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Vertigo atop Japan’s ‘glass cliff’

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Japan's Defence Minister Tomomi Inada announces her resignation during a news conference at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo, Japan, 28 July 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon).

In Brief

Women in Japan continue to face obstacles. If the glass ceiling doesn’t prevent them from gaining positions of power, the glass cliff prevents them from staying there.

The ‘glass cliff’ refers to the posting or nomination of women to precarious leadership positions. It is a phenomenon that has been suspected to exist for a long time and has been confirmed by archival and experimental evidence in the UK in the private sector and more recently in politics.


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In such situations, women are nominated to run for ‘unwinnable’ seats and then often lose. These losses reinforce the idea that women ‘do not have what it takes’ to succeed in the world of politics since even when ‘given a chance’, they fail.

In late July 2017, Inada Tomomi and Renho — women both tipped as future prime minister material — stepped down as defence minister and leader of the opposition respectively. Did they too fall victim to the glass cliff?

Inada Tomomi resigned from her post as defence minister after months of scandal. Neither the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) nor the government was in any particular trouble when Inada was posted to the position in August 2016. Abe is always on the lookout to spruik his feminist credentials, so what better way than to post a friend and ally who happens to be a woman to a highly masculinised post? While a strategic appointment by Abe, this was arguably no glass cliff — Inada was not set up to fail.

The mistakes Inada made during her tenure could have been avoided. During a stump speech to urge voters to support an LDP candidate in the Tokyo metropolitan election, she made her pleas on behalf of not only the LDP, but also on behalf of the Self-Defense Forces and the Ministry of Defense. By publicly blurring the line between her role as party politician and as head of a ministry, she drew attention to a fundamental carelessness or what might even be perceived as a lack of understanding of the basics required to carry out her dual roles.

Renho, on the other hand, is a classic example of someone who fell off the glass cliff. The Democratic Party (DP) has been in trouble for a long time. Ever since it lost the faith of the public over its mishandling of the Fukushima triple disaster of 2011 and its subsequent loss of government, the DP has all but lost its capacity to be a viable opposition. It was within this context that Renho was elected to party leader in September 2016.

It was always going to be an uphill battle for Renho. So when concerns over her dual Taiwanese and Japanese nationalities came to light, a sense of dread descended. The DP then performed poorly in the July 2017 Tokyo metropolitan assembly elections, dropping their share of seats to a record low of 5 out of 127. By the time Renho stepped down as party leader in July 2017, the DP’s public support sat at only 5.8 per cent, down from 10 per cent shortly after she took office.

Renho failed to take advantage of low support rates for the Abe government and failed to unite a divided party — these outcomes were inevitable. While it remains debatable whether she needed to resign over them, it is probably not debatable that the DP is still in turmoil. Substituting Renho with Maehara Seiji is likely not the solution, as the continuing exodus of DP members suggests.

Perhaps the women politicians of Japan should take a leaf out of Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s book and sidestep the established political parties altogether. After all, if a woman nominates herself, she will arguably not find herself on a glass cliff. But few politicians — female or male — boast the name recognition that Koike does, so this might not be a practical solution. Instead, most politicians must rely on the support of their parties. Only when a political party posts more women to leadership positions that aren’t doomed to begin with will we start to see suggestions of true equality.

When women are disproportionately posted to positions where success is unlikely (for anyone), the inaccurate and harmful message conveyed is that women are not as competent as men in politics and perhaps don’t really belong there after all. But what the glass cliff theory shows us is that politics in crisis is not the outcome of women leaders; rather, women leaders are often the outcome of politics in crisis.

Emma Dalton is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.

2 responses to “Vertigo atop Japan’s ‘glass cliff’”

  1. Thanks for an informative analysis of a concept, ‘glass cliff,’ which I admittedly had not read about before.

    It should be added that Inada lost credibility over the SDF’s alleged withholding of information about its activities as part of a UN force working in South Sudan. When confronted with this, she apparently refused to even acknowledge it let alone take responsibility for it.

    I agree that Renho was probably put in a ‘no win’ situation. Ie, the DP was already so damaged by the time that she was appointed that it was not likely she could have succeeded even had her dual citizenship issue not come up. Maehara’s most recent offers to work hand in glove with Koike’s new party and, as noted, the ‘continuing exodus’ of DP members from the party confirm that the DP is doomed to die in the near future.

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