Meet the woman hoping to succeed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Key Points
  • Former defense minister Tomomi Inada says she will will run for the top post of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2021 in a bid to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who currently holds that position. If successful, she could become Japan's first female leader.
  • Inada, known as a conservative nationalist and close confidante of Abe, said the prime minister's "Abenomics" economic reforms were the right course — but even more will be needed in the future.
  • She also expressed concerns about China's regional and global ambitions, saying: "Force, not rules, is their methodology."
Japanese lawmaker Tomomi Inada has ambitions to be the country's next prime minister.
Akio Kon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Tomomi Inada wants to take on Japan's political "boys club."

The former defense minister told CNBC she intends to run for the top post of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2021 in a bid to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who currently holds that position. If successful, she could become Japan's first female leader.

Under current rules, Abe cannot seek a fourth consecutive term as president of the party, who has traditionally served as prime minister when the LDP controls parliament. The party has governed Japan for most of its post-World War II history.

Inada — who is a staunch nationalist and close Abe confidante — wants to build on his achievements and pursue further reform, such as reining in the country's massive debt, she told CNBC at the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference in Hong Kong last week.

"I'm aiming for it in two years," the lawmaker said of her plan to run for party president at the next vote.

There's still a mentality that politicians should be male.
Tomomi Inada
member of parliament, Japan

Abe, who has been in power for more than six years, is set to become Japan's longest serving prime minister this year. His term as party leader runs until September 2021.

He has tried to reinvigorate the world's third-largest economy and slay years of on-and-off deflation through his trademark "Abenomics" program.

He has had some success: a weaker yen, a higher stock market and an end to the worst of falling prices. But a sustained rise in inflation to a targeted 2 percent, one of his key objectives, has yet to be achieved.

'Crucial stage' for reform

Inada emphasized that Abe has done the right things, but said his policies have been fortunate to coincide with broader global economic strength. It's something she suggested Japan can't always rely on and will eventually need "severe" or even "painful" changes in areas such as the labor market and social security system.

"The crucial stage for reform to firmly strengthen the economy's foundation and growth will, in fact, be from now on," she said.

Inada has no illusions about the difficulty of making it to the top of the male-dominated LDP. She said it will likely require multiple attempts — as it has for many of the men who succeeded.

"It generally takes two or three times," said Inada, who turned 60 in February. "So I have to get going."

Tomomi Inada, a key advisor to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Akio Kon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Few women have tried and none have succeeded.

On example is current Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who contested the LDP leadership election in 2008, but lost, finishing a distant third. Veteran lawmaker Seiko Noda failed in 2015 and 2018 to secure the 20 signatures from party members required to get on the ballot.

"There's still a mentality that politicians should be male," Inada said, adding she favors setting targets and incentives to help increase the number of female politicians.

Japan ranked 165 out of 191 countries in percentage of women in parliament as of Jan. 1 this year, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global organization of national parliaments, and UN Women, which promotes gender equality. Women accounted for 10.2 percent of Japan's lower house of parliament and 20.7 percent of the upper house, the data show.

As part of his economic program, Abe has sought more participation by women in the economy due to its shrinking workforce as a result of Japan's rapidly aging population and declining birth rates.

Still, Japan came in 110 out of 149 countries and economies ranked in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report issued in December. The study examined four categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, as well as political empowerment. Japan's result was the lowest among the Group of Seven nations, though four spots higher than the year before.

A lawyer by training and a member of parliament since 2005, Inada is not easy to characterize.

A self-described conservative who has been loath to criticize Japan's wartime history, she has taken progressive stands on acceptance of foreign workers and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) advocacy.

Wary of China's pursuits

Hawkish on national security, she backs Abe in support of revising Japan's constitution that restricts its military.

"We should think to become a strong country, so to speak," she said, "one in which we protect ourselves."

Inada said she is wary of how China is pursuing its geopolitical and economic ambitions, including territorial claims in the South China Sea and the Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure project.

"Force, not rules, is their methodology," she said. "They are really trying, little by little, to change the status quo. I'm extremely concerned."

Calls by CNBC to the press section of the Chinese foreign ministry office in Hong Kong seeking comment on Inada's remarks were not answered Tuesday.

I think real champions are not those who never fall, but those who can pick themselves up again after falling.
Tomomi Inada
member of parliament, Japan

Inada was previously in Abe's cabinet and has served in party positions during his tenure as LDP president. She currently advises him in his capacity as the LDP leader.

But her stint as head of the defense ministry — from 2016 to 2017 — ended in controversy.

Faced with harsh criticism in parliament and the media, she resigned over allegations that defense officials were involved in a cover-up of politically sensitive activity logs of Japanese peacekeepers who were deployed in South Sudan.

But in her speech at the Credit Suisse conference she told investors the experience steeled her for future political battles.

"I think real champions are not those who never fall, but those who can pick themselves up again after falling," she said. "I hope to become a true champion using my own tough experience."