No sooner had Fusae Ota become the first woman elected a prefecture governor in Japan than she sought to break another gender barrier: the inner circle of sumo. The 48-year-old career bureaucrat announced in her first post-election press conference last week that she wants to present the Governor's Trophy at next month's sumo tournament in Osaka. Sounds reasonable enough, considering she is now Osaka's governor. But to do so she would have to enter the dohyo ring, which no woman has ever been allowed to do. A sumo association spokesman asked the governor to reconsider out of respect for the sport's tradition, but Ota told the Asahi Shimbun daily newspaper: Now that I have become the first female governor, I want to question the male-only rule. Taking on sumo's hoary traditions will add to Ota's feminist credentials among Osaka's women, who were the key force behind her election. Her predecessor, Knock Yokoyama, resigned in December after a sex scandal: the comedian-turned-politician fell from grace after denying accusations that he had forcibly fondled a young campaign aide, then settling a civil lawsuit out of court and later calling his accuser a liar. His arrogant attitude was too much for women to take, says Mutsuko Katsura, a local politician in Ibaraki, a suburb of Osaka. Having Ota as governor will make people take all women more seriously.
The national government's ruling coalition of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi shrewdly put up a female candidate to replace Yokoyama, even though Ota isn't from Osaka and has spent much of her career as a bureaucrat at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and even though the local branch of Obuchi's Liberal Democratic Party sponsored its own candidate. Opponents branded Ota a carpetbagger, even calling her Japan's Hillary, after the U.S. First Lady, who is running for the Senate from New York, a state she has never lived in.
But Ota's gender and the electoral machine of one of Obuchi's coalition partners, the New Komei Party, proved formidable. Ota's platform was non-controversial: she vowed to help small and medium-sized businesses in an attempt to revive Osaka's flagging economy, which is dependent on dying industries like steel and textiles. The prefecture has the highest unemployment rate in Japan, 6%.
In the end, Ota may have won because most voters simply didn't care. The 45% turnout was low by Japanese standards, so Ota won with just half the votes that the disgraced Yokoyama collected last year. If the new governor is to expand her support base, she will have to act quickly. A victory in the sumo ring might be the best thing for Ota's image, but her real challenge lies in turning around Osaka's moribund economy.