New Japan minister faces test of ability

New Japan minister faces test of ability
Ms Yuko Obuchi, 40, not only takes after her late father Keizo Obuchi with her affability but, like him, also chooses her words carefully.

While she was still a student, newly minted Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi never dreamt she would one day become a politician. In fact, in senior high school and university, she was frequently seen on the golf course, happily practising her drives and putts.

But her father, former prime minister Keizo Obuchi, spotted the politician in her very early on, and anointed her - the youngest of his three children - as his successor.

A great admirer of Mrs Margaret Thatcher, he nicknamed his daughter Yutcha, after Satcha, which was how the Japanese pronounced the surname of the late British prime minister.

Ms Obuchi's father had one fervent wish for her: "Become a female prime minister like Mrs Thatcher one day".

After Ms Obuchi graduated in economics in 1996 from Seijo University, a school for rich children, she went to work for a television company as an assistant director for several popular shows.

There she met her future husband, television director Katsuaki Setoguchi, who adopted her family name after their marriage in 2004.

After her father became prime minister in July 1998, she quit her job to be his private secretary. But two years later, at the relatively early age of 62, Mr Obuchi suffered a stroke and later died.

There was never any doubt that Ms Obuchi would inherit her father's constituency. A month after his death, she ran for election and, at the age of 26, won the Gunma fifth district seat by a huge margin, a feat she repeated four more times.

"She had to care for her father in hospital. After the funeral, she immediately started campaigning, refusing to rest for even one day," Mr Kenichiro Orita, mayor of Nakanojo town, told the Sankei Sports paper.

"She's a fighter like her father. I've never heard her cry," added Mr Orita, a former secretary to the late prime minister.

As if to silence potential criticism that she was intellectually ill-equipped for a serious political career, Ms Obuchi completed a master's degree in public management in 2006 at Waseda University.

Two years later, then prime minister Taro Aso drafted her into his Cabinet, making the 34-year- old the youngest minister in post-war Japan.

Soon after, her name was being bandied about as a future candidate for prime minister among elders in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

In the Aso Cabinet, Ms Obuchi had a relatively unmemorable stint as minister in charge of gender equality issues and reversing the country's declining birth rate.

But she put her name in the record books again by becoming the first incumbent lawmaker to give birth to a baby - her second son.

In December 2012, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was returned to power, Ms Obuchi declined an offer of a Cabinet post. Instead she was named a minister of state in the finance ministry as she said she wanted to learn more about economic policy.

At 40, Ms Obuchi is the youngest member in the new Cabinet announced last Wednesday.

But unlike her first ministerial stint, her latest appointment will be a severe test of her ability, both as a politician and as a potential leader for Japan.

Arguably her most difficult task will be to persuade a still sceptical public that restarting the country's nuclear power stations - all idled after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis - is crucial to Japan's economic growth.

Ms Obuchi does not necessarily stand on Mr Abe's side on all issues. Like her father who was friendly towards China, she has been involved in efforts to try to mend bilateral ties that have been badly frayed over a territorial dispute.

Last December, she was in Beijing with a group of Japanese lawmakers waiting to meet senior Chinese leaders. But Mr Abe's sudden visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine enraged the Chinese leadership, resulting in the abrupt cancellation of the meeting.

No doubt her workday will be hectic. Yet one routine will not change. Ms Obuchi intends to fix breakfast for her two sons every morning and to drop off her younger son at the kindergarten before going to work.

But while quick to live up to her obligations as a mother, she can certainly take on the men - even when it comes to drinking.

Ms Obuchi has been seen quaffing bourbon straight from the bottle by no less than Ms Seiko Noda, a fellow lawmaker and former minister. She also heads a league of female lawmakers who share a common passion for Japanese sake.

Always unruffled in public, Ms Obuchi not only takes after her late father with her affability but, like him, also chooses her words carefully.

In her first interview with the press after taking office, she was asked about expectations of her becoming Japan's first female prime minister. "I watched from up close how my father did magnificent work as a prime minister. I watched him literally risking his life to do his job. I therefore cannot rashly mouth the word 'prime minister'," she said.

"As I am today, I am far from being his match," she added quietly.

wengkin@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on September 08, 2014.
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