Japanese politician fights for gender equality

By Sarah Foster
Medill Reports

Tokyo—There would be nothing special about the night of Oct. 22.

There would be no front-page stories to commemorate her, no newspaper headlines to honor her. No confetti would fall from the ceiling; no balloons would bounce to the floor.

Instead, she would spend her night alone, sitting somberly in a single-room hotel. She would wait for the results to pour in, to confirm what she’d already known.

Noelle Takahashi knows what they’re looking for.

Most of the time, it’s not someone like her.

Nearly five months later, Takahashi can’t get this moment out of her head: The night of the 48th House of Representatives election. She spent it at the Daiwa Roynet Hotel in Yokohama, just 25 miles southwest of Tokyo.

Contrary to most elections in the United States, Takahashi had no parties, speeches or visitors. She took no calls from the media. She simply sat in her room alone, waiting for the polls to close at 8 p.m.

That night marked the culmination of her rapid 13-day campaign for a Diet seat with the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. She had relocated to Yokohama, so she could represent a new prefecture, the Kanagawa 2nd District, where she hoped to unseat a powerful incumbent who had served eight consecutive terms.

She stuffed her bags with the bare essentials. She left behind her home in Tokyo with just a lock and key. She told no one she was leaving, for fear that her opponents would find out.

“I felt like a refugee,” she said.

But this night didn’t just represent 13 days of campaigning. It stood for much more.

Breaking into Japan’s politics is a difficult task, one that often requires a well-known last name or support from the powerful party that has been dominating the country’s political scene since 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party or LDP.

But the task is even more difficult for a certain demographic, a portion of the population that is scarcely represented and greatly criticized when they run. They are the candidates just like Takahashi: women.

“You should be a man, and your father should be politician,” she said. “This is a minimum standard.”

Takahashi was none of these things.

She sat in that hotel, alone and unsupported, never expecting to win.

But she did, however, hope to make a difference.

“I knew I would lose, and I knew I lost,” she said. “But I wanted to do something to improve the status of the women and girls. It’s very easy to criticize something, but no one really takes a challenge.

“I wanted to take that challenge.”

A Broken System

To the outside world, Japan is a bustling country.

It’s the birthplace of major innovations — both technological and scientific — that have changed life itself. It’s a developed country with a high standard of living, where cities are clean and crime is low.

But take a closer look between the lines to observe Takahashi’s Japan, and a deep disparity is revealed.

Women were granted equal rights in Japan nearly 70 years, but data suggests that work still needs to be done.

About 70 percent of women in Japan feel their country lacks equality, according to a study published last year by Ipsos MORI, a British research firm.

This inequality is rooted in the country’s gender stereotypes, said Linda Hasunuma, a visiting professor at the University of Bridgeport. These stereotypes prevent women all over Japan from running for office or just seeking employment.

“Women are primarily seen as wives and mothers and daughters-in-law, caregivers in the domestic sphere,” Hasunuma said. “It’s changing, and more of them are in the workforce and in positions of management and leadership, but if you look at the media, if you look at families and society and culture, it perpetuates ideas about what is a woman’s proper role: being feminine and nurturing.”

In a global survey of women in parliaments, Japan ranked 123rd out of 189 countries, according to an article in The Economist. In the lower house of the Diet, women hold only 10 percent of seats, and 19 percent in the upper house, despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hope that women will reach 30 percent by 2020, an Inter-Parliamentary Union report details.

In the October election, only 7.5 percent of candidates for the ruling LDP were women, the lowest rate among all political parties. Takahashi’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, had the highest representation, with just over 24 percent.

“The LDP has not been very good about canvasing women, nominating them, recruiting them, even under the current Abe’s womenomics plan,” Hasunuma said. “They haven’t done much to place women in elections.”

At the regional level, numbers are just as low.

Women represent just 10 percent of members of prefectural assemblies, 15 percent of city and ward assemblies, and 10 percent of town and village assemblies, according to the most recent available statistics compiled by the Internal Affairs Ministry. It found no women in 32 percent of Japan’s town and village assemblies.

Fewer than 1 percent of mayors in Japan are women, according to an article in Time. One of these women is Yuriko Koike, the first governor of Tokyo, who was elected on July 31.

These figures represent many sociocultural barriers that women face when hoping to make it into Japanese politics, said Liv Coleman, associate professor of political science at the University of Tampa.

“You have a lot of Japanese citizens saying in public opinion polls they would be happy voting for women candidates, similar to what you find the in the United States,” she said. “But because of a lot of pressures for women in Japan, balancing work and family responsibilities makes it challenging to build the resume for leaping into a career in politics. It’s harder for women to get their foot in the door.”

Fears that women who become politicians will not be able to provide for their families, Hasunuma said, prevent them from seeking a position altogether.

“There’s a sense that politics is a more masculine, competitive, aggressive place and that women who are in those spheres may not be as more maternal,” Hasunuma said.

All of these attributes make up the country in which Noelle Takahashi hopes to find her place.

An Unexpected Calling

Takahashi didn’t always want to be a politician in Japan. She has a more “western flavor,” she said, and a career in politics might require that she hide it.

She prefers raspberries to strawberries.

She likes western food more than Japanese food.

She would always choose meat over fish.

She may have spent her formative years in Roppongi, a district in Tokyo, but she also lived in Munich and attended a high school in Washington, D.C. for her junior and senior years.

She holds this part of herself close.

She had no intentions of returning to Japan, until a conversation in high school with her friends made her realize she didn’t know the country of her origin that well.

“My friends asked me questions about Japan, and whenever I answered, I thought to myself, ‘No, that was only in Tokyo. You don’t know Japan,’” she said. “I realized I only knew Tokyo, not entirely Japan.”

She decided to attend college at Kyushu University, on the southwestern Island of Japan about 672 miles from Tokyo.

“I was so culture shocked,” she said. “It was the countryside. If you move from D.C. to this island, it’s like you travel back in time 15 years. It was so boring.

“But I knew about capital cities, and I didn’t know about ordinary people.”

But that ordinary citizen’s life was quite shocking to her. She started to notice instances of gender inequality. The workforce and leadership positions were dominated by older men.

“They don’t speak English; they admire seniority,” she said. “They’re very traditional, very conservative. You have to be a man if you are going to do something in the countryside.”

She continued on her educational path, pursuing her master’s at Rikkyo University, but she still remembered these experiences and these instances.

Takahashi couldn’t just sit still and hold back. She wanted to do something about it. She decided she wanted to pursue a leadership and activist role.

In 2013 she attended a Young Leaders Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., a program that trains young professionals in international policy affairs.

It changed her life irrevocably.

The future that it would eventually bring, however, she was initially unwilling to accept.

“Unlike Japan, the United States is very familiar to politics. Everything is about politics,” Takahashi said. “But at that time, I couldn’t imagine that the ordinary woman would be able to become a politician.”

One instructor, however, noticed Takahashi’s potential. She started to follow her around.

The instructor would persuade her at meals and in sessions, at breaks and during programs. She would constantly call on her during seminars. She would ask to chat over a cup of coffee.

It was too much to handle, so much that Takahashi needed a break.

One day, when Takahashi couldn’t take it anymore, she ran away from the instructor. She hid in the bathroom, hoping to escape her persistence.

But the instructor remained.

“She was a fierce woman,” Takahashi said with a laugh. “She always focused on me. I had to escape. But she followed.”

In the bathroom, the instructor confessed that her mother was one of the first female politicians in New York. She mentioned the similarities between the two.

“She said I have to be ready. I need time to prepare,” Takahashi said. “Japan will someday be changed, when any ordinary woman could win for the campaign. You have to start for the preparation now.”

Takahashi realized she was right.

A Newfound Future

She accepted her calling, steadfast and with confidence, all the while knowing that there would be barricades along the road.

She realized she could combine her goal of becoming an authentic leader, one who encourages and guides, not just directs and commands, with becoming a politician.

“With authentic leadership, you lead people by your heart or by your personality,” she said. “It’s not about how much income you have or your social position. Right now, if you say leader in Japan, you need to have social position. You need to be rich. But these aren’t leaders.

“I’d like to encourage authentic leadership, especially women’s leadership, in Japan.”

Since the Washington program Takahashi has continued to further this pursuit. She attended female leadership and empowerment training programs in 2015 at both Harvard University and Yale University. She attended two programs at the East-West Center, where she grew a close relationship with Ann Hartman, dean of educational programs.

Takahashi, Hartman said, stood out to her, as a figure of both persistence and resilience.

“She is incredibly persistent and she perseveres,” Hartman declared. “She has an assertiveness that’s unique. She’s willing to push agendas even if it’s not popular. You have to be really bold to do what Noelle does. I think that’s what you have to be if you want to be an activist, push the envelope on things that are entrenched on the culture.”

Takahashi ultimately did not win the seat. She lost to Yoshihide Suga, who was re-elected.

But instead of focusing on the failure, she wanted to focus on how much she accomplished.

After campaigning for only 13 days, Takahashi managed to gain nearly 22 percent of the votes in the constituency. She had researchers analyze the data and discovered something surprising: A lot of her votes were from younger citizens and women.

To Hartman, Takahashi’s positivity reflects her greatest strength.

“Most people would have given up on it by now,” Hartman said. “Even if she never gets into politics or becomes a full-fledged political leader, she’s brought an incredible awareness both inside Japan and outside Japan on this problem. She’s one of the few people who is willing to speak out about women’s leadership. In a way, that’s very brave.”

Hasunuma believes fighting this political inequality starts in the schools.

“I think that this has to be addressed at multiple levels,” Hasunuma said. “At education from elementary school on, girls need to see women in leadership positions and be encouraged to pursue that.”

Today, Takahashi can be found working full time on her political projects, hoping to figure out her next elected endeavor.

She envisions a future where she holds a seat in the Diet. She will always have her door open, so citizens can come in and discuss with their representative the issues that mean the most to them.

She envisions a country where all voices are acknowledged and heard—whether coming from a woman or a man.

This is the Japan she wants.

This is the Japan she’ll continue to fight for.

“Take action and become a role model,” she said. “If you take a challenge, citizens will react. If you begin something, someone will follow.

“I think Japan’s future is up to us.”

Politician and activist Noelle Takahashi speaks to a group of students about her campaign trail during the 48th House of Representatives election. Takahashi ran for a seat in the lower house of the National Diet last year, ultimately losing to incumbent Yoshihide Suga. (Ethel Jiang/MEDILL)