TOKYO — Renho Murata became the first woman to lead the opposition Democratic Party in Japan after winning a leadership contest on Thursday.
Murata, who has served in the country’s upper house of Parliament for more than a decade, won in a landslide against two male competitors despite controversy over her part-Taiwanese heritage.
By winning the leadership contest, Murata, who goes by Renho, became the third woman to take up a prominent political job in Japan in less than two months, heralding a budding shift in a country with an abysmal track record of putting women in power.
In her final speech before the vote, Murata, a former model and television news anchor, spoke emotionally about her children, 19-year-old twins, and how she was sometimes frustrated trying to balance work and motherhood. But in her acceptance speech, she did not refer to her gender, speaking only about the challenges ahead.
“I ask you all to work together so that our party will be chosen by people for our competence in making proposals, our creativity, and our vision for the country,” she said.
Political experts said Murata, 48, could help burnish the image of the Democratic Party, which has been struggling to regain credibility after an ill-fated three years in power before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2012.
The public has widely condemned the party as having failed to deliver on campaign promises, as well as bungling the response to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011.
Yet since losing power, the party has done little to differentiate itself from the Liberal Democrats, Abe’s conservative party, and both parties are dominated by men.
“Of the three candidates, she was the only one who has any chance of turning around the party’s fortunes,” said Gill Steel, an associate professor of politics at Doshisha University in Kyoto. Steel added that for independent voters seeking change, “a party led by and comprised mainly of older men, particularly when younger women are touted as a reformist alternative, does not project an attractive image.”
Critics said it would take more than a fresh image to restore the Democratic Party to power.
“Although the cover page is being replaced, its content hasn’t changed,” said Atsuo Ito, a political commentator who has been secretary general for both the Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Party of Japan. On policy issues, the two parties have few differences.
Ito said the controversy over Murata’s part-Taiwanese heritage could also haunt her and the party.
Although she was born in Japan and raised there by a Japanese mother and a Taiwanese father, she was designated at birth as a citizen of Taiwan. At the time, Japan granted citizenship only to children with Japanese fathers.
The law changed in 1985, when she was 17, and Murata received Japanese citizenship. Still, Japan does not allow dual citizenship, and because she did not formally relinquish her Taiwan citizenship, nationalist critics have attacked her.
When asked by reporters, Murata first said she had given up her Taiwan citizenship as a teenager. But this week she said she had recently learned she was still considered a citizen of Taiwan and had asked to be removed from the citizenship rolls.
Attitudes toward mixed-race citizens have recently been changing in Japan. For two consecutive years, the country has crowned a mixed-race beauty queen.
Murata has always expressed pride in her Taiwanese heritage, but in her final campaign speech on Thursday, she said: “I am proud to be Japanese, and I love my country, Japan.”