Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been playing up his pro-women economic policy, dubbed “womenomics” by some, during his current trip to the U.S. during the U.N. General Assembly meeting. In the lead-up to his speech before the General Assembly on Thursday, the Japanese press reported that Abe was expected to stress “government efforts to promote women’s participation in various sectors of society.” Indeed he did take time to promote this policy, saying that of the $3 billion allocated last year to improve the status of women, $1.8 billion had been implemented, and that “In the future, we will further increase the number of projects we support.”
He also met with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Clinton Foundation on Wednesday, where the two discussed Abe’s policies to increase the role of women in the workforce by improving government support for childcare and a more equitable work-life balance. Abe told Clinton that Japan needs to “change the way people work in society,” while she acknowledged the most difficult part will be changing people’s perception of balancing work with family responsibilities, saying “often times what we find is laws are changed, regulations are changed, but custom and culture remain the biggest obstacles.”
Abe’s most visible recent move on this issue was the placement of five women in his Cabinet earlier this month, only the second Cabinet to have so many women. The government also announced on Thursday that it would be appointing four women to chair key committees in the upper house of the Diet, where the ruling LDP holds a narrow majority with its coalition partner New Komeito.
However, it is in the private sector, outside of the government and its bureaucracy, where Abe’s new policy will have to take hold in order to prove successful. The government has plans to address that as well, with a planned overhaul of the tax system that incentivizes women in higher-income households to take lower paying or part-time jobs. The current tax code allows couples to claim a 380,000 yen ($3,400) deduction if one spouse (typically the wife) earns 1.03 million yen a year or less, which dis-incentivizes both spouses from seeking full-time work. Abe hopes to encourage more women to enter the workforce to help offset Japan’s shrinking working age population. The new code would deduct a certain amount of money regardless of the couple’s employment status, with the government planning to “review the systems by the end of this year in a comprehensive manner,” according to officials who spoke with Kyodo News.
The government is also in the nascent stages of building a network to support women from pregnancy through early childhood to reduce childbearing anxiety and the possibility of child abuse. Based on a system in place in Finland, the network would be established in each region with specialized nurses to provide “comprehensive information on such topics as medical checkups, vaccinations and child rearing.” The main goal of the program is to counter Japan’s low fertility rate in part by reducing the anxiety the government reports many women experience about having a second or third child.
Despite the government’s well-intentioned policies, changing the culture established around inflexible and long hours within Japan’s companies and government will likely be the most difficult and long-term obstacle. A Reuters report shows that “complaints about harassment and discrimination related to pregnancy and childbirth have risen. In the year to March, the government received 2,085 such complaints from female workers, up 18 percent from six years ago.” Additionally, with 56 percent of women last year hired as either contract or part-time workers, they are vulnerable to either loss of promotion or nonrenewal of their contracts if they take legally protected maternity leave. The Supreme Court is set to decide on its first such case on October 23, in a case where a woman was demoted at her job while pregnant. After asking for a less physically demanding role as a physical therapist she was moved to a new facility, but her title as manager was removed. The medical cooperative she works for says the change in title was not related to the pregnancy, as there was already someone with her title at the facility she was moved to.
Litigation may well prove to be a successful way to implement change, along with policy handed down from the central government. In tandem the two approaches may drive a culture-wide change in perception, not only in women’s roles, but also toward greater balance between work and life in Japan. That in turn could facilitate a higher fertility rate, which is the ultimate goal for the Abe government in light of Japan’s rapidly aging and declining population.