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Japan's Obuchi: Political 'princess' could be first female PM

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister of Japan, Yuko Obuchi.
Toshifumi Kitamura | AFP | Getty Images

With a telegenic presence, powerful ruling party mentors and a talent for avoiding making political enemies, Japan's new trade and industry minister, Yuko Obuchi, may have what it takes to become the country's first female prime minister.

In Tokyo's male-dominated corridors of power, where seniority still matters, Obuchi's gender and youth would in the past have made her a long-shot - at best - to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But a shortage of popular male rivals and lingering doubts over the success of "Abenomics" mean the 40-year-old daughter of a prime minister is increasingly seen as a contender when her Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) goes shopping for a new leader.

For now, Abe's support rates are respectable at more than 50 percent, but his popularity depends mostly on whether he can keep promises to fix Japan's long-stagnant economy.

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Even if Abe's direct successor turns out to be a man, Obuchi - dubbed the "next premier but one" by some Japanese media - is clearly on a career path that could take her to the top job.

"Her faction wants to push her forward. They want to nurture her as a future leader," said Nihon University professor Tomoaki Iwai. "Trade and industry minister is an important post, so you could say she has climbed a step up the ladder toward premier."

One of the first tests of Obuchi's skills as minister is the tricky task of selling an unpopular policy of restarting nuclear reactors to a public wary about safety after the 2011 Fukushima crisis.

Abe appears to be hoping that the popular Obuchi's soft-spoken ways and status as the mother of two boys, aged seven and four, will soften the blow for the many Japanese voters, women especially, who oppose restarts.

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"As soon as I get home, I become a housewife so things like shopping, childcare, going to the doctor - I realize there are many things needed for daily life," Obuchi, tall and slim in a black pants suit with her short hair swept to the side, told women last week in the village of Kawauchi, about 20 km (12 miles) from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant.

Many villagers fled after Fukushima meltdowns sent radiation spewing, and still worry about going back to deserted neighborhoods despite the lifting of evacuation orders.

Political princess

It was her father Keizo's sudden death from a stroke suffered while in office in 2000 that persuaded Obuchi to run for parliament at the age of 26.

Politics, like small businesses, is often a family affair in Japan, where there is a tradition of offspring succeeding a parent in elected office.

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"I grew up watching my father and the path that he followed as a politician, and somehow I wanted to continue that," Obuchi said in a TV interview just days before she was appointed in a cabinet reshuffle in early September.

Those who know Obuchi agree she entered politics mainly to take over the legacy of her father Keizo rather than to pursue a specific policy agenda. "I think if her father had been a fishmonger or a shop owner, she would have carried on his work," said a Japanese journalist who has followed Obuchi's career.

The youngest of three siblings, Obuchi had previously worked at a TV broadcaster and as her father's private aide.

One of a record-tying five women appointed by Abe in his re-jigged cabinet, Obuchi stands out as a moderate compared with other ministers who mostly share Abe's hawkish agenda.

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She hails from an LDP faction that favors warm ties with China and South Korea, and is one of only four ministers in the 18-member cabinet not associated with nationalist lobby group Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), political analysts noted.

She does belong to a separate group of MPs that advocates visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, but she typically sends a staffer rather than go in person, an aide said.

When Abe outraged Beijing and Seoul by visiting Yasukuni in December, Obuchi was in China with a group of lawmakers, whose appointments were abruptly canceled.

Obuchi was also the youngest post-war cabinet minister when she took the portfolio for gender equality in 2008, at the age of 34, and the next year became the first to become pregnant in office. She has also served as deputy finance minister.

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A quick study with a sharp mind and a talented speaker, Obuchi has few signature policies other than urging good ties in Asia and steps to make it easier for women to work and raise kids. Like her father, who parlayed an image as a likable "Everyman" into popularity, Obuchi seems to have few political enemies - a factor that may be key to her career success.

"She has potential but it is still only potential," Mieko Nakabayashi, a former lawmaker from the rival Democratic Party and a professor at Waseda University.

"She can be likable, she doesn't stick out, she doesn't carry any strong beliefs. Her father was the same way. It's not a very global type of women's leadership ... but it is very much the LDP-style."