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Fusae Ota Becomes Japan's First Female Governor

April 20, 2000

Governor Ota may not be allowed on the sumo ring, but grand champion Musashimaru is a welcome visitor to her office. (Jiji Press)

Voters in Osaka Prefecture, the second most populous prefecture after Tokyo, elected Japan's first woman governor in a poll held on February 6, 2000. Although the voter turnout was a lowest-ever 44.58% due partly to rainy weather, Fusae Ota won a sweeping victory with 1.38 million votes, 360,000 more than the runner-up, Makoto Ajisaka. Ota, 48, was backed not only by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party but also by the Liberal Party, New Komeito, the Democratic Party of Japan, and the Reformers Network Party. There are currently nine female vice-governors in Japan's 47 prefectures, but Ota is the first woman ever to become a governor.

Successful Campaign Strategy
Ota announced her candidacy only 10 days before the campaigning period for the election started. Although she had 25 years of experience as a career official in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and a stint as vice-governor of Okayama Prefecture, she was nevertheless relatively unknown in Osaka. Natives of Osaka tend to strongly value the local community, so there was criticism that Ota was a candidate "parachuting" down from a central government agency.

At first Ota's campaign staff recommended that she go with the image of the "Osaka lady next door." But Ota had grown up moving from one town to another because her father had been an employee of the national railway, and she also took pride in her career as a bureaucrat. For a while she thought hard about the advice, feeling unsure about stepping into a role she could not identify with.

Eventually Ota came to believe that the people of Osaka should be able to accept a nonlocal if it was somebody like her who had looked at Osaka from various parts of Japan and with a cosmopolitan perspective and who could internationalize Osaka and promote interaction with the global community. So Ota decided to emphasize her achievements as a central government official and as a vice-governor. She also turned around the "parachute candidate" criticism in her favor, highlighting her strong connections with the central government, including then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. This strategy appears to have been one reason for Ota's success in the race.

Actually Ota is her maiden name. Since her marriage she has been listed in the family register as Fusae Saito, but she has continued to use her maiden name because "it's more convenient for my work not to have to change my name." In Japan most women still change their name upon marriage, making it significant that Japan's first female governor is also a woman who goes by her maiden name.

The Challenges Facing Ota
When Ota took over the gubernatorial post the Osaka prefectural government was still in disarray, not yet having recovered from a scandal involving Governor "Knock" Yokoyama (a former comedian whose real name is Isamu Yamada), Ota's predecessor, which led to his sudden resignation. And even before this, the prefecture had been in dire financial straits. Ota therefore faces a mountain of issues in her new post.

Aside from policy issues, Ota also has an item on her agenda that would not be there if it were not for her being female. Customarily at the awards ceremony of the grand sumo tournament held annually in Osaka, the governor steps into the ring to present the champion with the gubernatorial prize. Ota informed the Nihon Sumo Kyokai (Japan Sumo Association) of her hope to do the same at the tournament held in March 2000. The association turned down her request, however, saying that "women are traditionally not allowed in the sumo ring."

The governor backed down peacefully this time, but she has not given up hope. "I won't force my way into the ring," she commented, "but I would like the sumo association to positively consider the issue in the future." Not only the Osaka people but the whole nation will be watching closely to see how the Japan Sumo Association, which puts great emphasis on tradition, grapples with this one.

On an additional note, April 16, 2000, saw the birth of Japan's second woman governor in Kumamoto Prefecture. In an election following the predecessor's sudden death, Yoshiko Shiotani, previously vice-governor of the prefecture, was elected with backing from the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito.

Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.