Renho Murata: the former model taking on Abe

Renho Murata © Alamy
Renho Murata: a leader with “star power”

Japan’s main opposition party has “finally found a leader with the star power” to match that of Shinzo Abe, the popular prime minister, says Ken Moriyasu in the Nikkei Asian Review. Renho Murata recently won a landslide victory against her two male rivals, taking 503 out of 849 votes in the Democratic Party’s (DP) electoral college. Her success follows Yuriko Koike’s election as governor of Tokyo and Tomomi Inada’s appointment as defence minister.

All three women are seen as “symbols of cultural change with the potential to become Japan’s first female prime minister”, says Robin Harding in the Financial Times. Women in high office are a rarity in Japan. They hold fewer than 15% of parliamentary seats, and account for just 9% of managerial positions in the private sector.

Renho (as she is usually known), a 48-year-old mother of two, began her career as a model, once appearing in an advert minus the top half of her bikini, arms strategically crossed. She leveraged this into a career in TV journalism, says Jasper Moiseiwitsch in the South China Morning Post, but her ambitions were “deflated” by the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s, a “disillusioning experience that has defined her political career”.

TV budgets shrank, which meant that she could no longer report on political and social issues, motivating her switch to politics. She was elected to parliament as a member of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2004, and earned a reputation for steeliness while grilling bureaucrats over waste.

Her sense of humour and straight-talking contrast sharply with the gravity of the previous leader, Katsuya Okada (whom Renho has described as a “very boring man”), but her attributes may not be sufficient to rapidly elevate the nation’s largest opposition to power, says Tomohiro Osaki in the Japan Times. Abe’s Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) enjoys poll ratings of 40% while the DP trail on 7%; and the DP has been “grappling with lingering public disenchantment” after its predecessor, the DPJ, failed to deliver on its campaign promises when it held power from 2009 to 2012.

Renho hopes to capitalise on fears about Japan’s sluggish economy and present “viable counter-policies” to the “money-pumping” programme. She acknowledges the uphill battle women face in deeply conservative Japanese society, and advocates policies that support working women.

Tapping the skills of Japanese women has been a key plank of Abe’s revival plan too, says William Pesek on Bloomberg.com. Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs estimates GDP would get a 15% boost
if female employment matched men’s.

The challenge, says Leo Lewis in the FT, is not just to provide more opportunity for women, but to “fundamentally change Japanese workplaces, which often have the longest working hours and are among the least productive in the developed world”. To win over those who feel her pro-women policies are similar to Abe’s, Renho may need to come up with some more radical solutions.