Huge tasks for Japan's new leader
When I first heard that two women -- Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda -- were seeking the leadership of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), I was blessed with a hopeful thought that maybe the result of last Wednesday's election could bring real change to Japanese society.
Ms Takaichi and Ms Noda, both former internal affairs ministers, were the first women in 13 years to run for the post, the holder of which will become prime minister and lead the country's biggest party into elections next month.
The prospect of the first female prime minister in Japanese history brought with it hopes that gender equality would finally be addressed seriously in a country where it has long been a problem.
Former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who backed Ms Takaichi, had promoted women's advancement but his administration fell far short of his goal to have women represent 30% of decision-making positions by 2020, postponing it by as long as a decade.
Japan ranked worst among the Group of Seven advanced economies -- 120th in a 156-nation gender gap survey by the World Economic Forum this year. Women comprise only about 10% of Japan's parliament, and analysts say many tend to try to advance by showing party loyalty rather than pursuing gender equality. The percentage of female boardroom representation, meanwhile, is in the single digits.
In the end, LDP members chose a safe and boring pair of male hands. Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, came out ahead of both his two female rivals and Taro Kono, a cabinet minister and national vaccine tsar, who was more popular with the public than any of the others.
The change of leadership in Japan comes as the world prepares to bid farewell to Angela Merkel, who is bowing out after 16 years at the helm of Europe's largest economy. Widely admired at home and abroad, she is credited with steering Germany and Europe through numerous crises.
Even though Japan has never had a female leader, having two women vie for the top job is considered progress for the ruling party. For hopeful observers like me, the LDP contest might encourage more Japanese women to consider entering politics or to seek leadership roles in their chosen carers.
Mr Kishida, now 64, had been groomed as potential successor to Mr Abe, serving as his foreign minister from 2012 to 2017 and LDP policy chief from 2017 to 2020. The Hiroshima native will be formally elected as prime minister in a parliamentary session today.
As he takes office after the short-lived administration of Yoshihide Suga, whose popularity nosedived amid public unhappiness with the national pandemic response, Mr Kishida faces mounting challenges. But he might escape some of the pressures that felled Mr Suga, as vaccinations have finally gathered momentum with close to 60% of the public now fully inoculated.
But he will need to shore up an economy battered by more than a year of Covid and lengthy lockdowns. High on his agenda will likely be a big fiscal stimulus package, which he said could be "worth dozens of trillions of yen by the end of the year".
While he is expected to offer a continuation of Mr Abe's economic policies, which failed to cure national stagnation, Mr Kishida during his campaign promised a "new capitalism" that focuses on narrowing the wealth gap and encouraging companies to share more profits with middle-class workers.
Other enormous challenges include declining births, a shrinking population, gigantic public debt and increasingly damaging natural disasters fuelled by climate change.
Bigger threats are looming abroad as well, stemming from the rise of China. As Australia enters a defence partnership with the US and the UK, a move that infuriated China, the stakes are greater for Japan, given its closer proximity to China and territorial disputes.
China and Taiwan, meanwhile, are both seeking membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the trade pact on which Japan took the lead after the US pulled out. Mr Kishida will have to use all his diplomatic skills to finesse a decision on whether, or how, to accept the self-governed island without angering China.
Equally important is to win trust from the Japanese public and shore up unity in the LDP to push the reforms the country needs. If he fails to achieve this, it will be damaging not only for the party but Japan as a whole.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor