After two and a half years of preparation, Maiko Takahashi has learned what it takes to be a politician in Japan and is facing her big test.
Wearing a ribbon with her name written in large letters, the 33-year-old former journalist kneels and reads aloud her commitment to the district she wants to represent in parliament. She runs around a parking lot of a construction company and gives as much fun as she can to potential voters, repeating the familiar words from political campaigns in Japan: “Thank you! I will try my best!”.
Takahashi is a rare breed in Japan. She is a young and novice mother in politics who wanted to lead the Liberal-Democratic Party that has ruled Japan for many years, where more than 90% of the legislators and almost all those in power are men.
In the campaign, she says she will work to increase the wages of daycare workers so that they have the ability to care for more children and parents can be sure that their children are receiving proper care. She mentions that she once could not find a place for her son, now 3. “Here in Oita, I want to create an environment where mothers can feel comfortable going out to work,” she said.
On October 31, you will find out if her message has passed. The party is trying to maintain its power in Sunday’s general election. According to opinion polls, Takahashi is likely to step in and is one of dozens of lone politicians who will ultimately decide whether the party can keep new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in office.
Only 10% of Japanese lawmakers are women
In Japan and other democracies there are many similarities to Western democracies except for one issue: the representation of women.
Japan ranks 165th in the world in terms of the number of women in the Legislature, about 10%, according to the Parliamentary Assembly, two places behind Botswana. India, South Korea and Indonesia are also not in the top 100. The United States, of which women make up 27 percent of the legislature, ranks 72nd.
Of the 277 candidates of the Liberal-Democratic Party in local constituencies in this election, less than ten are women and only two of them – Takahashi and a former actress – will be new members of parliament if elected. Even in the main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, of which gender equality is a part, more than 80% of the candidates are men.
While being elected for the first time is not an easy thing for anyone, it is especially difficult for women like Takahashi who are not following in the footsteps of their husbands or fathers and an oil not recognized as sports or entertainment stars. Women say that their skills and even their ability to express their opinions are subject to the most criticism.
“The criticism that female candidates hear most of the time is something like, ‘How can she not do as she is told?'” Takahashi said in an interview at her campaign office, which has a small white playroom for her and the children of the rest of the campaign staff. She said older people in her county initially thought her job was to just smile a nice smile.
Politics can be cruel
When she left a position as Bloomberg’s reporter in Tokyo, Takahashi moved in 2019 to the distant Uita on the southern island of Kyushu, who had never lived there, in order to prepare for a race for a vacant seat. With the help of a former influential trade minister, she won the support of the Liberal Democratic Party.
She has always loved politics and dreamed of running in elections. Her husband, former Bloomberg reporter Conor Sislo, says he knew why he came in and promised to support her.
Sislow, who grew up in Paris, Ohio, not far from Toledo, also left Tokyo and moved to Uita, where the couple lives with their son. He helps raise the child, and even his mother helped at some point before the plague began.
They both learned that Japanese politics is still a very local matter. Television advertising is limited. Getting to know a lot of people, getting oral support and gaining positive newspaper coverage are still crucial factors. Takahashi said one of the reasons she did not hire a babysitter was to avoid negative gossip.
They also learned that politics can be cruel. An article in a magazine quoting anonymous people from Oita who criticized her questioned her ability to deal with the aides to the retiring party representative, who is leaving politics. At first she inherited the team from him, but then their paths parted.
The magazine also downplayed her interest in politics when she was still a girl, a text she submitted to the party to gain her support, saying her handwriting was childish and that she should have stuck to policy issues and not slipped into other issues.
“It’s like she’s a candidate to be dropped.”
Someone decided it was a good idea to tuck a copy of these magazine articles into the mailbox of 70-year-old green-skinned voter. Sitting on a bench in a mall in Uita, Temai said she is a supporter of the Liberal Democratic Party but does not like what she has heard about the young woman the party runs in her county.
“It’s like she’s a candidate who’s dropped,” Tamai said. “I wonder if she understands the area.”
Takahashi said she was hurt when she saw the articles, which she claimed were intended to appeal to an audience of male readers because they criticized an aspiring woman. “They would not have written like that if I were not a young woman,” she said. But she also said she received encouragement from local supporters who told her their articles did not change. A representative of the magazine said that the newspaper has nothing to add beyond the articles themselves.
Her main rival, a union-backed candidate named Shuji Kira, is a 63-year-old Oita resident who has served five times in parliament and previously worked for a Japanese trading company in New York.
Kira said he also thought of children when he offered to pay more to parents who give birth to more children. Parents can receive up to $ 1,300 a month for a fourth child under his program. “I do not say this because she competes with me. I have been saying this for a long time,” he said.
Takahashi disagrees with this proposal, saying such grants will encourage parents who want but are not prepared for the burden of raising a large family.
At the Hirakura construction company in Uita, the workers and managers in the parking lot who listened to Takahashi speak were almost all men. Across the street, the boss’s wife, 47-year-old Naoko Hirakura, maintained a respectable distance as she stood outside her home close to the office.
Hirakura said Takahashi approached her shortly after she moved to Oita and has developed a lot since. “At first I wondered if a young woman like her would get along here,” Hirakura said. “Now she has a more powerful style.”