Politics meets porn in Japan

NAGOYA, Japan — When Kayoko Isogai got the call from high-ranking officials at the Democratic Party of Japan asking her to stand for a seat in the national parliament, she was shocked.

It was just two weeks before the Aug. 30 election; she had spent most of the previous five years unemployed and taking care of her terminally ill parents; and she had no political or governing experience whatsoever.

“Impossible, impossible, impossible, impossible, impossible,” Isogai said recently, recalling her reaction to the offer. “I said it five times.”

But Isogai, 43, reconsidered and put her name on the DPJ ticket. Then, she watched in surprise as the party’s historic, landslide victory over the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party swept her into the House of Representatives of the Japanese Diet.

This rags-to-riches story seems like the kind of Horatio Alger-styled tale that would symbolize the DPJ’s rise to power, which was predicated on a promise to break the LDP’s incestuous old-boys network long viewed as an impediment to reform. Since the election, however, Isogai has instead come to symbolize a dispiriting, business-as-usual picture of the new administration: She has been held up as an example of the DPJ’s cynical use of unqualified female candidates who helped broaden the party’s appeal to voters, but who likely will not play a significant policy-making role.

Learn about the Seijin No Hi celebration (e.g. Coming of Age Day) for Japanese women. 

Japanese reporters and political commentators have dubbed the DPJ’s 26 new female Diet members, many of them young and attractive, the “Ozawa girls” after former party boss Ichiro Ozawa, mastermind of the campaign strategy. In addition to Isogai, the group includes a former sex-industry reporter who has appeared in a provocative photo spread and an erotic movie; a pretty former television reporter; and a 28-year-old activist who gained celebrity after leading a well-publicized legal battle against the government after contracting hepatitis C from a tainted blood transfusion.

(In the YouTube clip below, new DPJ member Mieko Tanaka stars in the erotic horror film "Blind Beast v. Killer Dwarf")

“I do not think the DPJ made a serious effort to recruit qualified women. They just wanted to have some kind of flowers,” said Kumiko Shindo, a professor of gender studies at Toyo Eiwa University. “They will never let them into decision-making or put them in important positions.”

DPJ leaders scoff at the suggestion that the women were mere pawns, noting it is simplistic to lump them together when they have diverse resumes.

Kuniko Tanioka, a former university president who won a DPJ seat in the Diet’s upper house in 2007, helped Ozawa recruit and train the female candidates by distributing a campaign “survival guide” based on the experiences of other women legislators. Tanioka, 55, acknowledged that Ozawa’s election strategy was predicated on growing the party by appealing to constituencies, such as women, which had traditionally shunned the DPJ. “The party had been very male-oriented, very heirarchical,” Tanioka said. “When Ozawa became premier, he decided to alter it. … The DPJ tried to recruit women candidates from local politicians. We had a series of seminars for women legislators from local areas.”

Tanioka and her female colleagues made caravans across the country to coach women candidates on such things as dress code (one woman was reprimanded for wearing flashy purple shoes), speaking style (use simple slogans that passersby could easily understand), and etiquette (emotional bursts, such as crying, should be kept out of public view).

It was Tanioka who recruited Isogai just three days before the Aug. 18 campaign season began. Japan’s electoral system awards additional seats to parties through a proportional representation system and DPJ leaders realized late in the process that they had a chance to pick up an additional seat in the Tokai bloc. According to Tanioka, Ozawa called her while she was helping candidates in Hokkaido and asked for a suggestion.

Though Isogai had held mostly temporary, irregular jobs, she had impressed Tanioka while helping organize a citizens’ expo 10 years earlier and working on Tanioka’s 2007 campaign.

“We wanted real change and we have a much more diverse DPJ than we had before,” Tanioka said. She called the media depiction of Isogai as a “freeter,” a term used for unemployed people living with their parents, “pure gossip.” Isogai lived at home to care for her parents because they had cancer, Tanioka said, and had trouble finding a full-time job because of biases from employers against women who have left the workforce.

Isogai wasn’t the only DPJ woman fending off unwanted media coverage. Mieko Tanaka, 33, a former secretary to a DPJ member, narrowly lost in the August election to former Prime Minister Yoshihiro Mori of the LDP. Nevertheless, Tanaka gained a proportional seat in the DPJ landslide. Days later, however, a men’s magazine called "Friday" revealed that Tanaka had once been a sex-industry reporter and published photos of her dressed in provocative costumes, such as a cheer-leading outfit and a traditional yukata. She also had appeared topless in an erotic film, clips of which were quickly posted on the internet.

Tanaka, besieged by reporters, delivered an emotional defense of her career at a news conference, saying she had been financially destitute and had to do what she could to survive. She vowed to fight on behalf of the working poor as a Diet member. 

On a recent day, Isogai, Tanioka and Yuko Sato, 46, a mother of four who spent 21 years as a housewife and two years as a local assemblywoman in Nagoya before winning a Diet seat in August, sat in Tanioka’s campaign office and discussed their rise to power.

Isogai, who did not own a business suit, had been followed to a department store by a mob of reporters, who interviewed and photographed her while she tried on clothes.

“This entire system shows a deeper psychology of the establishment of Japan, including the media,” Isogai said. “This attention is subconscious jealousy and a sense that we are not supposed to be here.”

Isogai, like Tanaka, vowed to use her personal experiences to fight for legal protection of temporary workers, who are being hired more frequently as Japan’s traditional lifetime employment system breaks down. Sato, who is friends with Tanaka, called Tanaka a “victim” of the media who “does not regret what she did.”

Mari Miura, a political science professor at Sophia University, said it is unfair to lump the female DPJ members together. She and others pointed to Eriko Fukuda, the hepatitis activist, as an up-and-coming star who inspired voters with her personal story.

“Some say these women are just window-dressing. I don’t agree,” Miura said. “There are inexperienced women within the 26 politicians. But there are some experienced people, too.”

Miura called the DPJ more committed than the LDP to women’s rights issues. The party recently announced it would put forward a bill to change the Japanese Civil Code to allow married women to keep their maiden names and still receive full marital benefits.

“The new political situation in Japan requires more public support and candidates who are unaffiliated with the same old ties to business,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation. “The female candidates are more appealing. Half the electorate is female and they are frustrated with a male-dominated society.”

But Shindo, the gender studies professor, criticized the DPJ women for offering few concrete policy proposals. Isogai “said she would like to do something in terms of ‘freeters,’ but that means nothing,” Shindo said. “If she said, ‘Because of my experience, I am for equal pay for equal work,’ that’s good. But she does not have that idea.”

For her part, Isogai was still getting used to the attention that comes with public office. It wasn’t all bad. After her well-documented shopping trip, a woman sent her a package containing five new suits and a dress from Burberry.

“They are a little big,” Isogai said with a smile, “but I think they will work out fine.”