the Pentagon on Thursday.
The trip comes at what may be a crucial moment in her career.
“Like Marine Le Pen in France, she’s trying to update her image and become more acceptable to the general public while maintaining her right-wing lineage,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, referring to the far-right French politician.
Inada’s appointment was widely viewed here as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to groom her to become his successor — and Japan’s first female leader. Abe praised Inada as a “very strong candidate for prime minister” at a forum in February and appears to be trying to give her more experience in tough jobs.
Inada certainly will have a list of important problems to discuss while in Washington, chief among them how to deal with North Korea, which last week conducted its fifth nuclear test.
But American military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa, as well as the potential for military confrontation in the East China Sea, where Japan and China are at odds over a group of small disputed islands, are additional issues.
Inada also will have to try to persuade American policymakers to pay more attention to Asia, said Yoji Koda, a retired Japanese vice admiral and former Harvard fellow. “She has to attract Washington’s attention and show that [President] Obama’s rebalance, both political and military, toward Asia has been unsuccessful in terms of stopping China’s assertiveness,” he said.
This new role will be a test for Inada, a 57-year-old former lawyer and mother of two who, unlike many Japanese politicians, does not come from a political dynasty. Instead, she has made a name for herself by championing revisionist causes that are dear to the prime minister.
In 2003, she sued two newspapers for defamation on behalf of the families of two Japanese army officers who reportedly held a competition during the 1937 Nanjing massacre to be first to kill 100 Chinese people with a sword. She lost, but caught Abe’s eye.
Abe encouraged Inada to enter the lower house on a conservative Liberal Democratic Party ticket, and she won a seat in 2005, beginning an astonishingly fast rise through the political ranks.
But she has angered Japan’s neighbors along the way, playing down the Nanjing massacre and saying that the women the Japanese army used as sex slaves during the war were prostitutes. In 2011, South Korea banned her after she attempted to visit a disputed island.
After she was appointed last month, Inada said that Japan’s wartime actions “depend on one’s point of view” and that it was “not appropriate” for her to comment further.
China expressed “indignation” over the remarks, while South Korean newspapers said her new role might complicate relations between the two countries, which — to the relief of policymakers in Washington — have been on a smoother path this year.
But Inada also has raised eyebrows in the United States by suggesting that the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, which convicted Japan’s wartime leaders, was “unjust,” and that Japan should have nuclear weapons.
She’s now trying to put this behind her, analysts say, and present a more moderate, or at least a less hard-line, face.
“In conversations I’ve had with her, and I’ve had a number, she has been not much of an ideologue but more of a policy wonk,” said Michael Green, Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where Inada will give a speech Thursday. He pointed to her support for LGBT rights and what, in any other country, might be called immigration reform.
This year, she skipped her usual visit to the Yasukuni shrine on Aug. 15, the day Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, and instead went on a trip to Africa. Among the 2.5 million Japanese war dead the shrine memorializes are the souls of 14 Class A war criminals, including Hideki Tojo, a prime minister who authorized the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
To increase Inada’s chances of becoming prime minister, analysts say, Abe needed to promote her to his cabinet during last month’s reshuffle. Putting her in charge of women’s affairs would have been too stereotypical, plus Inada needed a “hard” portfolio to balance out some of her previous softer roles.
When Abe returned for his second stint as prime minister at the end of 2012, he created an office for “cool Japan strategy” and made Inada the minister responsible for promoting Japanese food, fashion and culture. In this role, she would dress in a Gothic-Lolita style or wear sparkly, fluffy dresses usually associated with Japanese “cosplay” — the donning of costumes associated with a particular character.
She turned heads in the halls of the Diet by wearing fashionable spectacles — even though reportedly she doesn’t have vision problems — and fishnet stockings, both produced in her constituency.
Tackling defense policy might give her a chance to prove that, despite relatively little political experience by Japanese standards, she’s capable of leading the country. Or, it could backfire, given the controversial changes taking place in Japanese defense policy, said Nakano, an outspoken critic of the Abe government.
Indeed, Abe returned to office with the aim of lifting the post-war restrictions contained in Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Combined with increases in the defense budget —Inada’s ministry has asked for a record $51 billion for next year, partly to counter the Chinese in the East China Sea and also to respond to North Korea — this has raised hackles in Beijing.
“Putting Inada in charge of defense risks adding legitimacy to the Chinese claim that Japan is remilitarizing and is trying to turn back the clock,” Nakano said.
That’s something Abe will no doubt keep in mind. He has repeatedly likened her to Joan of Arc for her ability to triumph over men in tough situations. But on one occasion at least, he noted that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the end.