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Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008

A tale of two women candidates

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — This is a tale of two high-profile political candidates who don't simply happen to be women. They are political women up for very big jobs. This is also a story of two very different political cultures.

Let's start with Japan, a traditional society with its own very special ways and means. There, a former defense and environmental minister has thrown her hat, dramatically, into the fierce competition to become the next head of the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest in Japan, and thus the next probable prime minister.

That job is now open. The past LDP president, who was also the reigning prime minister, resigned more than a week ago. We'll know very soon if Yuriko Koike will be successful. Unlike the American nominating process, Japan's does not seem as drawn out as, say, Mao's Long March.

One way or the other, the successor to the resigned Yasuo Fukuda, a true gentleman but no magical politician, will emerge by the deadline of Sept. 22 (oh, how very civilized!). If successful, Koike, 56, would become Japan's first female prime minister.

Now let's cross the Pacific to the United States. Here, as you all know, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has thrown Sarah Palin (did you even know who she was, say, three weeks ago?) into the presidential race as the No. 2 on the Republican ticket. Until relatively recently, this woman was actually less known to Americans than Koike was to the Japanese. Being governor of Alaska is not exactly a hugely common launching pad for aspiring politicians.

But the out-of-right-field selection of Palin has apparently jazzed up many conservative Republican voters, while throwing Democratic campaign managers into a tizzy. For her part, liberal New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton, rejected by Democratic Sen. Barack Obama for the No. 2 spot in favor of Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, has been relatively quiet on the Palin vice presidential selection.

This is smart on Hillary's part: There's nothing more becoming of a loser than acting like a winner. Palin is anything but an East Coast-style of feminist. She is more like the late Barry Goldwater in a skirt. The former beauty queen is pro-gun, pro-life, probusiness, pro-oil-drilling, pro-hunter and a pro orator. It is quite true that much of what she is outspokenly in favor of is opposed by many American feminists. But in their heart perhaps they feel McCain was right to want to accessorize the U.S. national ticket with a woman politician when Obama so obviously feared to Hillary-ize.

If Palin has McCain as her mentor, who does Koike have? The answer is none other than Junichiro Koizumi, and he's no leftover sushi. This wizard former prime minister wisely all but evaporated from public sight in 2006 after successfully serving five years. But everyone knows that he thinks Koike is the best person for the job. He digs her reformist spunk, her brains (she's fluent in Arabic as well as English) and her quiet but firm feminism.

For her part, Koike — single and childless — openly admires Hillary and American feminists. She once commented sarcastically that the so-called glass ceiling in Japan "isn't glass, it's an iron plate." She's got that right. According to international ranking, Japan barely makes it into the middle of nations in terms of accommodating women's economic and political power.

Koike, at this writing, faces four men for the job. The most prominent — and the current favorite — is Taro Aso, a former foreign minister. Like Koizumi, he is — alas — a grumpy hawk on China and otherwise lacks the former prime minister's flair, charm, wit, popular instincts and entertaining unpredictability.

But perhaps the fourth time will prove the charm for him: On three different occasions in the past, Aso threw his hat into the prime ministerial race, and each time it bounced back in his face like a bad check. There are good reasons for this.

If the McCain-Palin ticket is elected, the Alaska governor will become the country's first female vice president. Whatever one thinks of her rural style, culturally conservative, golly-gee politics, the outcome would obviously be historic.

If the magician Koizumi somehow manages to sneak Koike into the prime minister's spot, that also will be historic. Personally, I am rooting for at least one of these two women to make it. As these male politicians so often say (but do they really mean it?): It really is some kind of time for a change.

Syndicated Columnist Tom Plate is on leave from UCLA to write a book on Asia. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center.

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