U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week during his trip to Asia and praised Japan’s ongoing efforts to improve the country’s long-term growth prospects and expand economic opportunities for women. On Thursday, Abe’s cabinet approved a massive stimulus package of $182 billion dollars to pull the economy out of deflation and help assist women. Narrowing the gap between men and women in the workforce is a large focus of Abe’s economic revival plan.
Japan has one of the largest gender gaps in the world. The 2013 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, which captures national gender gaps on economic, political, education, and health-based criteria, ranked Japan at 105th among 136 countries. 40 percent of women in Japan don’t work, which is a much higher number than in other developed nations.
Abe’s proposal to implement practices that help close the gender gap includes expanding the eligibility of women to use daycare centers. This will make it easier for women to return to work after childbirth. This, however, is no easy task and has become a major obstacle to better integrating women in the workplace. According to Japanese government statistics, the biggest reason women quit their jobs after childbirth is because “working hours make child care unfeasible.” 70 percent of Japanese women give up work after they have their first child.
Currently, there is a shortage of day care spots and the waiting list is more than 25,000 places long. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, the waiting list is actually probably closer to 600,000-850,000 people. This includes people who have given up waiting, and also those who have moved to private, unsubsidized day care centers which can turn out to be twice as expensive.
Abe has promised to eliminate the daycare waiting lists by creating 400,000 new government-subsidized daycare openings by 2017. Yet, he faces serious challenges in a country beset by an aging population crisis. Nearly a quarter of the population is 65 or older and increasingly growing. It’s estimated that Japan’s working-age population will fall by almost 40 percent by 2050. The majority of Japan’s social welfare spending is directed at the elderly, leaving little financial room to support children and families.
To empower women, Abe needs the approval of Japan’s corporations and conglomerates. He hopes to have them expand childcare leave to three years, instead of 18 months under the existing law. While the government would provide subsidies to businesses that promote the plan, many are reluctant to accept the proposal. Businesses believe it will actually impede women’s ability to rejoin the workforce. 3 years is a long time and women are faced with the threat of losing their skills and competitiveness. Also, very few women actually take the maximum duration of 18 months and thus would not need a longer childcare leave period. Other critics of the policy are displeased that it does not endorse paternity leave, instead reinforcing women’s role as the primary child-bearer.
Abe is also calling on corporations to acknowledge the potential of female leadership by appointing at least one woman to their boards. At present, women only occupy 1.6 percent of executive roles in Japan. Although Abe is throwing a lot of money at the problem and calling for women to fill 30 percent of senior positions by 2020, convincing corporations to change their hiring policies remains a tall order.
Last week, Abe appointed the first female aide to the prime minister. Last year, he also appointed women to two of the Liberal Democratic Party’s key roles: Sanae Takaichi as policy chief and Seiko Noda as chair of the party’s General Council. It’s a start but women are still underrepresented in the male-dominated political sphere. Japan trails many other developed nations in embracing women in its national parliament. In a report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Japan ranks 123rd out of 189 countries in its participation of women in politics.
In a country where marriage is sacrosanct and traditional family values still endure, it might seem surprising that almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, women are increasingly saying no to marriage. Given the laws and social norms, it can be extremely difficult for women to have both a family and a career. Women who have children have a hard time finding a good job. Married working women are stigmatized as being oniyome (devil wives).
The country needs to maximize opportunities for women to participate in the labor market, especially in positions of leadership, which Abe hopes will translate into stronger economic growth. But Japan is also experiencing plummeting birth rates and it needs more people in the workforce in general. Getting women interested in childbearing will require shifting attitudes about work and gender. It will require men to make more of an effort in childrearing, and to take paternity leave (roughly 3 percent of Japanese men actually use the benefit).
Abe faces a serious uphill battle in tackling corporate workplace practices that undermine the family, and enacting legislation that provides greater opportunities for all women — be they single, married, childless, or divorced. Most importantly, Japan needs to have an honest conversation about its cultural trajectory and whether it will constrain or enhance the career opportunities of women.
Justin McDonnell is an Editorial Assistant at The Diplomat.