TOKYO • One woman has stolen the show as Japan heads for an election on Oct 22: Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
Newspapers have devoted many column inches to her return to national politics as leader of a new party, Kibo no To (Party of Hope). The former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rebel has twice taken on her old party - and won.
Ms Koike, 65, stands out as a rare example of a successful woman in power, who has smashed what she refers to as an "iron plate" rather than the traditional glass ceiling.
In 2007, she became Japan's first female defence minister, but resigned after less than two months. Last year, she quit the LDP to run for Tokyo governor and won, making her the first woman in the post.
Her win clearly discomfited her former LDP colleagues, leading one to make the sexist comment: "Tokyo should never be entrusted to a woman past her prime and caked in heavy make-up."
If anything, Ms Koike's rise has cast a harsh spotlight on Japan's lack of progress in gender equality.
Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pledge to the United Nations in 2013 to build "a society where women can shine", Japan has been slipping down the gender equality league tables.
It ranked 111 out of 144 nations, down 10 places, in a World Economic Forum index last year. Singapore was at No. 55.
WOMEN IN SOCIETY
Since he came to power in December 2012, Mr Abe has been touting "Womenomics" as a means to woo women back to work and as a thrust of his signature "Abenomics" economic policy mix.
Policies that have been rolled out include government-sponsored daycare, preferential tenders to female-friendly companies, flexi-work arrangements, as well as a 52-week parental leave scheme for dads to share the child-raising workload.
For the upcoming election, the LDP is promising free early childhood education and pledging to go big on reforms in Abenomics.
There has been slight progress: Today, about 66 per cent of women aged 15 to 64 are in the workplace, up from about 60 per cent in 2010, and the figures are climbing annually.
Yet many are in jobs low on the corporate totem pole. None of the companies listed on the Nikkei 225 is run by a woman, while a fair number are in so-called "irregular jobs" that do not qualify them for bonuses or benefits.
Mr Abe has also scrapped his target, set in 2013, to have women occupy 30 per cent of all management roles by 2020. He is now aiming at a modest 7 per cent to 15 per cent by 2021.
Even as young women are, on average, better-educated, they still routinely draw lower wages than their male counterparts.
Sociologist Emi Kataoka of Komazawa University in Tokyo says: "Gender inequality is a clear characteristic of Japan's society, which is one where the domination of males is conspicuous in both politics and the economy."
WOMEN IN POLITICS
Ms Koike has been walking her talk, by appointing Tokyo's first female vice-governor in 22 years.
The 127-seat Tokyo assembly now has a record 36 women, many from her party Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First). And in the list of 235 candidates for Kibo no To, 47 of them - or 20 per cent - are women.
The figure might seem low, but it compares well against the LDP's 7.5 per cent, or 25 out of 332 candidates.
Not surprisingly, there are few female political leaders. In 2014, Mr Abe appointed five women to his Cabinet, matching a record set by former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2001.
By August this year, there were only two women in the Abe Cabinet.
Even the Minister for Gender Equality was a man.
Female leaders in the opposition have also fallen short. The Democratic Party's Ms Renho quit as its chief in July, after 10 months, with party support in the single digits.
Political scientist Yu Uchiyama of the University of Tokyo says the trend of women in politics mirrors that of society: "Many people in Japan still believe that working for long hours is virtuous and that women should care for children. As women with children can't work for long hours, their chances for promotion are limited."
Lower House lawmaker Takako Suzuki, 31, drew a torrent of abuse after announcing her pregnancy on her blog in July.
One particularly scathing comment read: "This is why female lawmakers are a problem."
Lawmaker Megumi Kaneko, 39, was told after she gave birth to a son in February last year: "You're done for as a politician."
WHY HAS IT BEEN SO DIFFICULT?
The gender divide and inherent patriarchy are best exemplified by Japan's oldest and most traditional institution: its royal family. By law, only men can assume the throne.
While society at large is comfortable with a female monarch - a poll by Kyodo News in May showed 86 per cent in support - there has been very little political will to even talk about the possibility for fear of alienating the LDP's fervent right-wing support base.
"To them, the status of a man will always be higher than that of a woman, and so they see it as a must to strenuously avoid a woman acting as the country's symbol," Kobe College historian Hideya Kawanishi told The Straits Times in a previous interview.
And while male royals can keep their title when they marry "commoners", the opposite does not apply. Princess Mako, 25, will lose her royal status when she weds her paralegal fiance Kei Komuro, 25, next year.
With just one young male prince - Hisahito, 11 - the pressure to produce a son will fall on him and his future wife. Talks which started about a decade ago to allow female monarchs were quickly shelved with his birth, and have never been resuscitated.This lack of political will manifests in how key male LDP leaders have, time and again, spouted sexist remarks that reflect their impressions of women.
In June, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said: "If you only look at her academic background, it's impeccable, but she is a woman."
He was referring to Harvard graduate Mayuko Toyota, a former LDP lawmaker who was fired from the party after she made the news for abusing her secretary. She was warded for mental instability.
On the surface, women in Japan are accorded equal societal privileges as men unlike, say, in Saudi Arabia where women were allowed to drive only last month.
Yet Japan lags behind Saudi Arabia for women representation in politics. The Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union ranked Japan 165 out of 193 territories in terms of proportion of female parliamentarians. Saudi Arabia was 66 spots higher at 99. Singapore was 78. And the world's third-largest economy stands being left in the dust if its antiquated expectations of women persist.
What's at stake is the clear economic potential: Goldman Sachs has predicted a 13 per cent boost were Japan to close the gender gap.