Inside One Abe Challenger's Push to Crack Japan's Glass Ceiling

(Bloomberg) -- If Seiko Noda doesn’t achieve her quarter-century goal to become Japan’s first female prime minister, maybe one of the 70-odd women who filed into a conference room to hear her speak Sunday will.

The women -- smartly dressed, ages 15 to 69 -- comprised the inaugural class of Noda’s first-of-its-kind school for female politicians. Noda, 57, who’s Japan’s internal affairs minister and longshot candidate to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this year, plans to use the forum in her central Japanese constituency to prepare a new generation of women for the challenges of political leadership in the male-dominated society.

Inside One Abe Challenger's Push to Crack Japan's Glass Ceiling

“I didn’t set this school up for myself,” said Noda, one of just 22 women among the 283 lower-house lawmakers from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. “I suffered because I didn’t have any role models, and I want to make it easier for the next generation. This is really something political parties should do, but they never have.”

While she refrains from criticizing Abe directly, Noda blames the lack of women in political power for Japan’s struggle tackling demographic problems like its falling birthrate and aging population -- both priorities of his government. She has pledged to champion diversity and put less emphasis on economic growth in a planned run for Abe’s party leadership post later this year.

Still, Noda’s efforts to raise taboo concerns, such as writing about her fertility treatment or caring for her disabled son, have yet to attract the political support she needs. She fell short of the 20 nominations needed to seek the party post in 2015 and a Yomiuri newspaper poll conducted this weekend found 3 percent wanted her to win, compared with 26 percent for Abe and 30 percent for Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of a popular former premier.

Overall, Japan ranks 158 out of 193 countries in female political representation, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

That’s where the school in Noda’s constituency in Gifu comes in. The forum -- set near the historic home base of Nobunaga Oda, a blood-thirsty 16th-century warlord -- aims to change perceptions that women should stay in the background, make tea and hide their opinions. Local politics are a proving ground for many lawmakers -- Noda herself began her career in the Gifu prefectural assembly in 1987.

“When I ran for the assembly, a lot of people told me I couldn’t do it because I am a woman,” said Mitsuyo Umeda, a nurse and a Shirakawa town assemblywoman who attended the school. “The opposition was fierce, and 99 percent of it came from men.”

Inside One Abe Challenger's Push to Crack Japan's Glass Ceiling

Noda’s push to get more women in parliament follows a series of disappointments for high-profile female politicians. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike stepped down as head of the party she founded after losing to Abe’s LDP in October elections and lawmaker Renho Murata resigned her Democratic Party leadership post in July.

The ruling party’s lack of female representation contrasts with Abe’s 2013 pledge to get women in 30 percent of supervisory positions of all fields by the end of the decade. Women accounted for about 10 percent of private-sector managers in 2016, the most recent year for which data exists, compared with 7.9 percent in 2012.

Nami Fukao, 38-year-old consultant and business student who was attending Noda’s political school, said there was a growing gulf between gender expectations in politics and business.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said. “I am studying for an MBA, and in my everyday life there’s no difference between men and women.”

Research by Georgetown University political scientist Michele Swers and others has found the price of having fewer female lawmakers is legislatures that are less inclined to tackle social welfare issues. Nonetheless, a bill that would encourage Japanese political parties to field equal numbers of male and female candidates failed to pass last year, and isn’t among parliament’s priorities.

“It’s a deep-rooted problem and it’s not easy to tackle,” said Mari Miura, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, who plans her own training course for women interested in entering politics. “Essentially, it boils down to political parties, because they’re the ones that can nominate women.”

Inside One Abe Challenger's Push to Crack Japan's Glass Ceiling

Noda, who doubles as minister for women’s empowerment, has previously served as chair of the LDP’s general council. She says her own career was inspired by admiration of former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a previous generation of female Japanese politicians such as Takako Doi, and sees her school as developing similar new models. One student, Hida city assemblywoman Kiyomi Sumida, said it wouldn’t take many to make a difference.

“In our assembly, there are two women out of the 14 members,” Sumida said. “If we could increase that a bit, I think women could make their voices heard.”

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