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Interview: Japan’s Slow Progress on Womenomics

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Interview: Japan’s Slow Progress on Womenomics

Devin Stewart on the progress of Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Womenomics” reforms.

Interview: Japan’s Slow Progress on Womenomics
Credit: Tokyo commuters via Filipe Frazao /

Can women save “Abenomics”? The Diplomat spoke to Japan analyst, the Carnegie Council’s Devin Stewart, on the progress of Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Womenomics” reforms.

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe successfully won re-election, yet barely 12 percent of his party’s candidates were women. What signal does this send on the political commitment to Womenomics?

It signals that even Prime Minister Abe will find his own goal of having 30 percent of managers be female in Japan by 2020 to be a difficult goal to reach. To be fair, the number of women in the lower house rose after the election from 38 to 45, but it is a long way from Abe’s goals.

This gap also points to a couple of other things I heard during the 50 interviews I conducted this month in Japan about the changing roles of women and the nearly 100 interviews I have conducted there over the past year: Quotas are a blunt instrument for achieving goals, and advisers close to Abe are already reconsidering whether the 30 percent goal is the right target.

People worry that the numbers will be fudged or women will be promoted to managerial positions without being given the commensurate responsibilities – they will be “window dressing.” It also points to a deep suspicion held by many Japanese about whether Abe is truly sincere about Womenomics as a priority. Some people worry that Abe sees women as a means toward his longer-term end of revising the Japanese constitution and boosting Japan’s security capabilities.

What new initiatives, if any are you expecting from Abe in his new term concerning Womenomics, given his previous comments about creating a society in which women “shine”?

First of all, many Japanese people find Abe’s phrase “shine” to be problematic, and I have heard that the Abe team is reconsidering that language. Asking women to “shine” is seen as patronizing and superficial; many women I spoke with also said women need equal pay and equal opportunity more than the chance to “shine” as if they were supposed to put on their “Sunday best” pearls. By contrast, several women told me that it is the men in Japan who need to shine more, given the country’s past two “lost decades” of economic doldrums, casting a pall over the state of corporate Japan, which was designed by men.

In any case, there are several initiatives underway that may help with the promotion of women in Japanese society: Keidanren has gotten ahead of the curve in pushing its corporate members to publish action plans that include policies to hire and promote women. This initiative will precede Abe’s legislation to do the same thing, which was postponed due to the snap election; Abe should take up this legislation in the next Diet session this spring. Companies will also have to publish their number of female executives starting March 2015. Other government initiatives could include: making childcare more available to working families; eliminating tax incentives to avoid working full time; immigration policies to allow more nannies to work in Japan; and the deregulation of part-time workers beyond the three-year limit. The government has pledged to increase the capacity of childcare by 400,000 slots by 2017. The government has increased childcare leave benefits from 50 percent to 67 percent of initial salaries for both parents.

There are other changes, too. More women are working in the bureaucracy, and they are bringing about reform to the way Kasumigaseki operates. A group of women who were selected to be trained for management training have created a network for change in Tokyo’s central government. In their spare time (often in pre-dawn hours), these women have put together a proposal for change titled, “Towards Sustainable Work Style: Proposals from Female Officials Working in the Japanese Central Government.” Each ministry is now considering how to adopt their suggestions, such as reducing work hours and allowing workers to telecommute.

In the courts, there has been some progress for the protection of women workers. This fall, the Japanese Supreme Court overturned a Hiroshima court ruling about maternity harassment (also known as pregnancy discrimination) in violation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law. The Supreme Court has ordered a re-trial – a victory for the plaintiff. It means Japan may start enforcing laws that protect women’s rights like this one, which has been in place since 1986.

Abe previously set a target of 30 percent of leadership positions in business and government being filled by women by 2020 – what are the prospects of this goal being achieved?

The existence of this target can be helpful if companies adopt these changes in a market-based way rather than in a way that is driven by companies to meet the goals only on paper.

A big challenge is that not all sectors are equal. Japan’s huge manufacturing sector is dominated by engineers (electrical, mechanical, etc.) who are mostly men, and thus the sector has a much lower percentage of female managers. Why? It stems all the way from the cultural and educational experience of girls not being socialized for a career in engineering.

Meanwhile, the service sector will have an easier time meeting Abe’s goals; in fact some companies have already achieved it. Many managers told me that the key will be to set realistic goals and to reach them. The 30 percent goal nationwide is seen as too generic, ignoring sectoral differences.

Based on your recent Japan trip, did you notice any change in attitudes toward women workers, compared to earlier this year?

Attitudes are changing: First, it has now become clear that Japan’s current corporate culture – a residue from post-World War II – is no longer sustainable, and changes must be made to include more women in the workforce.

Second, some leaders have realized that programs, such as childcare facilities and flex time, must go hand-in-hand with deeper changes, such as training to cultivate a pipeline of female talent.

Third, there has been a subtle shift in men’s attitudes toward women; until recently, Japanese sense of “chivalry” shaped the way women are treated in the workplace. That is to say, men felt that their duty was to “protect” women. Now, there is a better understanding that women must be “challenged” at work, not just “protected.” This is a change in culture that is just getting started.

We are witnessing a gradual, nascent feminization of the workplace in Japan; and this is a good change. It is coming from the necessity of a globalized market, a shrinking population, and via the innovations of entrepreneurs and other change-makers. Abe’s rhetoric in the past two years has helped to give this change some momentum.

Finally, there is a change in popular culture with the rise of the “ikumen” – men who actively participate in childrearing. For some people, it has become “cool” to be seen as a good father. This trend may take root.

You mentioned the impact of changing demographics previously; how is this benefiting Womenomics?

The shrinking population and shrinking workforce in Japan is the backdrop that is creating the necessity for the promotion of women. While women’s movements in the United States were underpinned by a sense of morality and human rights, that is not necessarily the case in Japan. Rather in Japan, it is being driven by a practical sense of necessity.

That is not to say it is worse or better; it is just different from the West’s experience. I was told by many interviewees that in terms of female empowerment, Japan is where the United States was in the 1970s, but without the philosophical firepower of feminism.

How might Japan better foster its women workers to reach European levels of participation, potentially increasing income per capita by 8 percent of GDP (according to the IMF)?

Based on my interviews, the single most important thing is to reduce the work hours in corporate Japan and strengthen work-life balance for women and men.

A more progressive workplace in Japan would embrace differences and in doing so would foster a more innovative environment, greater productivity, and perhaps even more risk-taking. Another thing would be for Japan to more thoroughly enforce its laws against discrimination, like the Hiroshima case demonstrates.

Abe has been heavily criticized for the missing “third arrow” of Abenomics, structural reform, which includes “Womenomics.” In your view is this criticism justified? What are the obstacles to further reform?

Yes the criticism is justified to a degree. Womenomics has become the centerpiece of Abe’s third arrow out of default; the two other major reforms, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and agricultural reform, are too difficult politically. So Abe has been left with left with few options, he probably surmises. A danger that many women mentioned during my interviews was that if Womenomics is seen as a “failure,” then women may actually get blamed, which is simply not fair.

How do you see the outlook for Womenomics – will this term no longer be in use in another five to 10 years in Japan?

A generational shift will take place between now and 2020, so no matter what happens a new generation will be in positions of power, potentially changing the way life is lived in Japan. As for Womenomics itself, many people suspect that it will fade as soon as Abe leaves office, four years from now. So as a political expression, it may lose currency, but if all goes well, women’s empowerment will become the norm rather than a political buzzword.

Also, companies have been implementing changes for the promotion of women for more than a decade and they will continue to do so whether politicians give them the moral support or not.