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Japan's Women Speak

THIS week's election opens up a new and exciting era in Japanese politics. The issues that humbled the ruling Liberal Democratic Party - taxes, corruption, and sex - provide a textbook case for shaking up any establishment. And there can be no doubt the party that brought Japan the Recruit Company bribery scandal and other bad news needed shaking out of its arrogance. But the thing that makes this election so interesting - and so exciting - is the changing political role of women in a society known more for deferential housewives and hired geishas.

Chief beneficiary of this liberating attitude is the Japan Socialist Party and its popular leader Takako Doi. Women, most of them from Ms. Doi's party, won an unprecedented batch of races in Tokyo's recent municipal elections. The number of women who won seats in Sunday's parliamentary vote (22) is more than twice any previous election in Japan.

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More women than men have been turning out to vote, and the LDP has scrambled to catch up by apologizing for its sexist image and fielding female candidates of its own. Obviously that wasn't enough to prevent an embarrassing defeat in the upper house of parliament this weekend.

Gender is not the only issue. The highly unpopular 3 percent consumption tax, efforts (under US pressure) to loosen up trade protection in agriculture and industry, and corruption that's left barely a ruling-party leader untouched, also made the LDP very vulnerable to a shellacking.

So what now for Japan and the newly-empowered Socialists?

The LDP still controls the more important lower house of parliament, but faces a majority of eager opponents in the upper house, some of them calling for coalition government and early elections. This leaves the ruling party scrambling to find yet another acceptable prime minister from among its enervated ranks.

But it also puts pressure on the Socialists, as Doi said, to ``feel great responsibility.'' Her party already has been backing away from some of its more radical positions, like vastly reducing Japanese defense forces and canceling the security treaty with the US. Despite its Marxist-sounding name, the party favors the free market.

Japan faces important issues: new trade talks with the US, international currency and debt problems, economic cooperation around the Pacific Rim, and a society going through many important changes at home. It will take the sturdiest and clearest political minds to find solutions. Happily, the political ascendancy of women in Japan can only help.

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