It’s a muggy August evening in 2010, and I am enjoying dinner and conversation in a Ginza sushi bar with local politician Kyoko Nakamura (a pseudonym), a woman from one of Tokyo’s twenty-three ward assemblies. Ms. Nakamura is nearing the end of her first term. After initially losing her challenge for a seat on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government council a business partner encouraged Nakamura to run for the ward assembly as an independent “pinch hitter” when a Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) candidate dropped out of the race. In a field of over sixty candidates, Nakamura handily won a seat, coming in as the sixth top vote-getter. Finishing in the top ten was a big deal for a woman without broad name recognition, money, or party support running for a seat on a conservative, male-dominated council.
Prior to our sushi meeting, a mutual friend described Nakamura as a “new-style” politician whose success with local voters was due as much to her gender and relative youth—she’s a forty-year-old woman—as to her unique blend of professionalism and ability to connect with working class voters, when traditional political elites are increasingly seen as being out of touch with everyday Japanese. Nakamura was a successful corporate executive who could lay credible claim to working class roots. During her youth, she worked in her family’s izakaya (a Japanese-style tapas pub) on one of the main shopping streets in the ward. Her deep familiarity with the concerns of small business owners and working class customers enabled her to establish an easy rapport with voters and frame their concerns in ways that underscored her demonstrated commitment to serving her community and representing their interests. Nakamura describes herself as an “ordinary person” who, like her constituents, is married, works, and is raising a family.