Against the grain - Issue 102 - Magazine | Monocle

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Renho Murata could not be further from the image of the traditional Japanese politician. The leader of the country’s main opposition party is a woman and mother of two, in a country where just 13 per cent of politicians are female. Even more unusual is that she’s the offspring of an international marriage: her mother is Japanese and her father Taiwanese.

Universally known by the single name Renho, the 49-year-old became famous as a newsreader and sometime model, and took over leadership of the Democratic party (DP) at a difficult juncture in its history. The ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) of prime minister Shinzo Abe continues to dominate politics as it has done almost without a break since the Second World War, even as scepticism about so-called “Abenomics” persists. The DP’s last period in government – in its previous incarnation as the Democratic party of Japan (DPJ) – was a disaster from which it has not yet recovered. The task for Renho now is to create a real opposition in Japanese politics.

The DP has always been a divided party, born out of an alliance between old-fashioned socialists, rebellious conservatives and trade unionists. As the captain of this motley crew, Renho’s biggest challenge is to present a disciplined and united face to the world, and clearly define what her party stands for. Recent polls show that nearly half the population doesn’t support any political party, while most of the rest support the LDP. Nevertheless, Renho has proved a combative presence in the Diet and a fierce debater. We talk to the leader of the opposition as she battles to turn her party’s fortunes around.

MONOCLE: Do you think top-level politics is still seen as the preserve of older men?
Renho Murata: Definitely. I think I could only become leader because I am in opposition. Defence minister Tomomi Inada and Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo – both women – weren’t even allowed to run for the top position in the Liberal Democratic party. I think the closer you are to the ruling party, the more difficult it is for a woman to lead.

M: Are you still treated differently, even though you are leader of the opposition?
RM: If you’re young and female you will be taken less seriously. I don’t think anyone has the courage to heckle me but I’ve seen it happen numerous times to my fellow female politicians; shouts of “Pour the saké!” and so on. That culture is still quite prevalent here.

M: Is it fair to say that Shinzo Abe’s electoral success is more about the lack of a strong opposition than enthusiasm for his party?
RM: We have been working extraordinarily hard to regain the trust of our voters since I became leader. We hope to convince those who have lost hope in the government to put their trust in us. The DP has had an image of criticising without offering alternatives but this has changed. We’ve introduced 57 bills in the Diet, more than the current government.

M: Is Abenomics working?
RM: I think it’s running out of options and the public knows it. If we can show our party has a workable economic policy it will be a political breakthrough – and a chance for us to regain the hearts of the people. Numbers never lie. The average GDP growth rate stood at 1.61 per cent during the DPJ administration but since Abe took power, it has stayed at 1.30 per cent.

M: And do you think there has been progress with so-called Womenomics?
RM: That’s just a catchphrase; there has been no progress. The poverty rate of single-parent families is the highest of any OECD country. The Japanese government spends half of what France does on families as a percentage of GDP. If we can raise this budget to ¥1trn [€8.4bn] or even ¥2trn [€16.8bn] then support for families will change considerably.

M: Can immigration solve the problem of Japan’s ageing population?
RM: This will not be easy. We are an island nation and hardly any of us speak English. This is a large hurdle when living side by side with immigrants. That said, in an age where money, people and commodities are freely flowing between nations, it is important for government to stress the benefits of creating a nation that immigrants would aspire to live in. I don’t think the public’s mindset has caught up with that concept as much as, say, in Germany or the US.

M: What can the Abe government do to improve its relations with your neighbours?
RM: The situation in North Korea is worrying. In order to mitigate risk and maintain stability in the region, it is very important for Japan’s foreign policy to find a way to close the distance between us and our neighbours: China and South Korea.

M: What do you feel about Shinzo Abe’s moves to amend war-renouncing Article 9 of the Japanese constitution?
RM: I am completely opposed to the amendment of Article 9. We cannot and must not change the peace-loving nature of our constitution.

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