Will LDP's 'Joan of Arc' become Japan's first female PM?
MASATO SHIMIZU, Nikkei senior staff writer
TOKYO -- Tomomi Inada, an up-and-coming middle-ranking lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and chairwoman of the party's Policy Research Council, is quickly emerging as a formidable political figure in what remains one of the world's most male-dominated democracies.
Given the exceptional support Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has extended to her, Inada might well become Japan's first female prime minister.
Inada's rise is being propelled by the steadfast backing by Abe, who thought that her conservative political credo would match his own. He pushed Inada as an LDP candidate for Fukui Prefecture for the 2005 national election in which privatizing the postal service was the main issue. Since then, she has been elected to the Diet four times.
However, it is not only her hawkish beliefs that attracted Abe. A former lawyer, Inada is remarkable for her power to outdebate political foes with lucid logic and an incisive tongue.
During a debate program aired June 21 by national broadcaster NHK, she sparred over the controversial national security legislation currently tabled in the Diet with Goshi Hosono, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan's policy research council.
Hosono, an experienced polemicist, urged the ruling block to respect criticism of the security bills by mainstream scholars. Earlier this month, Yasuo Hasebe, professor of law at Waseda University, upset the LDP by telling the Diet that the proposed law is unconstitutional despite Hasebe being one of the expert witnesses recommended by the party.
"The LDP should heed the opinion of one of the most authoritative experts on constitution," Hosono said.
Inada countered: "One of the most authoritative experts on constitution, Nobuyoshi Ashibe, wrote that the Self-Defense Forces are unconstitutional in 'Constitution,' widely seen as the best textbook on the nation's supreme law." Hasebe is a follower of Ashibe.
"So you think the SDF is unconstitutional?" she asked.
When Abe formed his second government in 2012, he handpicked Inada for administrative reform minister. She quickly made her mark after a series of heated legal debates with bureaucrats at the government's Council for Regulatory Reform.
"Her political caliber had been untested," a private-sector member of that council said. "I have been totally impressed by her performance."
Inada is as sophisticated in promoting her image as she is local industries.
The minister in charge of "Cool Japan" strategy wears a variety of stylish eyeglasses despite having no trouble with her eyesight. She also walks the corridors of the Diet building wearing fishnet stockings. Both the glasses and the fishnet pantyhose are specialties of her constituency, and wearing them in public places advertises not only the fashion items but Japan's technology to the world.
Another of Inada's attributes is her openness to new ideas despite being politically conservative.
Inada values tradition and visits Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo every year. But she makes continual efforts to grasp the circumstances of young people through her exchanges with young intellectuals, such as Noritoshi Furuichi, a 30-year-old Japanese sociologist.
Until recently, Inada was deemed just another follower of Abe, who has been making decisions on major economic policies -- notably raising the consumption tax to 8% and delaying additional increase of the levy to 10% -- without consulting the Policy Research Council, which she heads. Instead, Abe has tapped other entities such as the Council on Fiscal and Economic Policy for decision-making.
When Abe appointed Inada as chairperson of the LDP's policy research council as part of an executive reshuffle of the cabinet and the party, it was expected that her roles would be limited to those of a liaison who spreads Abe's intentions throughout the party.
However, she recently made headlines by clashing with Minister for Economic and Fiscal Policy Akira Amari over how to reduce Japan's mountain of public debt.
When Abe in November announced a delay in implementing an additional sales tax increase, the prime minister sought to dispel concerns about a future fiscal crisis and pledged that he would present a credible blueprint on how to restore the nation's fiscal health by this summer.
After Abe ruled out the possibility of raising sales tax beyond 10% for now, the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, an advisory body practically led by Amari, was promoting the idea that banks on high economic growth and thus major expansion in tax revenues, so that deep spending cuts can be avoided in politically sensitive areas such as entitlements.
Inada staunchly opposed this, insisting: "Social security should not be a sacred area exempt from spending reform."
In February, she set up a special committee on fiscal reform within the LDP's Policy Research Council. The resourceful Inada invited Hidenao Nakagawa as a lecturer for the first session of the committee. Nakagawa, who headed the council under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, drew up a plan to save up to 14 trillion yen of government expenditures in the subsequent five years.
Abe has been increasingly comparing Inada to Joan of Arc, the patriotic girl in 15th century France, who believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its long-running Hundred Years War with England.
Joan wore men's clothing in battle and boosted the morale of her fellow soldiers. Abe appears to be hoping that Inada will do the same for both the LDP and the country. "She is the LDP's Joan of Arc," Abe often told his aides.
Trace of vulnerability?
Abe, however, may also be seeing a trace of vulnerability in Inada. Joan of Arc almost saved the country from the brink of defeat, only to be captured and executed by the English. Abe may be fearing that a similar fate awaits Inada -- a woman who is so brave that she doesn't mind entering enemy territory too deeply and giving her life for the cause she believes in.
However, Inada may be smarter than Abe thinks. In the effort to reduce the budget deficit, Inada did not carry the banner. She appointed Taro Kono, head of the LDP's Administrative Reform Promotion Headquarters, as the front man for creation of spending reform plans.
Kono, a strong proponent of phasing out nuclear power, was a maverick in the LDP, which is largely pro-nuclear. However, he has somehow maintained strong ties with some senior party officials, including Finance Minister Taro Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Kono successfully led the drafting of the outline for the expenditure reduction plans. It calls for increases in social security-related expenses to be curbed to around 500 billion yen ($4.02 billion) per year and keep the growth of other spending items almost level.
Inada also demonstrated that she has suppleness to win opponents over, rather than talk them down, when she finds that such a strategy is more effective.
She welcomed even people wary of quickly mending fiscal health into the special committee. They include Shoji Nishida, who believes in big government, and Kozo Yamamoto, a proponent of reflationary policy through further monetary easing. Inada made a calculated judgment that, once on board, these opponents would not dare scrap the hard-earned consensus at the 11th hour, despite their vocal protests against the rushed fiscal consolidation.
A visit to Germany in May further steeled her to immediately implement spending reforms. She learned on the trip that structural reforms in the social security system and labor market made the German public finances healthier, achieving a stronger economy for subsequent generations. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder forced through the reforms despite strong resistance from labor unions, the support base of his Social Democratic Party of Germany.
While in Germany, Inada was repeatedly told of how Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg prime minister and current head of the European Commission, described the political risks of taking tough economic decisions: "We all know what to do; we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it."
That being said, the LDP's special committee under Inada managed to persuade lawmakers with vested interests in the medical and welfare fields to accept the spending-curbing program. It was a rare moment in which the ruling party, which tends to want a generous expenditure, was calling for a slimmer budget.
At a news conference on June 18, Inada questioned the legal basis of the Tokyo tribunal that convicted Japanese military and political leaders of war crimes.
"I have no intention to say the tribunal is invalid," she said. "But I do believe [the judges'] understanding of the history, cited in the ruling, was so sloppy that we need to properly examine" the facts laid out in its ruling.
The Allied powers established the International Military Tribunal for the Far East after the end of World War II to try those responsible for the war.
"We have received suggestions that a thorough investigation be made into what happened during the Occupation until the San Francisco Peace Treaty, including how the current constitution was drawn up," she said.
Inada announced plans to set up a new body within the LDP that is tasked with reviewing occupation policies adopted by the Allied powers as well as how Japan's constitution was written.
Some LDP members are suspicious of Abe's mentoring of Inada.
The ruling party is in dire need of prime ministerial candidates to succeed Abe. Female LDP lawmakers, such as Seiko Noda, former chairman of the LDP's General Council, and Yuko Obuchi, former economy, trade and industry minister, are not regarded as qualified successors because of differences in their political views with Abe, or scandals over political funds.
Asked about her ambitions for the premier's job, Inada said: "I am aware that this will sound as if I have a desire to take the post, but I think every politician aspires to be prime minister."