The Game Mother Taught Me: Beyond Japan's Old Boys' Networks

By Koike, Yuriko | Harvard International Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Game Mother Taught Me: Beyond Japan's Old Boys' Networks


Koike, Yuriko, Harvard International Review


In 2008, I was appointed as Japan's Minister of Defense, a post that oversees the 270,000 members of the Japanese Army, Navy, and Air Force--Japan's self-defense forces--as well as thousands of civilian defense officials within the ministry. Since I was the first woman ever to hold that office in Japanese history, I believe that my appointment opened up great new opportunities for Japanese women.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

My appointment came about in an abrupt way. Fumio Kyuma, the then Minister of Defense, made a speech at a college where he said, "I now have come to accept in my mind that in order to end the war, it could not be helped that an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and that countless numbers of people suffered great tragedy." Appearing on a TV morning news show soon after, he said that he did not think an apology would be necessary for that statement. Voters were appalled, and so was the government. The statements seemed especially callous considering the fact that he had been elected to represent Nagasaki. Kyuma was forced to resign his post.

Although I was serving in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office as Special Adviser for National Security Affairs at the time, my sudden nomination came as a complete surprise. Both domestic and international media widely reported the news of my appointment and a photograph of me receiving the salute from a military honor guard. Many wondered if a woman would be able to take command of Japan's entire armed forces.

I assumed my post at a time when Japan's security concerns in Asia were growing both in depth and complexity, with China's continuing its vast military build-up, North Korea's showing no sign of stopping its push to develop a nuclear weapon, and some strains appearing in the US-Japan alliance due to ongoing negotiations about the location of a US military base on Okinawa. These were merely a few among the many issues confronting me.

Besides those major security concerns, I had other, more mundane but unique worries: what, for example, should I wear to take the salute from the honor guard? The traditional formal attire for women in Japan is a kimono bearing the family crest. As a child, my mother had taught me to walk in the short, pigeon-toed way you do while wearing a kimono, but somehow I felt that neither the kimono nor the posture it demands were well-suited to the ceremony marking my appointment as Minister of Defense. I simply did not want to shake the morale of the men and women of Japan's armed forces. After researching the dress code of my female counterparts around the world, I finally decided to wear my favorite black pants suit. Unfortunately, the thick suit was designed for winter wear, and I found myself overheated in an atmosphere that was already tense and solemn.

The summer of 2008 was also hot in the world of Japanese politics. The Liberal Democratic Party, which had been in power for more than half a century, lost its majority in the House of Councilors in the general election in August. My mission as Minister of Defense was over too soon.

A Mother's Wisdom

During my 18 years as a Japanese Member of Parliament prior to serving as Minister of Defense, I served in several senior posts, including Minister of the Environment, Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs, and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister for National Security Affairs. As a minister, I had a rather unusual educational background, having majored in sociology at Cairo University. The reason I dared to live and study in the Arab world was simple. My mother, Emiko, who is now 86-years-old, advised me that I should always aim to be the best that I could be in life, beyond the strict confines of Japanese society's expectations of women.

She envied me; she had not enjoyed the same freedoms as were available to me when she was my age, mainly because of the war and the social environment. …

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