TOKYO — The inclusion of two women among the four candidates vying to become the next prime minister seems like a big step forward for Japan's notoriously sexist politics. But their fate is in the hands of a conservative, mostly male governing party — and the leading female candidate has been criticized by observers for her right-wing gender policies.

Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda are the first women in 13 years seeking the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in an election Wednesday. The winner is certain to become the next prime minister because of a parliamentary majority held by the LDP and its coalition partner.

While both are LDP members, they are political opposites in many ways. The ultra-conservative Takaichi advocates a kind of paternalistic nationalism and a stronger military, while the liberal-leaning, pacifist Noda supports women's advancement and sexual diversity.

"As tiny minorities in Japanese politics, women have limited choices to survive and succeed; they can confront the boys' club politics or they can be loyal to them," said Mayumi Taniguchi, an expert on women's roles in society and politics at the Osaka University of Arts.

Takaichi apparently chose loyalty while Noda appears to work outside the mainstream but without being confrontational, Taniguchi said. "They are quite different."

In the race to pick a successor to outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the women are competing against vaccinations minister Taro Kono and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Kono and Kishida are considered the top candidates; both are from well-known political families and belong to powerful party factions.

But Takaichi is seen by some as a fast-rising candidate, with the crucial backing of former leader Shinzo Abe, whose arch-conservative vision she supports. The latest media surveys of party lawmakers show she is beginning to rake in support from party conservatives, while Noda remains firmly in fourth place.

The only other earlier female candidate was Yuriko Koike, currently serving as Tokyo governor, who made a run in 2008.

While it's unlikely either Takaichi or Noda will become prime minister, having two women try for the top job is considered progress for the ruling party. Some experts, however, have criticized Takaichi's gender policies.

"She will most likely not promote women's advancements if she wins," said Sophia University political science professor Mari Miura. "She will emphasize her achievement in breaking the glass ceiling and declare that Japan is already a gender equal country, even that it is ahead of the United States."

Japan ranked worst among the Group of Seven advanced nations — 120th in a 156-nation gender gap ranking survey of the World Economic Forum in 2021.

Women comprise only about 10% of Japan's parliament, and analysts say many tend to try to advance by showing party loyalty rather than pursuing gender equality.

Takaichi has supported women's health and fertility issues, in line with the LDP policy of having women serve in their traditional roles of being good mothers and wives, but she is unlikely to promote women's rights or sexual diversity, Miura said.

Takaichi, 60, was first elected to parliament in 1993 and her role model is Margaret Thatcher. She has served in key party and government posts, including ministers of internal affairs and gender equality.

A drummer in a heavy-metal band and a motorbike rider as a student, she supports the imperial family's male-only succession, and opposes same-sex marriage and a revision to the 19th-century civil law that could allow women to keep their maiden name.

Taniguchi, the analyst, says Takaichi's backing of the party majority is "unfortunate as her success could make many women think that speaking and acting on behalf of men is the way to be successful in this country."

Takaichi, who shares Abe's revisionist views on Japan's wartime atrocities, regularly visits the Yasukuni shrine, which honors war criminals among the war dead and is viewed by China and the Koreas as proof of Japan's lack of remorse.

Her security policies include developing a preemptive strike capability to counter threats from China and North Korea.

Political watchers say Abe's backing of Takaichi was made partly because he's aware of the need to improve the party's sexist image, and also to divert votes from Kono, the current front-runner and considered something of a maverick.

Abe had promoted women's advancement, but his party made little progress and failed to meet a goal to have women represent 30% of decision-making positions by 2020, postponing it by as long as a decade.

Having a leader who prioritizes loyalty to men instead of fighting for other women's advancement, like Takaichi, could counter efforts to eliminate gender gaps, Miura, the professor, said.

While Noda would push for more equality and diversity, her gender-equal policy is likely to be opposed by conservatives.

Noda, 61, supports same-sex marriage and has campaigned for a quota system to increase the number of female lawmakers. She has promised to appoint women to half of her Cabinet if she wins.

Noda had her first child, who is disabled, at age 50 after fertility treatment.

Japan's rapidly shrinking population is a serious national security risk because Japan won't have enough troops or police in coming decades, she said in a recent campaign speech.

"I seek to create a society of diversity by having people who have not been given main roles in society, including children, women, the disabled and LGBTQ people, take center stage," Noda said.