The Japanese government is a multi-partied affair dominated by the conservative LDP party. As we've reported before, politics in Japan is mostly a man's game. Yet, as gender roles are challenged, the power dynamics of the country are starting to change, albeit slowly. Sawako Naito's successful Tokushima gubernatorial campaign is the latest example.

Naito was a political newcomer running an independent and nontraditional campaign. While a student, the Tokushima native was diagnosed with MS, a progressive and potentially debilitating neurological disease. After beginning treatment for the disorder, she wrote a book detailing her experience. Tireless in her efforts, she then established a committee to revitalize her hometown, soliciting ideas from young people.

This auspicious beginning led the now 36-year-old along a path of community development, which later became the central theme of her campaign. She handily defeated incumbent Akiyoshi Endo who recently lost a significant portion of support from the LDP party.

Naturally, Naito is poignantly aware of the historical implications of her victory. She has brushed off concerns about whether she is prepared to lead during the COVID-19 outbreak. She told Kyodo News that, "With the perspective of a woman, I want to make Tokushima a comfortable city for working citizens and families with small children." She continued, "I want to turn Tokushima into an exciting place with the city and prefectural assemblies in harmony." Considering her previous experience, she likely has the tenacity to do so.

The previous youngest female mayor was Naomi Koshi, who, in 2012, was elected mayor of Otsu in Shiga Prefecture. At the time, Koshi was 36 years and six months old. Naito, who turned 36 in March, usurped Koshi by about six months.

Online Reaction

Many consider Naito's victory a positive development. Although some have expressed concern over her freshman status, others are equally thrilled to see an independent-minded woman succeed. With politics perilously patriarchal in Japan, online supporters are celebrating her historic victory. Here are some reactions:

  • “Naito is riding the wave of the current trend. Congratulations to her.”
  • “This is a good outcome. Tokushima needs to change.”
  • "Yesterday was an exciting day. The residents of Tokushima made the right decision backing Sawako Naito. She has been an amazing person ever since she was a student, which is fantastic. She is a female politician, and what's more, she is one of the youngest. This is good for Tokushima."
  • “A new day is dawning in Tokushima.”
  • “This is a great outcome for the youngest female mayor in Japan. I hope she, and the other young leaders, are ready to deal with the coronavirus. I expect it will be a hard fight.”
  • “Naito’s victory is a positive development. It’s good to see young women becoming leaders in the political world. Although this step toward greater diversity is overdue, it is a necessary step forward for Japan.”

Other Underdog Victories: Disabled Candidates

While Naito's age is extraordinary, her MS status may be just as significant. People with disabilities in Japan have historically been overlooked, often relegated to the sidelines of society. Nevertheless, the 2019 Upper House elections may be demonstrative of a nationwide shift in attitudes.

Yasuhiko Funago, who has ALS, is the vice president of an elderly care company. Along with Eiko Kimura, who has cerebral palsy, he won a seat in the upper house vote. Both wheel-chair bound candidates were backed by the Reiwa Shinsengumi, a small opposition political party.

Many believe the change in public opinion will lead to positive developments in Japan, a country with a disability rate of about 8%. According to Seiichiro Shirai, a member of the Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples' International, the victories represent a shift in the disabled community. As voters begin to listen, people in need of assistance realize they can call on public officials to provide reasonable accommodation.

Foreign-origin Candidates

Indeed, such recent victories bode well for Japan, a country where conservative politicians are painfully slow at addressing change. Sure enough, voters in this island nation are looking for a break from the past, throwing their support behind more progressive candidates.

Recently, foreign-born candidates are making their mark on a homogenous political landscape. Given Japan's isolationist history, their candidacies represent the remarkable degree of internationalization that has occurred in Japan.

In April of last year, a 41-year-old Indian-origin Japanese, Yogendra Purankik, was elected to the Edogawa Ward assembly in Tokyo. The area is largely populated by Indian residents, many of whom supported Puranki. Following his victory, he became the first candidate of Indian origin to be elected in Japan.

Purankik told, "I want to be a bridge between Japanese and foreigners." His timing is paramount as the number of foreign residents in Japan hit record highs in 2019. In recent years, Japan has been loosening immigration standards to cover a declining labor force.

Yet, the road ahead is not without difficulties. Debates are becoming heated as officials and residents alike grapple with the changing demographics of their politics. Japan is dealing with a broader range of communities and the issues such diversity represents. Although some foreign-born candidates experience surging support, as with Purankik, others must deal with skepticism or even hostility from the public.

By - Luke Mahoney.