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Analyst: ‘Womenomics’ Marks Social Shift in Tradition-Bound Japan

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Analyst: ‘Womenomics’ Marks Social Shift in Tradition-Bound Japan

With support from the top and a generational shift, change in coming to Japan.

Analyst: ‘Womenomics’ Marks Social Shift in Tradition-Bound Japan
Credit: Japanese workers via

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to improve the status of female workers, amid claims that “Womenomics” could boost the nation’s gross domestic product by up to 15 percent and add 8.2 million workers to its shrinking labor force.

Yet the nation has a long way to go in closing the gender gap, with only 78 female lawmakers out of 722 in the Diet, only 11 percent in leadership positions in the private sector compared to Abe’s 30 percent target, and the lowest rate of female scientists of any developed nation. The World Economic Forum ranked Japan 101st in its 2012 “Global Gender Gap” report, well below 69th ranked China and just above India and South Korea.

The Diplomat spoke to Japan analyst Devin Stewart, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council, on the prospects for Womenomics and changes in Japan’s social attitudes.

You recently interviewed a number of Japanese opinion makers on Japan’s social attitudes. What was the message you picked up?

Last month, I interviewed 40 executives, entrepreneurs, reporters, activists and others at the front lines of change in Japan on changing attitudes and behaviors. A conclusion I’ve drawn is that the seeds of change have been planted in Japan. The question is whether they will get the support and funding they need to take root. The change agents are a young, liberal elite who are not in politics – at least not yet.

What kind of changes do you consider are taking place?

Change is coming in subtle ways in the form of more liberal attitudes toward women, foreigners, gays, and the traditional family structure. These types of attitudes are emerging among the youth of many countries around the world – look at how quickly the American attitude toward gay marriage has shifted. Surveys in Japan show that particularly younger Japanese are less tied to traditional gender roles – including a greater desire to pursue careers and a more accepting attitude toward divorce – and are also more tolerant of gays and lesbians. Many of the people I interviewed pointed out that younger Japanese are also less consumerist than the baby boomers and some have a greater desire to make a contribution to society outside the typical corporate or mainstream careers.

What do you think is causing this change?

One of the most interesting findings from my interviews was that Prime Minister Abe’s political rhetoric and speeches about the importance of women in the economy have given people the social “space” or prerogative to discuss gender roles in professional settings. That may be surprising to some given the fact that Japanese officials and elite have been talking about the importance of women for decades. But now the prime minister is on board. The impact of Abe’s stimulative Abenomics policies is still questionable but his Womenomics rhetoric has sparked a conversation. Companies are setting targets to move toward Abe’s goal of having 30 percent (from the current 9 percent) female leadership in all organizations by 2020. The notion that a leader like Abe can make a decree like that may sound dirigiste to some Western readers, but it seems to be having a significant impact on the mindsets of some professionals. And changing the mindset will be the first step in creating a more equitable society, as Abe’s new committee on supporting women in careers pointed out late last month. I tried to get a sense of those attitudes in my interviews in Japan.

How will changes in the role of women take place?

Many people said the first step is to change the minds of men. No one complained of outright sexual discrimination per se, but there is a lack of training programs, societal support in the form of day care centers, safety net for aging parents, and acceptance of mothers with careers. But all of these factors are in flux. Meanwhile, another factor will of course be the goals and attitudes of women themselves. As the Economist recently noted, some mothers might prefer to stay at home than work and miss their children grow up. That’s understandable. The key is to make the option or choice available for women.

Are there other drivers of change?

Yes, traditional mindsets are also coming into question due to other factors, according to my research. The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami have left some people rethinking their lives and careers. While the memory of the destruction and victims has faded, the impact of the disaster on individuals’ attitudes toward their own lives seems to remain. People now question the value of long-suffering, dreary careers in the bureaucracy and corporations. People have also lost a lot of faith in the government’s ability to respond to peoples’ needs. And so change makers are searching for ways to solve their own problems without relying on central authority.

What about the impact of demographics?

The shifting composition and size of the Japanese population came up as a source of national anxiety in many interviews. Single households are now the largest category of family unit in Japan and will grow in number in the next 10 years. This demographic trend is seen to correspond with a growing sense of individualism among the younger generation. A desire for change has also come from anxieties related to the shrinking and aging of the Japanese population and the sense that Japan is falling behind its neighbors China and South Korea, which are seen as rivals.

What are the implications of these changes of attitudes for Japan?

A younger generation, Japan’s Generation X or “nana roku sedai” (the 1976 Generation), is now emerging into positions of power. They are more entrepreneurial and tech-savvy. That transition will take place between 2017 and 2020 when the baby boomers fully retire. This newer generation will bring with it a new set of values. These individuals are more worldly and liberal, and they feel less constrained by shame about Japanese wartime history. Instead they want to be proud of Japan’s accomplishments. If real change is to occur in Japan, it is a good bet that it will happen from these people having more influence in business, society, and eventually politics.