Kitamura Harue: The Legacy of Japan’s First Female Mayor | Japan Updates

According to the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, Japan hasn’t been faring too well in the world of gender equality. Despite being the world’s third-largest economy, this year Japan ranked 116 out of 146 countries in terms of advancements in gender equality, and came in dead last amongst all G7 nations.

However, despite this seemingly bleak outlook, a glimmer of hope shines through in the form of the legacy left behind by Japan’s first female mayor, the late Kitamura Harue.

Early Experiences Influence Kitamura Harue’s Pursuits

Kitamura Harue was born in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto on July 11, 1928, and raised in Osaka. Growing up in a time of war and political strife, air raids and aircrafts flying overhead at low altitude were common occurrences. School was rough, as student drafts meant less classes and difficulty obtaining even basic fundamental education. This first-hand experience with the fears and uncertainties of war, and the relief that came once it was over, deeply influenced Kitamura’s future pursuits. [7]

Kitamura entered Ritsumeikan Vocational School in 1945. At that time, there were only about 10 female students in the entire school. Kitamura reminisced in a 2008 interview, “I stood out like a sore thumb, and was approached by a lot of students (laughs)”. [7]

However, despite a relatively smooth university period, it was after graduating and entering the working world where she experienced the harsh reality of being a women in a “man’s world”.

Pioneering the Working World for Women

It was still uncommon for women to work outside of the home. Those who did work were usually limited to tea shops. Witnessing this current situation, Kitamura took a defining step forward, and began studying for the bar exam. Working during the day and studying in the library at night, by her fourth year, Kitamura passed the exam, becoming one of a handful of women to ever do so. However, even after this great accomplishment, she continued to face many obstacles.

With only a handful of women in law, it was incredibly difficult to find a place that would hire her. Once she found work, she was often met with disapproving looks from clients, and faced sexual and power harassment. But she continued to work hard, not only for her sake, but for the future of working women.

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Ultimately, she met another male lawyer who supported her efforts. This man would soon become her husband. Even after bearing two children, he encouraged her to continue working in law in his office, rather than taking the more common route of retiring and becoming a housewife.

During this time, Kitamura expanded her role, gaining positions with the Osaka Family Court and Ashiya City Board of Education. [8]

Political Work: An Unpreceded Win for Kitamura

The city of Asia. (Picture: kobe / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Kitamura Harue’s work in Ashiya as a lawyer and within the Board of Education opened her eyes to the city’s failing education system, where academic ability appeared to be falling year by year. It was with this realization, and the encouragement of housewives and mothers concerned for their children’s education, that she decided to run for mayor in 1991.

Her supporters insisted that Ashiya’s education wouldn’t improve without a new mayor who understood their concerns, and suggested it was time for them to speak up. Most of Kitamura’s electoral support came from mothers, housewives, and other women she met through her work at the BOE. [8]

Kitamura announced her decision to run as an independent candidate for the 1991 Ashiya mayoral election at the age of 62, with less than three months until election day. On top of that, her opponent was a strong candidate in his second term, whom many guaranteed already had the election in the bag. These factors, plus the fact that it was still completely unheard of for a woman to set foot into politics, should have put Kitamura at an extreme disadvantage.

However, by focusing on small, concentrated efforts and her niche group of supporters, Kitamura slowly but surely appealed to the masses. Kitamura claimed victory by 1,773 votes, with a total of 18,424 (52.52%) of all votes. [4][5]

Kitamura served for three terms (a total of 12 years), claiming greater victories in every election, winning again in June 1995 with 24,799 (62.6%) votes, and again in April 1999 with 29,335 (79.24%) votes. [5]

Disaster Relief and Kitamura’s Second Term

Several years into Kitamura’s term as the first female mayor of Japan, disaster struck. The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 wreaked havoc on the region. It completely destroyed Kitamura’s own home. However, rather than letting the tragedy deter her, she became even more motivated.

Kitamura stayed at city hall for about a month with no water or electricity. Ultimately, she moved to an evacuation center the town over with the help of the Self-Defense Forces. Seeing the misery around her while experiencing it first-hand for herself, Kitamura became keenly aware of the need for improvements in disaster relief efforts. She lead with this message for the second election.

Unsurprisingly, however, there was a lot of backlash from the other male lawmakers and politicians. They questioned her ability to lead reconstruction efforts. Some said that women had no place in the political world. The city council even rejected her budget proposal for a land redevelopment project. However, she attracted much support from residents of the disaster-stricken city. [2][3][8]

Harue Kitamura Retires from Politics, But Not From Activism

After her experience with the earthquake, Kitamura took a break from politics to focus on reconstruction efforts. In 2003, she retired as mayor and returned to the legal world and activism. She held lectures and conferences on topics related to disaster relief, peace efforts, law, and gender equality. She also released a number of publications related to her experiences. [4]

In a lecture at Sakai City Hall in 2012, Kitamura spoke on the promotion of female representation in politics and the workplace. She outlined the current workplace situation. Women on average accounted for only 20% of managerial positions in the Hanshin area, and less than 10% in a majority of other areas.

The first step, she believed, was to focus on numbers. She encouraged more women to take active roles, while also cautioning that there was much more involved than simply “being a woman”. Women also had to be proactive in honing their education, skills, and capabilities. [6]

When a reporter asked how her presence would increase the number of women in the workplace, Kitamura responded:

“Simply being a women won’t increase the number of women in managerial positions”. [6]

Kitamura Harue

Kitamura stressed that it was her education, determination, and ability to carry out her responsibilities as a woman, rather than her presence, that would get anything done. “We can’t do anything without educating and training female staff first”, she continued. First and foremost, it was necessary for women to gain strength in the workplace. But it would by no means be an easy task. [6]

Kitamura Harue: A Legacy Lives On

Kitamura continued to work for gender equality, women’s rights, and the improvement of society for all citizens until her passing on March 13, 2022. Kitamura had been fighting a cerebral infarction since May of the previous year, and lived until age 93. [1]

Kitamura’s courage on the male-dominated political battlefield paved the way for the future generations of women aspiring to join the front. Last month, Tokyo also elected their first female mayor. According to Kitamura, in order to realize a gender-equal society, it is essential for women to take an active role in politics and policy-making. And as society continues to shift and change, it is equally important to refine not only politics, but education as a whole, without constricting participants to outdated gender roles.

Kitamura Harue paved the way for women in Japan through countless efforts during her time serving as Japan’s first female mayor. And through the legacy she left behind, we hope many continue to follow in her footsteps.

What to Read Next


[1] 93, NHK News Web

[2] ., Zakzak by

[3] …偏見と闘い「一番の手本に」,?

[4] ?, Wikipedia JP

[5] TheiMoment

[6] &フィフティ~, Sakai City

[7] ?, Democratic Law Times

[8] RS be Ambitious! #09:, Ritsumeikan University RS Web

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