SEOUL, South Korea — Just last fall, it seemed that Japan was starting to shake off its legacy as a country with a poor record of putting women in political power. In the space of less than two months, three women had assumed high-ranking posts, poking a few more holes in the glass ceiling.
But in the space of two days this week, two of those women resigned their positions, inevitably raising questions about the challenges to female leadership in a country where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly talked of creating a society in which “women can shine.”
On Thursday, Renho Murata, the first woman to lead the opposition Democratic Party, stepped down in the wake of a crushing defeat in local Tokyo elections this month. And on Friday, Tomomi Inada, the embattled defense minister, resigned to take responsibility for a controversy about the dangers faced by Japanese soldiers in a United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.
Both women stepped down for reasons that had little to do with gender. Yet in a country that scores abysmally in global measures of gender equality and has experienced false hopes of change in the past, these women’s departures are seen as a setback.
“There are just not that many of them,” said Sheila A. Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, referring to high-ranking women in politics. “So when a couple of them go conspicuously and simultaneously, it’s just a reminder that there is not a lot of female talent in Japan.”
Most analysts agreed that it was time for Ms. Inada to resign. She had been ensnared in other scandals involving the prime minister and committed numerous gaffes as defense minister. Mr. Abe, who had been grooming her as a possible successor, had protected her on several occasions, answering questions that she fumbled in Parliament and as recently as last week standing behind her denial of any involvement in a cover-up of records about South Sudan. But with his own popularity tumbling in opinion polls, the Japanese news media had widely reported that he would replace Ms. Inada in a cabinet reshuffle, expected next week.
Analysts said Ms. Murata’s resignation also seemed appropriate after the Democratic Party performed so poorly in the Tokyo election, taking just five out of 127 seats. Some polls have put the party’s approval ratings in the single digits. A male leader in her position would probably have left as well.
Still, sexism could have played a part, in that women in leadership positions face such high expectations. “Men get nurtured and put in experiences where they can gain ability,” Ms. Smith said. “They don’t get plopped in the spotlight where they are expected to succeed, and now it’s ‘ah, ha, ha, she’s a woman’” who has failed.
There was more overt sexism as well. In the press and on social media, critics commented on Ms. Inada’s fashion sense, criticizing her fishnet stockings, her glasses and her nails.
Ms. Murata was also subjected to attacks about her heritage. Born of a Japanese mother and Taiwanese father, she had kept dual citizenship — inadvertently, she said — until last year. But critics insisted she prove that she had renounced Taiwanese citizenship. Last week she released parts of her family registry showing her sole Japanese citizenship.
“I’m not especially fond of Inada or Renho,” said Mayumi Taniguchi, associate professor of gender studies at Osaka International University. “But I feel they were excessively bashed because they are women.”
There is one striking exception to the disappointing track record for women: Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike. Ms. Koike is enormously popular in the capital. In local elections this month, all but one of the 50 candidates fielded by a party she founded won seats in the metropolitan assembly.
Ms. Koike, who is widely believed to harbor ambitions to become Japan’s first female prime minister, has successfully stood up to the establishment and courted the news media while focusing on local issues such as the relocation of the famed Tsukiji fish market or controlling costs for the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo.
Women are expected to balance femininity with strong leadership and are quickly criticized if they fall short of expectations.
“We are put in these positions all the time where we have to play the feminist card and the feminine card at the same time,” said Nancy Snow, a professor of diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
Some feminists, for example, accused Ms. Inada of trying too hard to cater to men.
“Inada internalized the masculine culture,” said Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “So she played the feminine role to appeal to men who have power.”
By contrast, Ms. Miura said she was disappointed that Ms. Murata had tamped down her femininity. “She was not able to use the fact that she was at the top of the second biggest party to progress the feminist agenda,” said Ms. Miura, who called Ms. Murata “gender blind.”
Ms. Murata, for her part, told reporters on Thursday that she believed she had only broken halfway through the glass ceiling. “I’d like to keep trying,” she said.
With Mr. Abe dealing with scandals and struggling to regain political trust, it is unclear whether voters will also condemn him for failing to do a better job of promoting women. “This is not what Mr. Abe had in mind when he talked about empowering women as one of his major campaign themes,” said Richard Samuels, a Japan specialist and the director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Indeed, since Mr. Abe was elected prime minister in 2012, the number of women in Parliament has barely budged. Just 13 percent of members are women.
“As a whole, the government should have female ministers and bureaucrats that match the global standard,” said Izuru Makihara, professor of politics at the University of Tokyo.
Analysts say that the only way to improve the role of women in politics is to tackle barriers to women in the workplace. Despite a low birthrate, there are not enough day care slots for children, and women still do far more housework and child care than men.
“Until family roles are equalized and men are expected to spend time at home with children,” said Frances McCall Rosenbluth, a professor of political science who focuses on Japan at Yale University, “there really is not going to be equality in politics or the workplace, especially in jobs that require around-the-clock work.”