Déjà vu. That Maggie Thatcher moment, all over again. You know how it is. In case you don’t, I’ll tell you.
It’s 1979. As a male sociologist just turned 30, you’ve been feeling the full force and fury of 1970s second wave feminism – even though you always wanted to be one of the girls.
So you’d like to be proud that your rather stuffy, reactionary land has just become the first western nation, and only the fifth country anywhere, to elect a woman as prime minister.
Just one problem: Her name is Margaret Thatcher, and you loathe everything she stands for.
Fast forward 37 years. We’ve come a long way. In the West, female heads of government are no longer rare – if not yet exactly common, either. Indeed the UK is now on its second. (None of us actually elected Theresa May to the top job she’s just begun – but that’s another story.)
And the East? A mixed picture. All Asian women leaders past or present, save one, are related to men who were leaders before them. South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, notoriously a dictator’s daughter, is a case in point. The exception is Taiwan’s terrific new President Tsai Ing-wen, who rides on no man’s coat-tails: she’s 100% her own woman. Good for her.
There are few like her in East Asia’s upper echelons. So in the abstract I cheer that in Japan –like Korea, stony ground for feminists – two top jobs have just, unusually, gone to women.
On July 31 voters in Tokyo, by a landslide, chose Yuriko Koike to run their city. Three days later, premier Shinzo Abe in a mini-reshuffle picked Tomomi Inada as his defense minister.
In patriarchal Japan, that’s quite some double whammy for women. Should we cheer? For the principle, sure. For the particular persons, not really – at least not from a Korean viewpoint.
Japan’s iron butterfly
They differ, of course. Koike is interesting, with an unusual background. Majoring in Arabic – in Cairo – she worked as a translator and news anchor before being elected to the Diet in 1992. In 2003-06 she was minister for the environment; green was her campaign color this time. She had also served very briefly as defense minister, in 2007. Now this “iron butterfly” (the Economist’s rather dodgy epithet) is governor of the world’s largest urban economy.
What’s not to like? Quite a bit, alas. Koike is a hard-line neo-nationalist, ticking all the usual boxes of that ilk. She regularly visits Yasukuni Shrine, and is involved in bodies that seek to whitewash Japan’s pre-1945 imperialist atrocities: in school textbooks and more widely.
On the DPRK specifically, Asia Times readers may have seen her catchily titled op-ed published by Project Syndicate earlier this year. As per its headline, “North Korea’s Pachinko Missiles” suggests that Kim Jong-un’s ballistic missile program is largely funded by pro-North Korean residents of Japan – who do indeed own many of that country’s ubiquitous pachinko halls.
Really? The odd court case has highlighted occasional assistance of this kind. But frankly, as a trenchant site comment points out, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is true overall.
Since 2006 Japan has banned all trade with North Korea. Things were a bit laxer before that, but to see the zainichi Koreans as a major money-box for Kim Jong-un strains credulity.
It’s also a slur. Even though Koike cites fear rather than love of the Kim regime as a motive, her article smears an entire community, already much persecuted. It reminds me of the nasty stuff we read ever more of in sections of the British press, trying to tar all Muslims here with the brush of jihadist terrorism a la al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Koike is stirring a rancid pot.
If Koike is bad, Tomimo Inada is worse. A long-time Abe crony, hitherto chief policy-maker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), she has a long history of defending Japan’s wartime record, including acting as a lawyer for families of soldiers accused of atrocities.
Nor does her nationalism stop at whitewashing the grisly past. In 2011 Inada was one of three Japanese lawmakers involved in a nine-hour stand-off at Seoul’s Gimpo airport. South Korea refused them entry, as they wanted to press Japan’s claim to the disputed Dokdo islets (which Japan calls Takeshima). Discussion is one thing, but this was just a far-right publicity stunt.
A great pick for defense minister, eh? Just when Abe and Park had finally buried the hatchet. Mending fences is already a challenge, with much criticism in South Korea of December’s vaunted final agreement to settle the “comfort women” issue. Whatever was Abe thinking?
Choosing Inada risks tearing these fragile skeins of rapprochement wide open again. The US, relieved to have its two East Asian allies co-operating again, must be nervous. A renewed rift will hardly help the three allies take practical steps together against the North Korean threat.
But you can bet they’re chortling in Pyongyang. The day Inada’s new post was confirmed, North Korea defiantly launched yet another a ballistic missile – which landed in Japanese waters. A hot summer looms, as we’ll discuss in further articles.
I don’t mean to prejudge either Koike or Inada. For Tokyo, the former may prove a breath of fresh air. But in a year and world when too many nations are turning inward – don’t even start me on Brexit – appointing Inada looks like Japan giving the finger to friend and foe alike.
Offense is the best defense, so it’s said. But I don’t think they meant giving offense. Tomimo Inada has made a career of that. Her strategic skills in real-life security are yet to be tested.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, UK. His interest in Korea began in 1968. Since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on North and South Korean affairs: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.