Two women are vying to become Japan's first female prime minister, although deeply entrenched attitudes about the place of women in society here mean they are likely to miss out to a male rival when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party votes on its new leader on Wednesday.
The party has been forced into a vote for a new president after Yoshihide Suga, the present prime minister, announced earlier this month that he would not run for re-election as party leader.
The new LDP head will also assume the post of prime minister from Mr Suga, whose popularity with the electorate has plummeted over his administration's fumbled response to the coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic crisis. With an election on the horizon, Mr Suga did not help his case with a perceived lack of empathy for the plight of ordinary people and a high-handed approach to leading the nation.
The government's declining appeal has enabled Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda, both internal affairs ministers in previous LDP governments, to stake their claims.
Mrs Takaichi has the support of Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister, and has been busy during the campaign emphasising conservative credentials that have seen her described as Japan's Iron Lady . Those policies include plans to ramp up defence spending and repel efforts by China to seize Japanese territory, although others have suggested that Mr Abe's support is primarily an attempt to update the party's sexist image.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in a country that the World Economic Forum ranked in 147th place for female political empowerment, nine places behind Saudi Arabia, the ruling party does not appear quite ready for a woman to lead them yet.
"Politics is still a very difficult job for a woman in Japan", said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.
"There are so few women in all levels of politics in Japan that they cannot even support each other in a situation like this, so it all comes back to them relying on men to progress and achieve anything", she said.
"Politics in Japan can get nasty and a lot of women are too intimidated to step into that sort of environment, especially if they think it is going to have an impact on their personal life.
"In rural areas of Japan, local government is still seen as a man’s task and any woman who even tries to take part is going to be the target of comments about who is taking care of her husband and children", Murakami said. "Things are better in the cities, of course, but there is still a broad attitude that men lead and women follow".
Opinion polls on the upcoming leadership vote support that suggestion, with Mrs Noda having the support of 3.4 percent of party members and Mrs Takaichi backed by 16.2 percent of the party. Nearly 11 percent of those with a vote say they have yet to make a decision, but 47.4 percent favour Taro Kono, the centrist minister in charge of overseeing the roll-out of Japan's vaccination programme, and a further 22.4 percent backing Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister.
"It will be very difficult for either of the women candidates to win", said Tsumie Yamaguchi, of the Tokyo-based Women in a New World Network.
"And the reason is the same as it has always been", she said. "Japanese society is very much male dominated, all the important positions in politics and business are occupied by men and it is proving very difficult to change our social system.
“I fear it will still take many years to change enough people's minds for Japan to have a female leader".
There is, however, at least a growing recognition of the problem, with a study published in June by the Nippon Foundation determining that more than 62 percent of women say their gender is under-represented in local and national-level politics, with that figure rising to nearly 70 percent of women educated to university level.
Women account for just 10 percent of the politicians in Japan's lower house and 20 percent of the upper house, while the figure in local assemblies around the nation hovers at around 10 percent.
According to the United Nations, the global average of women in national parliaments stands at 24.3 percent, while 19.8 percent of politicians in Asia are female and the figure climbs to 28.6 percent in Europe.
The disadvantages that women face in political life in Japan are largely mirrored in society, with the nation ranked a lowly 120th out of 156 nations in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for 2020.
Japan is below Angola, Ghana and Ghana and only marginally ahead of Sierra Leone, while the Asahi newspaper announced the findings of the study under a headline that declared "Japan still ranks dead last among G-7 nations in gender equality".
And the overall score could have been far worse, critics point out, but was boosted by relatively high figures for health and educational attainment.
Evidence of the state of gender equality is evident throughout society. Women have borne the brunt of the job losses brought on by the coronavirus pandemic as they make up a disproportionately large proportion of the part-time employees in Japan, primarily because women are still expected to take care of the home and raise the children.
And the overarching power of men was underlined again this summer in the debate over whether women should be permitted by law to retain their maiden name after marriage. In hearings of a panel set up to consider the matter, the mostly male members of the LDP said the suggestion was unacceptable because it would cause "confusion".
Yet the possibility of Japan having its first female prime minister by the end of the week is not completely out of the question, suggests Professor Murakami, although it would be primarily a result of political expediency.
Factions within the LDP are jostling for power and the right wing of the party is hostile towards the present favourite, Mr Kono, who is seen as being too middle-of-the-road. If no outright winner emerges from the initial vote, a second vote is held for the two top-ranked candidates.
Crucially, only politicians have a vote in that second round and nationalists in the Diet could very well be convinced to coalesce behind the most conservative of all the candidates, Mrs Takaichi.
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