By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan must put more women in key posts to boost its economy and to prove its ruling party has changed its hidebound ways, the party's top spokeswoman said on Tuesday, just days after two female party executives clashed over quotas for women managers.
"To mobilize women would create a breakthrough in Japan's economy. This itself would change the paradigm of Japan's economy and ought to be ensconced as part of our growth strategy," said Yuriko Koike, a multilingual former defense minister who was appointed head of the LDP's public relations headquarters after the party surged back to power last month.
Shinzo Abe, who returned to the premiership in December after the LDP's stunning election victory, three years after it was ousted, has appointed Koike and two other women to important party posts in what the prime minister called an effort to show that the long-dominant party has changed.
But in a sign the conservative party remains ambivalent about the role of women, the two other female appointees - LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi and party General Council Chairwoman Seiko Noda - quibbled on Sunday over the need to set a legally binding target for boosting women's share of managerial posts in the public and private sectors to more than 30 percent by 2020.
The LDP's campaign platform called for a numerical target but did not specify whether it would be compulsory.
Takaichi, a staunch conservative on social issues, raised the concern that a quota would lead to "reverse discrimination", while Noda backed the measure as necessary to spark change, according to reports of their exchange on a television talk show.
"Ten years ago, I felt the same (as Takaichi) but recently I realized if we don't do this, nothing will change," Koike told Reuters in an interview at a bustling LDP headquarters.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) urged Japan in a report in October to make better use of working women, noting females accounted for 9 percent of the country's managers as of 2009, compared with 43 percent in the United States. Female labor force participation overall also lags other advanced countries.
Among the barriers cited by experts are corporate hiring practices that shunt women to non-career-track jobs, a tax code that favors housewives and the tendency of many women to drop out of the workforce after childbirth, due partly to social pressure but also to a shortage of childcare facilities.
Abe is putting priority on public spending and easy monetary policy in his push to escape deflation and revive the economy, but has promised to tackle structural reforms to generate growth from a fast-ageing, shrinking population as well.
The LDP, however, remains a bastion of male dominance.
Takaichi and Noda are backed up in their posts by veteran male members of parliament and while the party won 294 seats in the December 16 election for the 480-member lower house, only 23 of those seats were won by women.
Overall, the number of women elected to the powerful chamber fell to 38 from 54 in a historic 2009 election that propelled, if only briefly, the novice Democratic Party of Japan to power.
Koike, a former television anchor and Japan's first female defense minister, compared the barrier faced by women in their quest to get to the top with an "iron plate", not a glass ceiling, when she bid unsuccessfully for the LDP's top post in 2009.
Now, she says, the LDP needs to keep its campaign promise not only to help the stagnant economy but to demonstrate to wary voters, who will get another chance to cast ballots in an upper house poll in July, that the party has really changed.
"The fact we included this in our platform shows that it is the intention of the LDP," she said. "If we cannot achieve it, we will face criticism for violating our manifesto."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)